Today, SPFBO author Amelia Smith is dropping by to give us her thoughts of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant.
I used to think that fantasy was a genre, and that I knew what it was about. Then I tried to write a nice, quick, pulpy fantasy novel, and discovered that I had no idea what I was doing. That was almost a decade and a half ago, and the boundaries of the genre haven’t gotten any less blurry for me.
I had read fantasy novels, dozens of them. My favorites included C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which I’d read multiple times in elementary school, and The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (which I’ve since tried to re-read, and didn’t like it as much as I used to). What I was aiming for was a mix of imagination and allegory, but apparently that wasn’t enough. I needed a plot and characters, too, so I got those. I drafted, revised, rewrote, and revised again. Then I looked around, only to discover that this so-called genre wasn’t what I thought it was at all.
Within speculative fiction, there are dozens of sub-genres with non-overlapping or barely overlapping readerships, from shifter romance to literary fairy tales to hard sci-fi to “Tolkien knock-offs.” My husband and I both read speculative fiction, but he reads mostly Lovecraftian short stories while I lean towards literary fantasy novels. I also read literary fiction, and sometimes the literary stuff is as fantastical as the fantasy. I mean, why isn’t Salman Rushdie’s work shelved in the fantasy section? Why isn’t Jo Walton in general fiction?
The line between literary fiction and fantasy is blurry, but sometimes an author tries to cross over (sort of) and trips up horribly. I’d heard good things about Kazuo Ishiguro, so when the buzz got going about The Buried Giant I checked it out. It was not what I would call a masterpiece. In some ways, it was like looking at my own first efforts to write fantasy, but also reminiscent of Phantastes by George MacDonald (first published in 1858) a book I fought my way way through recently because of C.S. Lewis’s gushing introduction to it. Phantastes was rich with allegory and description, not so strong on the forward drive of plot. The Buried Giant had a slow, foggy atmosphere which hearkened back to that Ur text of 20th century fantasy.
Ursula LeGuin criticized Ishiguro for his reluctance to embrace the fantasy genre, which led to the highest profile discussion I’ve seen of the literary/fantasy genre divide. People got a bit worked up about it. I got a bit worked up about it. I saw fantasy – the Tolkien knock-off kind – shelved with general fiction at another local library. I asked why. No one seemed to know. As it happened, one of the local library book clubs was reading The Buried Giant, so I went along to the meeting. The members of the group were mostly women well over the age of 70, and on the whole they didn’t love the book, but their big objections had very little to do with the world-building or genre-bending. Instead, they wanted to know was what the author was trying to do, what the message of the book was.
They seemed to be looking for allegory, one of the reasons I got into writing fantasy in the first place. I’ve been thinking more about plot and such lately, but that drive for allegory is still part of the process. It was a prominent characteristic of much of the fantasy I read early on, and I sometimes still see it, though more often in those books which land on the literary/general fiction shelves despite their fantastical elements. There’s probably more action and adventure on the genre bestseller lists.
Sometimes, I’d like to see all the segregated genres lumped back into general fiction at my local library. People who “don’t read fantasy” are missing a lot of good stuff, stories which they would probably enjoy. Meanwhile, the genre shelves themselves contain a huge variety, and I often find myself jumping up and down explaining to people that no, it’s not all sexist Tolkien knock-offs any more. I don’t think it ever was.
Amelia Smith writes articles about Martha’s Vineyard, books about dragons, and blog posts about nothing in particular. To learn more about her, visit www.ameliasmith.net. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.