They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, although the publishing industry devotes a lot of time and money to encouraging people to do just that. Why else would such a lot of effort be expended on getting every new novel about romance and shopping to look like every other new novel about romance and shopping, or to making every book about warfare look like Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad?
One subset of the population that definitely judges a book by its cover – though they would be loath to admit it – is literary critics. While SF, fantasy and horror have become accepted by critics on film and television, you will usually look in vain for anything about them in the books section of your broadsheet newspaper.
The continuing critical snobbery about genre has been referred to recently by the author Neil Gaiman, in a discussion that started with a very brief comment in a New York Times review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and was expanded in an interview with both authors on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme
I’m sure most literary critics and editors would vehemently deny that they look down on genre fiction, but the pages of their publications tell a different story. How often do you see a novel of any popular genre reviewed at length in a serious newspaper or magazine? Unless it’s by Stephen King – or one of another select few authors who have earned approval by being popular and good for several decades – it’s unlikely to bother the literary sections very much.
The people who edit these publications might well say that they can’t possibly review everything that comes out, especially in genres that spawn as much fiction as the ones that concern us here. What’s more, they could argue that with so much material being published in these genres, it is inevitable that much of it will not be very good, and that it is a huge task to separate the wheat from the chaff. That’s fine, but they are generally not even giving us the wheat.
Surely one of the key obligations of a critic is to champion the art and entertainment that readers may not otherwise come across, and that must include pointing to good work in popular but marginalised genres. Critics let us down if they review only a narrow range of prestige titles being heavily promoted by big publishers.
Does this matter, in an age when we can read some very considered reviews from ordinary readers online, or take our lead from a host of niche websites, not least Amazing Stories? I think it does.
Surely it is important that everyone is encouraged to read outside their natural genre. The crime author Ian Rankin, for example, is an unlikely fan of the Jilly Cooper novel Riders, because it was once the only book in a holiday home he had rented. How do any of us know what good books we are missing because they are in genres which we would not normally think about?
I write as someone who is not remotely as widely-read in SF as most of the people who contribute to this site – and I want people better read than me to bring some good titles to my attention.
Unfortunately, the ghettoization of fiction into genres suits publishers as much as it suits critics. It’s easier to sell an fantasy novel to someone who’s already read a lot of fantasy novels than it is to attract a newcomer, and the same goes for any genre – hence the sense of deja vu when we look at cover designs in a bookshop.
Here’s my personal solution to these problems: positive discrimination.
Maybe it should be the goal of mainstream literary editors to find at least one genre novel a week that deserves a lengthy review alongside the histories, the biographies and the multi-generational family sagas that are a staple in most book review coverage. And if they cannot find a title worthy of that coverage, they should say so. There is certainly no shortage of perceptive reviewers for the job – but most of them are not the people already reviewing books professionally.