I went for a drink last Friday with my editor DongWon Song, who was in London for the week to attend the London Book Fair and catch up with his UK-based writers. Over a leisurely pint or so at a rather lovely pub in Clerkenwell, we discussed life, the universe and everything; and we resolved upon excellent solutions for most things.
We also of course discussed that old perennial topic – the way that our genre, science fiction and fantasy, is constantly marginalised by the mainstream media. Stephen Hunt recently unleashed a scream of rage at this very phenomenon, after a BBC Book Night failed to properly focus on any SFF genre books, focusing instead on thrillers, romances, and literary novels. And DongWon had seen some very belittling comments about the forthcoming HBO series A Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. Why is it, we wondered, that our genre is always being patronised by the people who run culture?
But do you know what – I’m beginning to think DongWon and I and all the rest of us have the wrong end of the stick there. Because when you think about it, who’s winning this war? I mean of course the war between Genre Fiction and Posh Literary Fiction? Answer; we are. We’re not only winning, we’ve damn well won.
Take Exhibit A, that very same George R.R. Martin series. It’s on HBO – HBO! – and it has a stellar cast including our very own Brit bruiser Sean Bean. It’s got a great budget, it’s been given a prime slot, and it’s one of the cornerstone programmes on the new Sky Atlantic Channel which also boasts Boardwalk Empire and Blue Bloods. (The fact that despite having 3,000,o00 channels on my telly available from every electronic orifice I still CAN’T GET SKY ATLANTIC – because I’m with Virgin Vision – and hence can’t see any of these shows till they come out on DVD is a rant best reserved for another day.) There have been two major profiles of the series on my paper The Guardian – in the main paper and the weekend Guide – both of which were respectful and knowledgable about the genre. It’s had billboard coverage. It’s a huge media event. HOW IS THAT BEING MARGINALISED? Answer: it’s not really.
Take Exhibit B; the massive success of Lord of the Rings, which has basically bankrolled New Zealand for the last decade and has finally spawned the next Tolkien epic, The Hobbit – which also has been the subject of massive media attention.
Or Take Exhibit C: Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics were the passion of my childhood, and I always dreamed that one day I’d see a movie that did justice to the extravagant wondefulness of the comics. Well, be careful what you wish for; because we now have X-Men First Class, following on from the previous three X Films, plus the Wolverine Origins movie, plus another Wolverine to come, plus of course Thor (out this month), Captain America: The First Avenger, plus – actually it’s virtually impossible to keep track. I’ve just been reading this month’s Empire magazine which features Kenneth Branagah – once hailed as the next Olivier! – writing about how thrilled he is to be directing the Thor movie. And it also features James McAvoy – star of Atonement and Shameless, and one of the brightest stars of his generation – talking about how thrilled he is to be playing Professor X, following in the footsteps of his great hero Patrick Stewart, one of the giants of the British stage. In the same article, Michael Fassbender - star of the great arthouse movie Hunger and another one of the brightest stars of his generation – explains how thrilled he is to be playing Magneto (a character he’d clearly never heard of until he was offered his pay or play deal), following in the footsteps of one of the greatest thespians of all time, Sir Ian McKellen. Add to that the list of great actors who have been employed in the various Harry Potter movies – Alan Rickman, Ken Branagh, Zoe Wanamaker, Richard Harris, Robert Hardy, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham-Carter, and many many more – and one thing becomes clear.
In other words, genre fiction IS the mainstream. And in the movies, the science fiction and fantasy genres rule supreme – if you count superhero movies as SFF, which you should. So why, oh why, do we insecure thin-skinned genre-ites get so touchy when the BBC or the newspapers belittle our genres? Who are these people, who presume a cock a snook at us? Answer: They are nobodies. They are the losers in the war between snobby elitist culture and vibrant exciting popular culture. And, like all losers, they like to sit on the sidelines sniping. Well, let’s ignore ‘em!
I’m not here arguing against literary fiction or arthouse movies or non-genre television drama series; far from it. Nor am I saying that the only fiction worth reading is genre fiction – I love great writing of whatever kind. I’m merely saying that this automatic assumption that what’s written in the newspapers or said on the telly is the “mainstream” view is a delusion - on their part, and on ours. These guys are NOT the mainstream; they are a dribbley little rivulet that leads nowhere. [Um, I know nothing about waterways, so forgive me if that metaphor makes no sense.) But in terms of market dominance, media prominence, and cultural importance – genre fiction, genre movies and genre telly, including but not exclusively SFF stuff – is now where it’s at.
The internet has also changed everything; bloggers who care about what they are talking about have more importance in the SFF genre that any number of idiots whittering on in broadsheet papers. And often they write better too. I still take a huge amount of my cultural information in through my newspaper – but for any detailed commentaries, I’ll go to favourite blogs. And the very definition of “mainstream culture” relates to WHO GETS TO JUDGE. Well, the SFF genres have their own judges now; and in any case, word of mouth has always mattered more than any stamp of approval from the “respectable” critics. (I totally ignore film reviews when it comes to judging which film to see; they are so wrong, so often, that I’ve lost all faith in them.)
But if we’ve won, why doesn’t it feel that way? Well that’s the class structure of our society for you. We’re all indoctrinated with insecurity; worried about what our headteacher will say; wanting a pat on the head from Daddy or Mummy to tell us when we’ve been good. (At least, I am like that and always have been - though my own daughter DOESN’T GIVE TWO HOOTS what I say!) It’s called “cultural cringe”, aka having an inferiority complex.
So let’s shake that off. Let’s admit we’ve won, and we’re proud of it. For when the histories of twenty first century culture are written, epic fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction will be seen as the predominant culture influences of that era – OUR era. So hey – let’s be smug!
I’m still pissed off though that I can’t watch A Game of Thrones – because Rupert Murdoch has stolen all the good shows and put it in a channel I can’t receive! And another thing [sorry, that rant will have to wait – Ed.)
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