The Novel Approach welcomes author James Comins today on the Fool School blog tour, to talk “Writing Genre”, and he’s also offering the chance to win a $20 Wayward Ink Publishing gift card OR an e-copy of the book. To enter just click on the Rafflecopter widget below.
I believe, honestly and sincerely, that there is a hierarchy of books. Some books are better than others. It isn’t, I think, quantifiable exactly; different books will be better or worse for different people, since we all read in different ways. (I, for example, tend to read up to twenty books at the same time, sometimes swapping books mid-sentence. I’m gradually getting better at not doing this.) But just as you can tell how good a restaurant tends to be by checking the aggregate Yelp reviews, with an understanding that there are sometimes biases and distortions, I think books can be ranked in a straight line from worst (Life’s Little Instruction Book, by the way) to best (whichever my favorite one happens to be today. Gormenghast, for example).
The list is not, it turns out, ordered by genre.
Gormenghast, for example, is some sort of fantasy, even if its world doesn’t contain anything that ours doesn’t. Yet it’s my pick for best book ever written, outpacing realists Middlemarch and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by several millimeters of book goodness. 1984 and Frankenstein are solidly science fiction, and they certainly make the list of Top X Best Books. One Hundred Years of Solitude is fantasy. So are the stories of Borges and Barthelme. A Christmas Carol is fantasy and possibly horror, categories which Rabelais and Aligheri wrote nothing but. The first story written solidly in what we call English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a fantasy and a romance to boot. Most of Chaucer is romance of one sort or another, as is Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Madame Bovary. Turns out most of the greatest books ever written are genre–that’s the “Literature” sobriquet in the “Fiction and Literature” section.
If you venture into any given “genre” section of the bookstore, what you most often find are the books that didn’t quite make the grade to advance into the upper echelons. There’s plenty of books in every category worth reading–scifi writer Theodore Sturgeon once quipped that 90% of everything is crud, which means a solid 10% of the stuff is worth your time–but only a select few from any category get to call themselves literature. You can usually tell when an author moves up into that apartment in the sky. Their name appears on the covers of books they didn’t even write, singing other people’s praises in tiny letters. They get treated like rock stars when they go on tour. Their name gets compared to Shakespeare, usually by people who aren’t quite sure what they mean by that. Neil Gaiman, Agatha Christie, and Michael Chabon seem to have made the leap, although they can also be found in their “genres” (and let’s not kid ourselves, bookstore “Fiction” is a genre, even if it gets filed next to literature). Iain Banks straddled the two, using his middle initial M as a euphemism for Mmmbarrassingtobeseeninthispartofthebookstore. Others, like Frank Herbert and Octavia Butler, have gotten close enough to smell the respect of their peers.
So why does “Fiction,” i.e. the kind of book that I like to call “Upper Middle Class White Lady Travel Porn,” get shelved in the same section as “Literature”? I figure it’s mainly because of money, since most of the book industry is directed toward upper middle class white ladies, who get to decide where the line of respectability is to be drawn, but also because the book industry is a slow, lumbering, five-hundred-year-old behemoth which still considers novels to be novel, which still thinks Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allen Poe are a couple of impudent young upstart, and for whom Science Fiction is less essential to its bottom line than light-up bookmarks.
So my books sometimes wind up in genre. I never take it personally. Although maybe my next book will be an upper middle class white lady discovering her spiritual side in the Hindu Kush or something. Time will tell.
Blurb: In the year of our Lord 1040, fourteen-year-old aspiring jester Tom is en route to Bath to begin his studies in the art of being a Fool, following in the footsteps of his father, and his father before him.
Along the way he meets Malcolm, a fire-haired boy with eyes green as forest glass. A Scotsman who’s escaped from the ravages of the usurper Macbeth, Malcolm elects to join Tom at school. Though the journey to Bath is hazardous, it pales in comparison to what they face at the austere and vicious Fool School, where all is not as it seems. A court jester must aim to be the lowest rung on the ladder of life, and the headmaster will not abide pride.
As they journey through life’s hardships together, Tom and Malcolm find they only have each other to depend upon.
About the Author: JAMES COMINS is incapable of writing about himself in the third person. His future autobiography will probably be titled, “The Man Who Groaned His Way Toward Death.” He writes stories for children and adults.
Born down the street from Stephen King, he now divides his time between Denver and Seattle.