How to burn a genre. World Book Night

I have just finished watching the BBC’s World Book Night coverage, which was meant to be generally bigging up the world of fiction, but instead nearly resulted in me having a coronary.

The contemporary fiction – aka modern fiction, aka literary fiction – genre was represented by the bucket-load, as you’d expect. The TV producers then gently moved onto the genres that real grubby proles stubbornly insist on reading – romance, crime, thrillers, chick-lit, Jilly Cooper’s sex-N-shopping novels, some of the humorous stuff, with presenter Sue Perkins making it clear that she never normally reads any of that lowbrow tripe (although she might, you know, give it a whirl now, just for the sake of World Book Night). Fiction has to be painful, a little like school, she explained, before gushing all over some beauty salon clients that her favourite must-read was Dostoevsky, who is all, like, really dark and stuff.

As the hour went by, strangely absent from this detailed parade of what people actually like to read was “a certain” genre, you know… the unclean one, speculative fiction, as in fantasy/horror/science fiction… which together accounts for between 20/30 per cent of the fiction market, depending on what measure you choose to believe.

Well to paraphrase Sue Perkins’ favourite author, ‘If fantasy & scifi novels do not exist, then everything is permitted.’

Un-fucking-believeable. I can forgive the committee of World Book Night itself, whose selection of twenty five titles to give one millions free copies away was made by a board which clearly apes the views of the Booker panel – which is that fantasy, horror and sci-fi, much like hardcore porn, has no place in any respectable fiction list*, but the BBC?

If you want to encourage people to read, might I suggest that ignoring the likes of Terry Pratchett, Joe Abercrombie, Iain M. Banks, Sir Arthur C Clarke, China Miéville, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Michael Moorcock, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and CS Lewis isn’t a good place to start!

I get the feeling that having shunned anything to do with novels for so long, the Beeb have suddenly woken up, noticed the death of Borders and retail book selling along with the rise of Amazon and the Kindle, then thought to themselves, ‘Crikes, the old paper book isn’t going to be around much longer, time to give it a little coverage before that section of the art ups and croaks.

Well done, the BBC. Well done World Book Night.

The Thought Police in the 1930s were educated enough to burn quite a wide selection of books, HG Wells and Jules Verne and other scifi subversives crackling quite merrily next to Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller, but you, you fuckers have managed to burn an entire genre tonight, Action against the Un-ContemporaryFiction Spirit indeed.

Well, the fight-back starts here! Firstly, in the spirit of the BBC and World Book Night’s goodthinkful ideology, I’ve set up the Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror is not a corrupting foreign influence page on FaceBook. Do please invite all fantasy, horror and SF fans you know to join.

Secondly, I’m putting together a petition together of every British fantasy, horror and science fiction author I can get my hands on to become signatories to an official letter of complaint of bias and unbalanced coverage by the BBC.

My hard-taxed revenue at work? I don’t think so.

If, as individual viewers based in the UK, you want to complain to the BBC about failing to cover a single fantasy, horror or science fiction novel during World Book Night, the online form to do this is located at… https://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/forms/ … the more complaints, the better.

The details for the form are: The Books We Really Read: a Culture Show Special. It went out on BBC2 on the 5th March 2011.

* Before I’m deluged by comments, yes, I do realize that Northern Lights is on the World Book Night list, but only, the BBC made clear, as an example of YA-crossover – heaven forbid it should be an actual example of fantasy. And I don’t think Cloud Atlas really counts either, and as for Margaret ‘Oryx-and-Crake-is-not-science-fiction:science-fiction-is-when-you-have-chemicals-and-rockets’ Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, don’t even go there.

Stephen

I am an author of various fantasy, science fiction, crime and other genre books from Gollancz, Hachette and HarperCollins. Some day I hope to grow up and be an astronaut. Exploring Mars would be nice.

38 thoughts on “How to burn a genre. World Book Night

  • March 5, 2011 at 11:33 pm
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    Got to agree. Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy are three genres of writing that the British pretty much created and it’s a disgrace that the media aren’t more appreciative of that fact. These are three genres that were pretty much pioneered by British writers and we should be proud of the fact that we produced authors who contributed [and continue to contribute, I might add] genres to fiction that have gone on to be such a popular part of the literary scene. Sweeping them under the rug, as it were, does their legacies no service whatsoever.
    Shame on you, beeb!

  • March 5, 2011 at 11:40 pm
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    To be honest I’m not really surprised by the attitude of the BBC/the people behind World Book Night. Despite doing some fantastic science fiction on radio and TV they’re very divided on how they should treat anything outwith the mainstream.

    The whole point of World Book Day isn’t to pick the books people should read it’s to get them reading in the first place. Being snobbish about book genres doesn’t really help.

  • March 6, 2011 at 1:28 am
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    Well I did my best and I have all my friends in Argentina raising hell about it.All the best to you and yours,Our Game Group will stand behind you all the way. Herbie

  • March 6, 2011 at 9:01 am
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    I couldn’t agree more. I work in a bookshop, and a vast portion of what goes out of the door is either fantasy, science fiction, or horror. The sheer number of dark romance books that sell is amazing.

    I attended a world book night event last night for All Quiet on the Western Front (A book that I love) and was bored stiff; what could have been if we were actually discussing a book, and that book was The City and The City, The Windup Girl, or The Colour of Magic. Perhaps then there might have been some good conversation.

    The BBC have missed the mark again. Old British snobbery repackaged for the literary market. Damn frustrating.

  • March 6, 2011 at 9:33 am
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    Same old fucking bullshit…. As a dyslexic child I was encouraged to read, it was made hugely obvious to me that if I wanted to achieve anything in life then I needed to beat my problem….

    That was until I started reading fantasy (and some science fiction), then I got it both barrels from school, what I was reading was wrong, it was crap it was going to turn me into a ‘Satanist’ or something worse… Then my parents got in on the act, they wanted me to read just not that dangerous magical stuff… because for some reason they were worried that I might believe the fiction I read was true…. Errr…. nope I became an atheist…

    As a British citizen who pays my license fee I am fucking furious at the BBC, furious at their ignorance and arrogance…. Didn’t they vote Lord of the Rings the greatest novel of all times…

  • March 6, 2011 at 9:36 am
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    Nope, that was the people who voted Lord of the Rings the greatest novel of all times. The dirty unwashed masses… can’t trust ’em!

  • March 6, 2011 at 10:26 am
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    Stephen – have emailed a complaint directly to the prog makers at info@worldbooknight.org – and pasted the text of it on facebook. We’ll see if they deign to respond.

    cheers – Mike

  • March 6, 2011 at 10:38 am
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    Thanks, Mike. I don’t expect too much from them, though, they’re in the biz, so they probably feel being snobbish about genre fiction is part of the job description.

  • March 6, 2011 at 10:47 am
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    Obviously, it’s not a corrupting foreign influence, but a way of accessing a corrupting internal instinct (at least when done properly). Surely that’s the point? That’s why they hate/ fear it, and that’s why we love it.

    Let’s grope around in that black putrid unconcious, and see what we can un-earth…

  • March 6, 2011 at 11:03 am
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    I was amused and faintly embarrassed by Sue Perkins, who I like, and her slumming it with the plebs in the hairdresser’s. I noticed the total absence of genre writers on The Culture Show’s list of 12 Brit novelists to watch in 2011. The books seemed very conservative ‘literary’, to judge by the extracts the authors read and by the terms of the judges’ discussion of the list. Very unimaginative.

  • March 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm
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    When I submitted my form to be a ‘Giver’, I put down Northern Lights and stated that I chose it because it was the closest to an SF book on a very lacking list.

    I work in a library, and come across a lot of misinformation about SF books (which I’m now in charge of buying for the service on the basis I’m the only member of staff who admits to reading it regularly!!). It’s amazing when talking to people though, how open they are to giving it a chance if you pick a good example. And that’s why I was so upset it was lacking in the World Book Night coverage and books to give away.

  • March 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm
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    Give Mark Gatiss a series on genre fiction (after the excellent work he did on horror movies) for us to enjoy and lets leave the cultural elite to point at the emperors new clothes. Well done on starting the campaign Stephen.

  • March 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm
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    It’s amazing because genre fiction is what seems to really sell in a bookstore (that and young adult, which is largely romance/fantasy/science fiction as well). Book snobbery really gets my goat.

  • March 6, 2011 at 4:22 pm
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    These snobbish book critics are so out of touch with reality, they should WRITE some spec fiction themselves. Just like some stubborn, equally snobbish NY publishing houses, looking down on genre fiction. That’s what ebooks and sites like Goodread are going to do to them – being taken over by independent publishers and bloggers.

  • March 6, 2011 at 5:07 pm
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    My letter:

    Dear Sirs-

    I’d like to complain about the World Book Night programme, recently aired on BBC2. The books you featured were certainly worthy. But by downplaying any kind of literature that is not difficult to read, you omitted the kind of books that people actually read. Literary fiction has largely disconnected itself from such pedestrian concerns as story, excitement or the ability of the reader to relate to the characters. No wonder that fewer and fewer people read. If you want people to start or continue reading – and buying! – books, why not also feature such genres as romance, crime, thrillers, chick-lit, sci-fi, fantasy, horror or humour?

    As Sue Perkins made abundantly clear, she and the board are not familiar with such tripe. But I assure you, there are indeed thoughtful, well written, mind-expanding young adult novels. In fact, many YA novels (and the other genres mentioned above) serve as the entry point to general literacy, so the readers might even start reading some of your beloved literary fiction.

    From a historical view, may I point out that most books we now consider part of the literary canon were first published as adventure novels or similar midbrow material? Just think of such yarns as Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Christo or Alice in Wonderland. The reason these books prevailed is that they are indeed yarns – they value story, characters and imagination above literary aspiration.

    The channels of media delivery and consumption are ever diversifying. Your goal is – I assume – to prevent literature from slipping into the same niche that classical music and opera has already dropped into: something only a very small percentage of the population participates in. (*) The way to do that is to find quality books that are also interesting to actual people. Not to PhDs of literature, not to critics, but to the average, bright, layman. Your task would be to select works that are both approachable _and_ well written. Quite a bit harder than selecting based on the latter criterion only, but your job is not supposed to be easy.

    You took the easy way out by catering to the critics only. In the process you squandered a great opportunity and a lot of goodwill and further cemented the public’s view that literature is difficult and boring. Shame on you.

    With the best regards

    Hans

    (*) And by and by, can I note here that opera used to be considered quite entertaining at one point too, like cinema these days?

  • March 6, 2011 at 6:10 pm
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    Below is the complaint I just submitted. Hopefully they’ll take it to heart, despite coming from outside the UK. I am stunned and disappointed that they made a choice like that with the World Book Event!

    “I was deeply disturbed and disappointed to discover that the BBC coverage of literature in the World Book Night completed excluded a major genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror.

    It was disturbing to me as an individual because, as a lover of all fiction, I find the exclusion of any genre to be a bas unworthy of any organization – let alone one as admired as the BBC. As a lover of that particular genre, I was greatly disappointed by the BBC’s support of the biased view that (despite the massive success of SF/Fantasy/Horror in the mainstream media) has always made me feel as if I’m somehow “strange” for loving to read the extremely well-written novels that can be found in that genre.

    Please understand: One of the things that started me reading enthusiastically was the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and the novels of Jules Verne — both of which have been excluded from your coverage, as well as the myriad others that have kept me happily supporting the book-publishing industry. (Similarly, my brother, who always had a great difficulty reading, was able to start enjoying the process by reading that genre, which made him a devoted reader of ALL fiction later on.)

    By “burning” this genre in such a public way, BBC is effectively telling new generations that anyone who likes that genre is somehow less worthy. (Quite a hypocrisy, considering the massive success of some of BBC’s programming for the past thirty-plus years, including Dr. Who, Torchwood, Primeval, and most recently Being Human.)

    BBC has a responsibility to present all genres in a “World Book Night”, not just the ones that literary snobs think are worth their attention. (Especially since I guarantee that every one of them probably went to see the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and at least one Star Wars film, and have gnashed their teeth in envy of the success of Steven King when their own attempts at literature have failed.)

    PLEASE find a way to correct this mistake. Don’t make kids think that a) literature is stuffy and difficult and not worth their time, and b) that if they enjoy (or even devour, as I did) books of any other genre, there’s something wrong with them.

    Sincerely,

    Grace Macy
    currently of Los Angeles, CA”

  • March 6, 2011 at 10:13 pm
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    None of this surprises me, bearing in mind the sniffy, toffee-nosed nature of Aunty Beeb.

    As a WBN book-giver who was inspired to take part by the presence of ‘Northern Lights’ on the book-list, I will now make a point of writing to the organiser, asking for the selection to be widened to fully represent SF, fantasy and horror next year.

    It was certainly disappointing not to see any other great classics of sf or fantasy in the choice of books or on the tv coverage. It was ridiculous to see the excellent ‘Northern Lights’ demeaned as mere “crossover” and apparently not worthy of further discussion. Particularly foolish since the book itself was seen on the tv several times.

    I chose ‘Northern Lights’ to give and was very pleased with my choice and with the enthusiasm of those who received it from me. Moreover I had no shortage of takers, all of whom came to a small evening event I organised at my local library, where I gave a well-received reading from the book.

    I was particularly pleased that a local school librarian travelled a good distance to attend specifically to obtain ‘Northern Lights’ for her school’s library, and she took an extra copy for a possible school prize. I hope the book will introduce many young people there to its “subversive” ideas!

  • March 7, 2011 at 12:38 am
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    Thanks for raising this Stephen. I’ve just fired off a long complaint to the BBC complaints line. I’ll be interested to see how they respond…

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  • March 7, 2011 at 11:52 pm
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    I’ve sent a polite and thoughtful – but pointed – email to the World Book Night contact address as well, and I’ll happily copy it to the BBC. Just wish I couldn’t imagine the lit-crit bores dismissing our views out of hand as the rantings of “marginalised timewasters”, reinforcing their own views with their shortsightedness.

  • March 8, 2011 at 2:01 am
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    Frankly, I’m not surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. Every book club I’ve ever looked at has spurned anything with a fantastical bent.

  • March 9, 2011 at 6:20 am
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    Hurray on the take-down of Margaret Atweed (intentional misspelling of last name noted for Canada’s most overrated writer). Her books are neither fantasy nor science fiction and should not be included in those genres for her too overt proselytizing. Why not recommend Herland or other works by woman fantasy/sci-fi writers for better reads? I didn’t see the programme but I can imagine that they did not mention Edgar Allan Poe or Ray Bradbury. Feh.

  • March 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm
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    What I’ve always found interesting about this whole phenomenon is the degree to which the Serious Literary Sorts engage in a bit of good old-fashioned erasure. 1984? Clearly not sci-fi. How could it be? It was good!

    I understand Atwood (nb: understand =/= condone). Being a Serious Literary Sort, she can hardly admit to slumming with the rest of us. What would the tweed-and-pipe brigade say? Whether she’s in denial or simply lacks the courage of her convictions is beyond me, but it’s always disappointing to see that someone who could potentially be a voice for a genre has decided to abandon that … responsibility is over the top, perhaps, but opportunity is not quite as strong as I’d like.

    The good news is that the readers don’t much care, and will continue to buy what they actually enjoy reading. The better news is that the Rowling generation is enormous, and that bodes well for all of us.

  • March 14, 2011 at 11:39 am
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    I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed above, however I would like to expand the complaint. As a career bookseller for over 15 years, I find it frustrating that whenever a conversation turns to books, people only seem to refer to fiction, of any genre. What about non-fiction? Why is an engaging account of someone’s life or experiences, or a fascinating history of an event, or any other of the myriad topics covered, considered less worthy of appreciation than a fictional narrative? That is snobbery and elitism as well.

    I devour books of many kinds, from fiction of every genre, to children’s literature (children are often tougher to please than adults), to non-fiction biographies and histories. All are part of the human experience, of the pleasure of reading. A famous physicist by the name of Richard Feynman once gave a lecture on “the pleasure of finding things out” – isn’t that what we want to encourage in people, to read anything, and discover something. Fantasy worlds, characters that exist on a page and in someone’s imagination, or something that was or is real and actually happened.

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  • March 23, 2011 at 6:14 pm
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    got this today as a reply to my complaint

    “Dear Mr Mcleod

    Reference CAS-639267-TY6V0Q

    Thank you for your comments with regard to ‘The Books We Really Read’ broadcast on BBC Two on 5 March.

    I understand you feel Sci-FI, Fantasy and other genre literature was absent from the programme, which disappointed you.

    I was sorry to read your thoughts about Sci-fi on the BBC. I want to assure you that the BBC is absolutely committed to celebrating books in all their forms. From Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of HG Wells’ Man In the Moon to China Mieville on The Review Show, Sci-fi has, and will continue to be, represented across the BBC’s output. The genre will be featured as part of the forthcoming Review Show book specials this summer as part of Books on the BBC 2011.
    Do check our press site here http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice for more information on this and other programming.

    I understand you feel strongly about this. I’d like to assure you that I’ve registered your complaint on our daily audience log. This is a daily report on audience feedback which is circulated to BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive board, channel controllers and other senior managers.

    The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions on future BBC programmes and content.

    Thanks for taking the time to send us your comments.

    All the very best

    Mark Bell
    Commissioning Editor, Arts

  • March 24, 2011 at 3:17 am
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    Waitacottonpickinminutehere …. you’re talking about the BBC.

    The channel whose most successful shows are “Doctor Who” and “Being Human”.

    *That* BBC?

    *That* BBC didn’t see fit to include spec-fic?

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  • April 17, 2011 at 10:42 pm
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    Not had a chance to read all the comments above so maybe you have already posted a similar response, but had a reply from presenter and writer Sue Perkins about the show. “[I] Love old fashioned SF,” she told me via Twitter, “but there was no room for all genres in progamme. SF needs its own doc!”

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  • June 29, 2011 at 9:52 am
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    Do you know what this reminds me of? The whole Jasper Fforde fiasco. I absolutely loved The Eyre Affair, but every literary toff type I know scoffed when it came out- it was considered worse than genre fiction, because it was kind of just weird, it didn’t even fit properly into a category that could be scorned? I couldn’t get anyone to read it. Fast forward a few years, & a pretentious literary type at a dinner party suddenly recommends Jasper Fforde to me- she gushed, oh he’s one of the UK’s leading satirist. I couldn’t stop laughing- it’s like, OH, he’s a SATIRIST now. When he was just a weirdo who wrote strange genre fiction, noone would touch his books, but now that’s he’s been labelled a SATIRIST, literary types have permission to read/gush about his books. It’s all so farcical. (btw if you haven’t read Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, pick it up. He makes some great comments on the slandering of genre fiction).

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