The Invisible Genre: How The BBC ignored SF on World Book Day

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World Book Day is a celebration of all things literary, a chance to put your hand up and say, “Hell yes, I’m a reader. Give me a book and I’ll read the living stuff right out of it!” It’s an important event that brings together writers and readers worldwide and unites them under a common, quarto-shaped banner.

But there’s a problem. Author Stephen Hunt watched the BBC’s coverage of the day, and noticed that there was something missing. Something big.

Apart from a brief mention of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as a YA crossover, SF, fantasy and horror were not represented. No Pratchett. No Rankin. No Tolkein or Lewis. No Iain M. Banks, no JK Rowling. No China Mieville or Joe Abercrombie. No Clive Barker, no Christopher Priest. Genres that between them take between 20 and 30% of the UK book market were roundly ignored.

I wish I could say I was shocked or surprised. The publishing world is more than happy to make money from the fantastic end of the market, but they’re not so keen on promoting it. You’ll hardly ever see SF or fantasy on the front-of-house deals at your local Waterstones unless your name happens to be Rowling or Meyer. As Hunt points out, it’s pure and simple snobbery. What’s more, it’s damaging.

The publishing industry always depicts the book as a gateway to a world of imagination, to a place of limitless possibility, of endless adventure. At the same time, the act of picking up and reading a novel is considered to be an act that is good for you, in the same way as running twice a week or eating a high-fibre cereal for breakfast. It’s an educational action, a pathway to moral improvement and good citizenship. In some ways, you can be defined by what, and how much, you read.

The perception amongst most mainstream critics is reading SF, fantasy and horror is not an improving activity. That these books are of low character, of dubious morality. That somehow you will put the book down, and not gain the insights into the world and it’s people that you would if you’d only pick up something by Margaret Atwood. Or Jeanette Winterson. Or Kazuo Ishigura. Something without spaceships or aliens, clones or creatures grown from genetic experiments gone wrong.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? All the above authors have written SF. They simply choose not to identify the books as such for fear of hurting their profits.

It’s the same skewed thinking that forces Iain Banks to flag his Culture novels as written by Iain M. Banks. As if they were somehow written by a different person. He at least is pushing the envelope, however gently. His latest “mainstream” novel, Transition, was an SF book in all but name, and contains references to a culture that may be … well, The Culture. But the book is packaged and marketed in a very different way to his SF excursions. The back cover blurb calls it a “fable”.

Stephen describes SF, fantasy and horror as a “gateway drug” to the world of literature. I agree. What’s more, that’s proven to be true by one of the growth markets in the publishing sector – the young adult or YA book. This new stream is stuffed full of fantastik stories – and I’m not just talking about Potter or Twilight knockoffs. Cory Doctorow’s agit-punk books such as Little Brother and For The Win are politically driven and yet still filled with action and drama. Scott Westerfield’s Uglies postulates a world where it’s a crime to be ugly – a pointed and direct comment at the sort of world in which kids struggle with their self-image every day. YA is where a lot of the interesting stuff is happening right now.

Should I be bothered by the fact that the BBC ignored the fantastik? It’s fair to say that a lot of people do buy, read and enjoy genre fiction, and it seems to tick along quite happily without mainstream critical attention.

But a lot of truly great books, head and shoulders above the latest “contemporary” efforts in terms of literary merit, plot, character and inventiveness are marginalised purely because of their subject matter. It’s a stigma that prevents deserving authors from reaching their full potential readership. This is simply not on, and needs to be addressed.

It”s a real shame that genres need to be compartmentalised, but it’s a fact of the industry. However, the playing field should be fair. A good book is a good book regardless of where or when it’s set, irrespective of the species of the main character.

What next? Well, Stephen’s set up a Facebook page, and there’s a petition to sign. If you love SF, fantasy and horror and feel that it didn’t get a fair chance in the BBC’s coverage of World Book Day, you know what to do.

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