In the last week, there have been a lot of threads on Facebook and writers’ sites about genre, and the challenges of classifying books. Back in August, the Hugo Award-winning SF & Fantasy site, SF Signal, asked me to write a guest blog on the subject. Here are my thoughts; click the image for the original article.
Literature, Genre, and Geeks
Tag me with a genre label and I’ll probably wince. They’re like that childhood game of pinning the tail on the donkey, blindfold, except I’m the donkey. Every now and then there’s a pinprick and I find another useless appendage dangling from my ear or nostril. HF, UF, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy…I’ve been stuck with them all.
My irritation with labels began with the slight sneer of superiority about genre; that sense, on my journey to publication, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. I had this bizarre vision of being greeted by a marketing executive at a great but imaginary literary establishment. “Literary Fiction? Over there, sir, the smart chaps in suits and cufflinks. Historical? Down the passage, mate, look for the swords, sandals, and bodices. Fantasy? Downstairs, guv. We don’t let no geeks up ‘ere.”
Literary snobbishness aside, the real problem with genre labels is that this convenient, box-ticking marketing machine has little room for grey areas. It seems to be designed for publishers’, distributors’, and retailers’ convenience. By superimposing structure onto a craft that is inherently qualitative, it primarily benefits the publishing machine, not the author or the reader. It thinks in lists; the SF list, the HF list, the Chic Lit list (and I couldn’t say that after a glass of wine), whereas writers create word pictures that should be art rather than paint-by-numbers. We need the freedom to stray across boundaries.
I like ambiguity, you see. I inhabit the hinterland where history becomes fantasy, and both cross the border into literature. I enjoy ghost stories where a plausible explanation still lingers in the background, or the kind of fantasy where the real world is touched by magic the way sunlight glints on water. Blink and the light may have gone, but the scent of an otherness remains.
I suppose I should blame the world I live in. The real one, that is, not the caverns of half-constructed mental space called ‘Works In Progress’. My real world has history written across its landscape; place names that tell of Saxon settlements, winding lanes that an English drunkard made as he lurched home from the mead hall. The past lives around us in the present, but what if those distant ancestors could speak to us? What stories would come alive?
So much of writing, I find, starts with that question “what if…” Take the village of Allingley, for example, a dreamy place on the banks of the Swanbourne. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of the folk of Aegl. What if this was the Aegl of Saxon legend, the mighty archer whose love was Olrun, the Swan Maiden?
I like joining the dots, even if the dots sit in different boxes of the marketing machine. When Saxon’s Bane was still a vague idea, I saw an article about the millennia-old bodies that are occasionally found in peat bogs, with their features sometimes so well preserved that they seem simply to be sleeping. Many of them were ritually slaughtered. Now, what if a peat-preserved Saxon grave was discovered on the outskirts of Allingley? What if an archaeologist developed a preternatural understanding of her project? What if the present day started to mirror the ancient, bloody past?
I’m back with the marketing exec. “Bit historical, are we?” he asks in a tone of voice that suggests ‘historical’ is a nervous condition. “But set in the present day? That won’t do, then…” Much sucking of teeth as he looks down his lists. “And a ghost, you say? That’ll be fantasy, then. Mind the steps; it’s a bit dark down there.”
I know, I know; genre labels help to point readers towards books they might like. Labels become banners under which people of similar interests can congregate, for example in forums like this one. But sticking a genre label on a book is not an indicator of quality. A bad book doesn’t become an Iain M Banks classic just by labeling it ‘SF’. A good publisher, on the other hand, is highly selective, invests in its authors, and won’t touch cr@p. First division authors such as the late and much loved Iain B are sufficiently established to have a brand of their own, but for the rest of us, being associated with a publisher’s brand helps us towards stardom. Maybe there’s a case for publishers to promote their brand values a little more? More branding, less tagging?
And in the mean time, I’m writing fantasy. With more than a dash of history. It’s quite literary, I’m told, but reads like a thriller. Oh, and there’s a dash of romance thrown in.
Hell, it’s a ghost story.
After Niall Alexander kindly reviewed Saxon’s Bane on his brilliant site ‘The Speculative Scotsman’, (click the image to read it) he kindly invited me to write a guest post. He even gave me the subject of ‘History in Fiction’ to link in to previous posts.
The subject started me thinking. Here, with Niall’s permission, are the results:
“Ee, when I were a lad…”
Elderly relatives used to start their reminiscences like that when, er, I was a lad. I remember folding my face into an attitude of dutiful attention as I wondered how long I’d have to endure some fragment of ‘ancient’ history. After a while, I’d squirm and find an excuse to slip away. After all, I was force-fed enough history at school, fact by repetitive fact.
“Kings of England, William the Conqueror onwards!” a master would bark. The Norman Conquest was, after all, the date when all history started, as every English schoolboy knows. “Who can tell me?”
“Sir, sir, me sir! William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John…”
I don’t think I differentiated between taught history and living history, as a boy. History was all about facts to be regurgitated, not experiences to be felt. What could those relatives tell me? First hand accounts of battles would have been interesting. In my childhood, there were still old folks alive who’d fought in the First World War. One relative had even survived both Flanders trenches and the Russian Revolution. My father fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa. Frustratingly, none of them wanted to talk about their battles, at least not in the heroic language a schoolboy craves. They’d flinch away from a direct question, but as I grew older, fragments of their memories sometimes fell in softly spoken words, and the mood would go still, tightening into itself. In that silence I glimpsed the stuttering terror of close-range tracer fire in the night, or felt the anguish of a survivor of atrocity. But by the time I was mature enough to listen, many of the stories would never be told again.
I think those fragments roused my interest not in ‘what happened’, but in what it felt like to be there while it happened. The perspective of the peasant, not the lord, the common soldier rather than the general. I also came to understand the impact on people, who seem with hindsight rather like trees that have survived the crushing weight of a boulder; take away the stone and the tree may thrive again, but not always in the pure shape that nature intended.
When I were a lad… we were taught the sequence of history. It might only have started in 1066, but that rote learning gave us a framework on which to hang deeper study. It might have been an overwhelmingly English framework, but I feel no need to apologise for my schoolmasters of old. They in turn had grown up in a place and an era of Imperial hubris, a time when God was an Englishman and had commissioned the British to civilise the world in their image. My offspring react with understandable horror to the mores of Empire, since in today’s era of the educational project or module, they have little understanding of trajectory or context. If I try to explain the attitudes of British society in my childhood, during that brief era between the end of Empire and the advent of mass immigration, they react as if I’d tried to deny the holocaust. They can describe immensely important subjects like the slave trade, but have no knowledge of the origins of their own people.
So what has all this to do with writing fiction?
At the risk of sounding grandiose, history is the backstory we all share. Villages in my part of England can often be traced to a Saxon warlord who chose the spot to ground his spear and plant his generations. That winding country lane has probably been there since an ox cart found the easiest route through the woods. Those invaders, settlers, and opportunists were storytellers, not writers, and they told their stories in the West Saxon tongue that would become the first global language, Ænglisc. They kept their own history alive in legends, some of which yet survive. Beowulf, Weyland the Smith, and Weyland’s brother Egil or Ægl who married the swan-maiden Olrun. Historical fiction was a dominant cultural force millennia before publishers called it ‘genre’ and eased it into the literary sidelines.
Personally, I like to write stories that have an echo of the past; not so much historical fiction as history in fiction. So I set Saxon’s Bane in a village called Allingley, which would have been Ægl-ingas-leah or ‘the clearing of Ægl’s folk’ in Anglo Saxon, a sleepy village on the banks of the Swanbourne. It was fun to reach back to the origins of the Ænglisc and to bring a legend to life in the present day. They’d have been just like us, those distant ancestors. Their fear would have been the same, even though the aggressor carried an axe rather than a machine pistol. All it takes to go back there and to make history come alive is a framework of facts and a little imagination. The imagination that sees an old veteran, perhaps, who sits by a fire and stares dewy-eyed into his mead, and says to the youth in the rushes at his feet, ‘now, when I were a lad…’
“Nú, hwonne ic waes cnap…”
MUSE: A powerful, emotionally charged story where old lady teaches a young pianist the true, evocative power of music. Winner of the ‘Get Writing’ Prize 2011.
THE OTHER WOMAN: In this light-hearted and amusing tale, a sailor becomes obsessed with restoring a vintage sailboat, which seems to have a character and a mind of its own.
SHORT BURSTS: The poignant story of an elderly veteran confronting his demons in an old people’s home.
Click the links to download. Enjoy!
Today is the UK release date for Saxon’s Bane. To mark the occasion, Jonathan Oliver of Solaris sat me in front of a video camera and asked me loads of questions, ranging from my thoughts on genre, to the background to key characters in the book, and my writing journey. We even touched on the healing power of horses! The interview has been posted on YouTube at:
A wonderful crowd of friends and family swelled the shoppers at The Forbidden Planet in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on Wednesday night, for the launch of Saxon’s Bane.
My agent Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates kindly kicked off the proceedings before I was persuaded to read the first chapter. A Q&A followed, in which the questions were mercifully uncontroversial but lively enough to swell the numbers queuing to buy the book.
I’d found a very suitable wine, so perhaps it was inevitable that a little frivolity would creep into the occasion, in which a Saxon replica helmet (gratifyingly close to the book’s cover image) featured heavily!
I was humbled by the number of friends who came along in support, some of whom had traveled a long way to be there. The Forbidden Planet team were stunned that I was still signing books when they were preparing to close the shop, which I gather is almost unknown for a debut launch.
Saxon’s Bane is now available in print form (Mass Market Paperback) in the United States and Canada, and will be released in Trade Paperback format in the United Kingdom on 12th September. It is also available worldwide in all standard eBook formats.
I started Deer Island thinking I’d just read for thirty minutes before bed. I put it down in the early hours, when it was nearly finished and all hopes of a full night’s sleep were gone, and I’m still trying to define its appeal. The quality of the writing certainly has something to do with it; the prose is clean and bare, yet wonderfully descriptive, but there is something more than style.
I’m also trying to define the book. It doesn’t fit easily with convenient labels. ‘Memoir’ is probably the closest fit, since it structured as personal recollections. Ansell has lived and worked with the destitute, has himself been a squatter, and has wandered the wild places of the earth. This slim book could also be seen as a series of vignettes; of poverty, of lifestyles, of places, all of which are articulated with sharp clarity.
I think I was hooked by the way he writes with such respect, even love, for the kind of people most of us hurry past in the street; the alcoholics and homeless beggars, Ansell’s friends and companions during his years serving with the Simon Community. There are also descriptive passages of intense beauty; it’s worth buying the book just for the paragraphs where he emerges from a freezing rainstorm in the Kalahari desert to see a scimitar-horned gemsbok standing under an extraordinary, purple sunset. His descriptions of Jura, the ‘Deer Island’ of the title, could inspire me to shoulder a backpack and start walking North.
I’m left with the impression of a man whose life is richer for carrying so little with him, ‘Memories,’ he says, ‘are the only things we truly own, and even they slip from our grasp if we don’t handle them with care’.
Let me share a little happiness; my author copies of Saxon’s Bane have arrived from the wonderful people at Solaris. It is almost exactly six years since I stepped off a corporate ladder and went freelance, specifically to release time to write. Six years from ‘I’m going to do this’ to publication, and I tell you this moment feels better than any business deal I ever landed. My thanks to those who’ve helped along the way, many of whom will find their names inside the cover. It seemed appropriate to record the moment in the arbour, where much of Saxon’s Bane was written.
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the USA on 27th August and in the UK on 12th September.
The excitement is always the same; that sense of anticipation, of adventure, of setting out on the next leg of a voyage.
It starts perhaps in darkness, with the boat snubbing at its anchor chain, making irregular swoops under the conflicting pressures of wind and tide. The cabin seems fixed, solid, a warm, sea-scented fug of damp wool and coffee; it is the world outside that moves around us. A pool of light over the chart table shines on polished teak and racks of almanacs, a timeless image that Scott or Shackleton would recognise. The sea sloshes against the hull, plopping and dripping as if we were trapped in some celestial cistern. Movements are hushed, purposeful.
On deck, it is the noise that you notice first; thousands upon thousands of seagulls, roosting on some island nearby and calling into the ghost-light before dawn. It is an eerie sound, and suddenly I understand the old sea-stories about seagulls holding the spirits of dead sailors. And beneath this cacophony, there is the electric hum of wind through tight rigging.
Then there are the lights. There are navigation buoys all around us, winking red, green or white, and a lighthouse that sweeps its searchlight beam over all, marking our course to the open sea. We work in the dancing beams of torches hung from our necks, no hands to spare. ‘One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship.’ Otherwise, the horizon-less world is seen in tones of grey; the sky, lightening in the East, the sea, oily dark, reflecting the lights, and the land, low, humped, charcoal-black. Far away, a necklace of streetlights is an intrusion.
You know the instant when the boat comes alive. One moment, she is tugging at her anchor chain, impatient, captive, and the next she is free. Already her bow swings out of the wind, running for the sea before her anchor is fully shipped like an escaped horse trailing its tether. Now the pattern of lights moves around us, signposting the channel. By the time the sails are set it is dawn; the gleam of the lighthouse fades into a lonely grey behind us, and the horizon lightens into silver ahead, as the boat puts her shoulder down and runs. More coffee, clasped two-handed, warming, and as we lift our noses from our mugs the wind carries the fading smell of the land.
That atmosphere was always there for the brief time I spent at sea in an old friend’s boat, the same sense of adventure whether we were pointing her bow towards Lezardrieux, or L’Aber Vrac’h, or the rocky rip-tides of Raz de Sein (fortunately taken at slack water). Then, at journey’s end in La Rochelle, I saw a poem by Baudelaire, set in ugly, vomit-green plastic on a beautiful old tower. It captured that mood rather well. It may lose something in translation, especially if it’s me that’s doing the translating, but as far as I can make out, it says
But the true travellers are those who leave only for leaving; light-hearted, like balloons, never straying from their fate and, without knowing why, say always “Let’s go!”