Why fantasy writers get crabby

July 27th, 2007

What follows is a letter I wrote to a book reviewer in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle. The review is available online; I have tried to post the URL here several times with no luck. If you want to read it — it’s quite good otherwise — go to sfgate.com, at the top you’ll see SF CHRONICLE in Gothic type. Click on that. Click on Datebook on its masthead. The Harry review should be at the top of the list of contents.

Dear M(s, Mr?) Mcmahon,

I am NOT writing to complain about your posting spoilers, first off.

I was very surprised by your remark that the Potter books have “some of the trappings” of fantasy genre fiction but “transcend genre.” I can only conclude that you don’t know much about modern fantasy fiction, or about British “school stories,” such as the “Boys’ Own Paper” genre. The Potter books are a very clever, very well-done arrangment of motifs, themes, character types, and situations from both genres — to say nothing of their over-arching plot, which is typical, not original.

I’m not saying this to disparage them. They’re well done. But why you’d call them “literature” while sneering at the genre fiction that gave them birth is beyond me. As a writer of fantasy fiction, it bothers me when reviewers make that sort of dismissive statement, especially when they are reviewing a piece that most definitely fits into genre.


Katharine Kerr

28 Responses to “Why fantasy writers get crabby”

  1. Erin Underwoodon 27 Jul 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Beautiful letter and very well put.

    Why is it that reviewers are so afraid of saying, “Hey, this is a great piece of fantasy fiction!” Why is it necessary to hedge around the subject by saying the Potter books have “some of the trappings” of fantasy genre fiction but “transcend genre”?

    What is it about genre fiction that frightens some people so much? Are they embarrassed to admit they like to read fantasy, romance, horror, etc? If so, why?

    I really would love to understand how genre became the taboo category of literature.

  2. Katharine Kerron 27 Jul 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Erin, so would we all. :-( Perhaps McMahon will answer me and enlighten us — fat chance. :-)

  3. Alma Alexanderon 27 Jul 2007 at 4:27 pm


    Very well put, and I wonder why oh WHY it has to be said over and over and over again. My response to the snide dismissal of fantasy is to point out that ALL fiction is fantasy, by definition, and that “lit’ry” writers should just stop looking down their aristocratic noses at everyone else. Fantasy – and now I AM talking about the genre known by that name – is one of the purest forms of fiction there is, and also the earliest form of it that all of us encounter, starting out as we do with stories-for-toddlers of talking animals and such and then graduating to fairy tales and fables when a little older – before we are told to “put away childish things”. Thankfully, some of us never have.

  4. Laurieon 27 Jul 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Genuine literature? Oh, gag me!

    Personally, it irks me that we’re divided up into genres in the first place. The only legitimate divide is fiction vs. nonfiction, in my opinion.

    But I digress.

    Truly, what is the difference between a book that takes place in Vermont in 1900 and a book that takes place in Vermont in 2100? If they both have gripping plots, fantastic writing, and captivating characters, why must it mean that the first one is hailed as literature and the second is derided as science fiction? And if both stories are masterpieces, why must some snooty little lickspittle hold his nose and insist that he only read the latter story because it “transcends genre” and might even be, dare I say it, “genuine literature?”


  5. Dark Iconon 27 Jul 2007 at 6:10 pm

    Why genres?

    Because some people like reading stories about spaceships and other people like reading stories about wizards. Those two groups of people are not always the same. Genres are a GOOD thing, as long as we don’t take the definitions too serious and realize that a single work can fit into multiple categories… or none at all.

  6. Katharine Kerron 27 Jul 2007 at 6:18 pm

    It does occur to me that McMahon may have felt that she (he? I wish people would give their kids unambigious names these days, sayeth the Old Bat. Regan is a female name in Irish, so I’ll go with she) anyway, that she needed to defend her decision to review the Potter — and it’s a long review — to the Datebook’s editor.

    These sneers have a way of being passed down from on high. Certainly the Chronicle reviews very little F and SF — 4 titles every 6 weeks get a paragraph or two from Michael Berry, and that’s it.

    Digression: Rowling has said in interviews that she never read Fantasy. I suspect that she read plenty of British children’s literature, however, and simply doesn’t realize that it’s all one and the same. She’s spoken of reading a lot as a child, and British children’s books are the fons et origo of good Fantasy for kids.

  7. Leon Staufferon 27 Jul 2007 at 6:21 pm


    More to the point, some people like reading about wizards, some like reading about how the head cheerleader will decide who to go to the prom with. The overlap there is even more minuscule, I’m sure. Not nonexistent of course, but pretty darn small. Genre is a quite useful tool sometimes applied a bit too harshly. And for that matter, ‘serious literature’ is a genre as well, and one most people who don’t get paid to praise it tend to wisely avoid, dipping into it for only the most readable authors.

  8. Katharine Kerron 27 Jul 2007 at 6:24 pm

    Well, I read a lot of serious literature, too. Some of it’s trivial, but then, so is some genre. The thing is, there are badly done books and well-done books, and that’s the only distinction that should matter. But it doesn’t, of course.

  9. Katharine Kerron 27 Jul 2007 at 7:59 pm

    Well, when I said “fat chance” above I wasn’t kidding. I received a very polite reply from McMahon, but she’s refused permission to post it here.

    So I won’t.

  10. Evan Goeron 27 Jul 2007 at 9:31 pm

    If a reviewer is operating under the assumption that books tagged by their authors and publishers as “literary” are in fact literary, and those that lack that tag are by definition not literary… then I really don’t see how you can help them. Basically, you’re describing someone who believes that Product X is awesome simply because the manufacturers of Product X say so. We should feel sorry for people like that, but really it’s their cross to bear.

    Meanwhile, of all the people I know who read and enjoy the literary genre, *none* of them suffer from this problem. They might like SF — or not — but either way, all of them are smart enough not to take the Marketing Department’s claims at face value. That’s kind a fundamental 21st century survival skill, isn’t it?

  11. Kate Elliotton 28 Jul 2007 at 12:15 am

    Refused permission to post the reply, eh? Interesting. Anyway, thanks for writing that. I’m sure it’s something many of us have felt vexed about, but what to do, what to do? I’m glad you did something. And it may stop him/her/it from writing a similar line later.

  12. Gyp Orienson 28 Jul 2007 at 12:22 am

    I always thought literature meant well-written books that make you think.

    Silly me.

  13. Katharine Kerron 28 Jul 2007 at 2:28 am

    The line between genre and not is getting very blurry with writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem scrubbing away at it. Chabon has come right out and defended fantasy, which has upset some reviewers. And then there are the “serious” writers, like Cormac McCarthy, who have published a book based on a standard SF trope but don’t want it called SF.

    I’m just sick of having my work and that of my friends casually trashed for a reviewer’s cheap shot — not that they ever refer to specific books, of course. It happens so often that it’s gotten impossible to ignore. I’m not very good at being Saintly and Rising Above. :-) Just in case someone here hasn’t noticed . . .

  14. LauraJMixonon 28 Jul 2007 at 8:24 am

    Well spoken, Kit. Hear, hear.

  15. Theresa Crateron 28 Jul 2007 at 9:20 am

    I just gave a paper at the Doris Lessing Conference in Leeds, UK, called “The Politics of Genre.” This is what I talked about–how we’re still second class citizens.

    Theresa Crater
    Under the Stone Paw

  16. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 28 Jul 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Not allowing permission to post the reply? Well, there are varying levels of “politeness” as always.

    However, the book reviewer’s pulpit is not the arbiter of “what is genre,” especially in the case of children’s literature. The arbiter has always been and will be for the foreseeable future one person: the children’s librarian, who has the responsibility to stick the unicorn, rocketship and magnifying glass stickers on the spines of the children’s fantasies, science fiction and mysteries. I’m pretty confident s/he’ll be sticking the unicorns on Harry Potter, especially since if s/he doesn’t, s/he’ll have to deal with any number of children ready to call bullshit on the idea that “well-written” and “genre” are two separate categories.

  17. Leon Staufferon 28 Jul 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I didn’t say that quite as well as I’d like. Certainly there is some very good ‘serious literature’, just as there is plenty of garbage in our genres. However, all too often, works that are written with the deliberate idea of being ‘serious and important’ aren’t to anyone outside of a handful of ‘serious’ reviewers. So the idea of looking down on genre because it’s not ‘serious literature’ strikes those of us who are permitted to like whatever we damn well want regardless of genre without getting drummed out of the ‘serious literary reviewers’ club as more than a little odd.

  18. Katharine Kerron 28 Jul 2007 at 3:51 pm

    Theresa, how was the paper received? I’d like to know. Did you get a lot of response?

    Leon, I get it now. Thanks for the clarification.

    I’m just wary of “reverse-bashing.” I’ve seen a lot of it in the past 20 years in the SF and F community, people who are so sick of being bashed that they take out after non-genre fiction that they haven’t even read. These are often the same ones who refuse to admit that some of the prose in our genre could use with more a little polishing. :-)

  19. Brendan Podgeron 28 Jul 2007 at 6:09 pm

    All fiction is genre fiction. I am just posting a link to an editorial of a SF mags editorial that argues this.


  20. shannonon 29 Jul 2007 at 9:06 pm

    That is a rather perculiar thing to assert, that the Harry Potter books aren’t really fantasy. Hmm, very strange.

    Erin poses an interesting question or two:

    What is it about genre fiction that frightens some people so much? Are they embarrassed to admit they like to read fantasy, romance, horror, etc? If so, why?

    Easily my favourite English course at uni was on Popular Fiction, i.e., genre fiction. When we came to study fantasy, my favourite genre (I do read a lot of lit as well, and some other stuff, too), on interesting theory was the idea of Play. I’m not sure if I can explain it clearly, but I’ll give it a shot. It’s pretty obvious, though the theory side of it is more or less forgotten now, sadly.

    When you’re little, you play. You imagine, you create, you invent and you play. Play games, play make-believe, play dress-ups, play anything!

    When you get older, you learn that to prove you are no longer a child and should be taken seriously, you put aside the Twister and the skipping rope and turn your back on the castle that’s really some straw bales concealing a hole in the middle from which you plot to overthrow your enemies with mud balls, and grow up. You learn that to indulge in anything frivolous like that is embarrassing. The divide between “childish” and “adult” is very clear.

    Happily, fantasy is hugely popular now, as is playing with your kids, making a fool of yourself at certain choice moments, and not being ashamed to enjoy playing Risk instead of Trivial Pursuit.

    If anyone knows more about this theory and can expound on it, please, my memory needs jogging!

    Still, especially among academics, fantasy remains largely scorned and sneered at for being trite, cliched, two-dimensional, you name it. Personally, I think they really love it, but are afraid of losing credibility, because to have fun while reading must mean you lack the depth of thought to really, truly understand! It’s all just snobbery.

    (And I agree with Brendan: all fiction is genre fiction, and Katherine is right: of course The Road is sci-fi!)

  21. Tamion 30 Jul 2007 at 4:25 am

    Working in libraries over the past few years I have argued that the much maligned Fantasy and SF genres are more real than many other genre.
    I personally feel the lives of beings in Katherine’s Deverry or Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar to be more real, achievable & believable than the chance of a Fabio type millionaire finding me irresistable in the emergency room & whisking me off to live in absolute luxury for the rest of my days!
    Each to their own, but please don’t denegrate such a popular (&large) piece of the market. Our lecturer last semester was explicit in her explanations of fiction, literary fiction & creative non-fiction; all had elements of fantasy, in that “some names/situations/elements have been changed to protect the innocent”.
    So keep up the great work, whether you are writing for children or adults, fiction or non-fiction, because the only critics worth listening to are the ones who actively seek your books out in shops or libraries! (And even then you don’t need to heed them!)

  22. Patrick Smithon 30 Jul 2007 at 11:09 am

    I had to stop reading that review halfway through as I could feel myself growing more and more pretentious. And now I’m depressed because I have run out of Evian Spritzers – au frape.

    However, I will quote the following as I think it illustrates Katherine Kerr’s point very well: “Harry Potter, an orphan who learns on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard … must not simply avenge the dual murder but also save the entire world from the ultra-evil Lord Voldemort,” How exactly, I wonder, does this description ‘transcend genre?’

    In my opinion, the above description places the HP books squarely in the middle of the fantasy genre.

  23. Katharine Kerron 30 Jul 2007 at 3:33 pm

    http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25339-2647841,00.html is the URL of a very good review of the Potter book, just for compare and contrast, by Roz Kaveney.

  24. Laurieon 30 Jul 2007 at 11:33 pm

    Tami said,
    I personally feel the lives of beings in Katherine’s Deverry or Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar to be more real, achievable & believable than the chance of a Fabio type millionaire finding me irresistable in the emergency room & whisking me off to live in absolute luxury for the rest of my days!

    I totally agree! However, this takes me off on a random tangent…

    I’m playing a new MMORPG called Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, and they have eschewed the bloated, epic storyline in favor of a system of smaller, more real-world scenarios. Thestra, the continent I play on, reminds me a lot of Deverry. Villages, small towns, and farming communities have sprung up where the land is rich. The smaller communities have (at best) tenuous contact with their closest neighbors, and volunteer militia patrol as far as they dare. When I ride in to help the common folk (I’m a Paladin), I feel more like John Wayne riding to the rescue than just a player putting another notch on her quest book.

    After experiencing lots of games with rambling gods-and-dragons story lines, it’s very refreshing to see a more believable world design.

  25. Patrick Smithon 31 Jul 2007 at 4:18 am

    Katherine Kerr – Thank you for the link to Roz Kaveney’s review. I found it to be an excellent review.

    Tami – If I may join you on the random tangent, I spent two years with a drow-based MMORPG, called Menzoberranzan, as a DM, builder and general setting designer. The canon setting caused some to have rather immature expectations and many new players simply took it as a chance to revel in psychopathic behaviour. However, they didn’t stay long since the server wasn’t set up to cater to them. Similarly, the MMORPG wasn’t designed for ‘questers’ because that would mean building new areas and new NPC’s, and subsequently increasing the size of the overall module and putting a strain on the server.

    Therefore, as a designer I was limited to the city and quests/adventures that could be performed regularly but still seem fresh. The setting moved to being more concerned with trade, preventing disease and fire, maintaining order and playing politics. In the end, finding love, finding oneself and finding a place in society was more important to the players then saving the city from imminent destruction. (After all, there are only so many times that seemingly insurmountable odds can be overcome.) My favourite game was between myself, playing the wizardly mentor, and one player, playing the apprentice, and involved our two characters sitting in a study discussing time travel and whether it was practical. The game was enjoyable since both characters only used the knowledge they could obtain from the setting.

    Your MMORPG sounds fun.

  26. Patrick Smithon 31 Jul 2007 at 4:20 am

    Apologies, my second comment was meant to be addressed to Laurie.

  27. Maddyanneon 01 Aug 2007 at 2:00 pm

    Long time lurker. Rowling has said her favorite book as a child was Goudge’s The Little White Horse.

  28. c15f8aac0b74on 11 May 2008 at 10:37 pm



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