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One Genre to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them

09/03/2011. Contributed by Stephen Hunt

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Author Stephen Hunt has seen the way that for the mainstream media, the only form of novel that is allowed to exist is contemporary fiction. He has seen the contempt that the genres people really read are held in. This goodthinkful, he believes, might actually be doubleplusungood. He's contacted David Cameron to see if the man at the top can offer any succor to the grubby world of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and the British Prime Minister's choice of favourite SFF novel is very much a politician's answer...

Update: 4th April.

And, as promised here's a list of all the writers who are signatories to the open letter of complaint sent into the BBC... 85 so far. Schuster)

David Mack (Star Trek Paramount)

Juliet Marillier (Tor)

Ian McDonald (Gollancz)

Juliet E McKenna (Solaris)

Karen Miller (Orbit)

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (Tor)

Elizabeth Moon (Orbit)

Michael Moorcock (Gollancz)

Theresa M. Moore (Antellus)

Yvonne Navarro (Pocket Books)

Stan Nicholls (Gollancz)

Larry Niven (Tor)

Jonathan Oliver (Solaris)

Phil Palmer (Orbit)

Steve Parker (Black Library)

Tamora Pierce (Random House)

Jonathan Pinnock (Proxima Books)

Phyllis Irene Radford (writing as P.R. Frost/C.F. Bentley) (Daw Books)

Robert V.S. Redick (Gollancz)

Kit Reed (Tor)

Mike Resnick (Pyr)

Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Steven Savile (Bad Press)

Robert J. Sawyer (Gollancz)

Ann Scarborough (Corgi)

Michael Shea (Daw)

Lucius Shepard (Gollancz)

Michael Marshall Smith (HarperCollins)

S.M. Stirling (Roc)

Charlie Stross (Orbit)

Stephen Sullivan (TSR)

Michael Swanwick (Orb Books)

Harry Turtledove (Del Rey)

Robert E. Vardeman (Hodder & Stoughton)

Tim Waggoner (Angry Robot)

Ian Watson (Black Library)

Simon West-Bulford (Medallion Press)

Sean Williams (Orbit)

Walter Jon Williams (Orbit)

Geoff Willmetts (SFcrowsnest)

Jane Yolen (Saint Martin's Press)

Update: 28th March.

Thanks for all those sending me in copies of the response the BBC gave to your complaint about their fiction coverage. I've had dozens of the same letter from readers now - the only thing being changed, the name of the individual complaining. Guess they had so many complaints on the subject they could only respond by mailshot.

Here's a copy of the BBC's form response below...

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 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


Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that polo, show jumping and grouse shooting are the only sports considered decent to be aired on TV and radio. You open the sports pages of newspapers to find page-after-page of coverage of how many birds a group of investment bankers have blasted into feathers over the glorious twelfth. No football. No cricket. No car racing. No rugby.

Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that popular music is no more, only chamber ensembles and other improving music forms are to be permitted. No more Kylie. No more U2. And Take That? Okay, stop laughing. Just the likes of Shostakovich's Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, or Beethoven's Septet for Wind and Strings are to be found on the radio. You turn to the music recommendations in your weekend newspaper and all you discover there are interviews with two hundred hopeful Tuvan throat singers short-listed for the new X-Factor.

Imagine a world where you turn up to the cinema hoping to watch Tom Cruise's latest Mission Impossible feature, maybe switch on the goggle-box to catch up with a little Coronation Street, and all you find playing are twelve screens and seventy channels of Freeview showing François Truffaut's L'Histoire d'Adèle H. and Ingmar Bergman's Sommarnattens leende.

How happy would you be?

I am a genre author, and I live in that world. In my world there is only one genre permitted access to the oxygen of publicity in the mainstream media, and that genre is contemporary fiction. It is also called literary fiction by its supporters, just to underscore the point that anything that isn't written in their genre can never be classed as literature or improving or worthy. It's a neat little semantic trick, isn't it? Reduce the denotata to its root and you end up with Fiction-Fiction. So good they named it twice. Before I even begin writing my tawdry fantasy novels I'm only ever half as good as them by definition.

As far as the Costa Book Awards, the Man Booker Prize, and all the others go, I am, and always will be, the Invisible Man. For, as any author knows, you never get caught writing escapism, not genre fiction. It's the kiss of death to your chances of any media exposure to do that. Science fiction author Margaret Atwood has to deny she writes science fiction. "Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets," she shouted to all that would listen, when The Handmaids Tale was perfectly appropriately labelled as sci-fi.

JK Rowling sadly felt she had to deny she was writing fantasy with her Harry Potter series – although as Terry Pratchett responded: "I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds, jumping chocolate frogs, owl mail, magic food, ghosts, broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?"

Even the normally reliable Iain Banks had his legs bent apart and a large 'M' rudely thrust between his name when he dared to stray away from the improving fields of Fiction-Fiction, a crime for which he is yet to be adequately punished.

The author M John Harrison gave the defining summary of the game literary fiction likes to play on his blog recently, when he said,

'Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered "good" novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan's description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fan base which won't read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception.'

There is only one problem with contemporary fiction and its monopolising hegemony across the media – although as problems go, let's face it, it's quite a biggie – and that is the mass of people out there who read fiction simply don't read that genre. They prefer decidedly non-contemporary fiction – crime, thrillers, historical, romance, war, children's fiction, YA fiction, sex-and-shopping, fantasy, horror, science fiction and even bizarre crossovers between many of the beforementioned. In short, they prefer escapism. They want a plot, and they want it now.

And that conflict, dear reader, between what we read and what is actually covered by the media has sadly begot a much greater one. People, especially younger readers, have given up on fiction on dead trees. They were happy to play the 'literary fiction' game in a gentler age, when it was the only game in town. Hell, some crazy old dudes even read short fiction in the pulps back in the day. But it's a more packed playlist now: MMOGs, IM, BitTorrents, RSS feeds, happy slapping, texting, DS, Xbox, Twitter, FaceBook, iPods, iPads, YouTube, blogging, Tumblr, Angry Birds – you know the drill, right?

A lot of reading on screens going on, and a whole lot of people confusing typing with writing… but fiction on dead paper? No, that's becoming a minority sport, and as readers who can blame us? We got tired of turning up to the Emirates Stadium and finding the match cancelled, the pitch occupied by a mob of baying Sloanes with Purdey shotguns having at the grouse. We got tired of buying NME and finding only Rameau's Quatres Pièces de Clavecin on the cover mount disk.

The good news is that the BBC has recently woken up to the decline of the printed word as an art form, and has belatedly decided to do something about it. The bad news is, shortly after they belatedly spotted all the high street bookshops going bust, they sent in the Sloanes with Purdey shotguns to lecture us on animal welfare.

Recently we've had Faulks on Fiction, where one of the bishops of the contemporary fiction high church, Martin Amis, laughed, 'People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, "If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book."'

Then we were offered World Book Night and a whole evening of BBC book coverage where the contemporary fiction team was trotted out onto the grass to kick the ball about – solely between themselves, of course.

The highlight of this was presenter Susan Perkins in the ironically entitled The Books We Really Read: a Culture Show Special making it sneeringly clear that she never normally reads any of our lowbrow genre 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 bemused beauty salon clients that her favourite must-read was Dostoevsky, who is all, like, really dark and stuff.

Fantasy was not mentioned once during the Perkins farce, fantasy, the very mother root of literature, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling and Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville and Michael Moorcock all stuffed inside CS Lewis's wardrobe, the better not to be seen.

Not a single work of science fiction was brought up, so farewell then the brave new worlds of HG Wells, John Wyndham, George Orwell, Iain M Banks, Brian Aldiss, Sir Arthur C Clarke, Aldous Huxley, JD Ballard, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton and Stephen Baxter.

Nor was any work of horror given a name-check, so Bram Stoker, James Herbert and Mary Shelley, sorry, but you're off Team GB Lit. and fangs for the memories.

Of course, in retrospect, asking the Culture Show to make a TV program called The Books We Really Read was a little like asking Jeremy Clarkson to make a show called The Electric Green Cars we Really Need, with much the same facetious, ham-fisted and comical results raced at high speed across the screen.

The above reads like a joke, or to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the argument's politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. But it isn't small. Not in a world where more and more employers are complaining about school leavers departing education barely usefully literate for their adult lives, UNo w@ I mean, mn?

Books matter, they really do. They matter vitally as part of our culture, they matter economically as one of our most successful exports. But matters are never going to improve until the BBC and the rest of the media abandon their entrenched elitist attitudes and actually focus on what people are really reading, rather than what they think we should be.

I asked the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, if he would care to cite his favourite work of science fiction and fantasy for our readers. His answer (you can see why he's a politician) is that he 'doesn't have a preferred genre', but that his favourite book is Goodbye to all That by Robert Graves, which he describes as a 'powerful autobiography about life in the trenches on the Western Front during the First World War'.

Oh well, at least Goodbye to all That has narrative velocity, which I can guarantee is more than the next Man Booker will…

The petition for our letter of complaint to the BBC has now started (see below). If you are a working author publishing in commercial fiction, feel free to contact me to add your name to the list (agents and editors, ditto)… I'll update this page in a week or so with all the signatories.


A letter of complaint against the BBC's World Book Night coverage

As published and working authors, editors, publishers and agents, we, the undersigned, are vitally interested in preserving the book as part of our culture, and supporting the civilising effect of literature on a highly educated, reading society.

While the BBC's motivations in supporting World Book Night with an evening of programming are admirable ones in principle, the BBC's execution of its coverage, its sneering derogatory tone levelled against commercial fiction and its narrow focus on a single genre – contemporary fiction – are wholly counterproductive and make a mockery of any aims of supporting the printed word, encouraging the public to read, or the BBC charter of 'bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK.'

The vast majority of novels that are read in this country fall far outside of the contemporary fiction genre – they very much include the three genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, which has produced everything from classics by HG Wells, Bram Stoker, Roald Dahl, Mary Shelley, George Orwell and JRR Tolkien, to modern best sellers by such authors as Iain M Banks, Sir Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling – these three genres being totally excluded from the BBC's World Book Night coverage.

Titles in these genres have sold multi-millions around the world and earned a massive wider income for the country in the form of film and merchandising spin-offs.

The BBC's World Book Night self-indulgent coverage gave the general public the misleading impression that novels are only for an elite, and that unless you're reading Dostoevsky, preferably in the original Russian, you're wasting your time on trash.

To exclude popular genres demonstrates blatant bias, and is comparable to commissioning Jamie Oliver for a television show cooking with the single ingredient of salt… leaving the majority of authors writing commercial fiction today much the same taste in our mouth as if he had.

By your stunning act of literary ignorance, the BBC has contributed to the culture of illiteracy, when the opposite should have been the case. This has been an expensive missed opportunity from a media that has been largely barren of any coverage of popular fiction for the last decade.

Badly done, BBC. Badly done.

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