Am I Genre Enough?

July 23rd, 2008

By heavens, the entire blog-o-verse has been ON FIRE with discussion of my reading habits and I didn’t even realise until just now!

Well, perhaps I’m being a touch over-dramatic (what, me?) Not the entire blog-o-verse, just a couple of bits of it. And not really on fire, just smouldering very slightly. And not really MY reading habits, David Bilsborough’s.

But my name has been mentioned, and it’s been a while since I offended anyone with my ignorance on genre issues, so I thought I’d try and flog a few more copies of my books for kindling. There are a few discussions around relating to the question of – “should writers of fantasy also be readers of fantasy? Or perhaps even fans of fantasy?” The story so far…


You sure about all that?

Let’s all think carefully about this, shall we?

Here’s what we think.

And us.


I think we can agree that if David Bilsborough’s aim was to win friends in the internet fantasy community then his comments were misjudged. I have a feeling that might not have been his aim. I actually have a kind of wierd respect for his loopy honesty. A bit like the respect one might feel watching a man set his head on fire for a laugh. Anyway, for better or worse, I am one of these writers of fantasy who say they don’t really read much fantasy (these days, at least), and so can’t help feeling implicated in the debate. I thought I’d take a run at explaining what I’ve read, why I don’t read fantasy now, and why, furthermore, I don’t think it’s that important that I should. I’m not offended. I’m not on some kind of self-justifying rant. That’s just so not me. I’m just exploring the issues. Some background then…

Am I a fantasy fan? I guess it all depends on your definition. Certainly, as a kid I was hugely into Tolkien and read the Lord of the Rings every year. I loved Wizard of Earthsea too, some Lloyd Alexander, some Michael Moorcock. As well as a whole load of other fiction, poetry, and blah, blah, blah. I was massively into dice-based RPGs as a boy and a pasty youth with dodgy hair, read White Dwarf a lot, devoured vast quantities of supplements for such games, wrote a few adventures of my own – D&D;, MERP, and Warhammer mostly (still rate the Warhammer world and campaigns very highly). I read a lot of fantasy in the 80s as well, though now I realise it was mostly of a pretty commercial epic-fantasy-series type: Eddings, Dragonlance, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Summer Tree, Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World, and many more I’ve forgotten, I’m sure, as well as a fair bit of classic sci-fi from my Dad’s collection with the groovy 70s covers. But more literary stuff like Vance, Leiber, Gene Wolfe and so on I was totally unaware of the existence of, if I’m honest. I don’t feel I was part of fandom, as it were, no community, to speak of, to turn me on to things, apart from the five or six guys I played RPGs with, who were about as clueless of the broad field of fantasy as me, I guess.

Some time around 20 I pretty much stopped reading fantasy. Moved away from home and the old RPG group went their separate ways. No huge decision to cast it aside in disgust – in fact I never stopped turning over some of my own ideas for an epic fantasy that would eventually become the germs of The First Law – but I just got into other things. Street Fighter II, mainly. In the seven or eight years following, up to the point I started seriously trying to write my own stuff, the only fantasy I read was Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (the first three books, at that time), which had a pretty strong effect on me, as I’ve mentioned before. I got much more into reading non-fiction, history in particular, as well as still a whole range of general fiction from classics to contemporary stuff.

Now, once I was getting near finishing a first draft of my first book, it did occur to me that it might be a good idea to get a vague sense of the state of the market. So I asked, in one of those bookshops they used to have, about what was big in fantasy these days, and I got given: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (read the first three, nice enough, but my world was not rocked), R.A. Salvatore’s The Demon Awakens (didn’t work for me), and Steven Erikson’s Memories of Ice (realised it was half way through a series, resolved to get the first one, got totally sidetracked as always). I must confess that, when going through the process of gathering rejections, I did worry that my stuff might be a bit too dark, a bit too off-beat, a bit too violent and sweary for the market. Unbeknownst to me, since Martin the market had shifted to leave me firmly in the commercial middle ground. Since being published, I have of course taken some interest in what else is out there. I’ve read a few things my publisher have passed my way. I’ve peered into a fair few others to get a notion of the kind of styles some folks are writing in, but it’s a fact I can’t deny that I don’t read much fantasy these days. I’m not proud of it, that’s true, but I’m not ashamed either.

I guess the bottom line is that I’m relatively well-versed in fantasy of a certain rather limited type and a certain rather limited era, but I’m by no means steeped in the broad sweep of the genre. I’m sure some fantasy readers would look at the influences I’ve spoken of and say, “wow, that stuff’s all really old and, like, kinda … hokey.” To that I can only shrug my shoulders and say, “well, the proof’s in the pudding, and my pudding is FRAKKING ACE” [warning – depends on who you ask, actual pudding may differ from pudding advertised].

Or perhaps I would shrug my shoulders and say, “well, the genre may be packed with interesting, adult work of the last dozen years and, indeed, before. But one can’t pretend that it isn’t still bestrid by Tolkien in the popular consciousness, more than ever since the films. Plus everyone’s still well aware of all that old stuff even if they’re pretending no one does it any more, and on the borders of the genre and beyond, popular culture is still riddled with a slightly cheesy impression of fantasy involving elves, dwarves, magic swords, and etc. which is further reinforced by millions and millions and millions of people playing fantasy MMORPGs which (often) are based on a slightly cheesy impression of fantasy.”

Or I might shrug and say, “there’s still loads of folks for whom fantasy stopped in 1989 and just want David Eddings with much bitchier characters occasionally shitting themselves. I fill that hole.” So am I fan of fantasy? Certainly there’s a lot I love about the genre, and it all depends on your definition, but there seems to be a bit of an implication of unquestioning love about the word ‘fan’, of blindness to any shortcoming or chance of development, maybe? I recently read a bit of an interview with Jacqueline Carey that I could literally have written myself, if I was a better writer:

“For my part, I grew up reading fantasy and loving the sheer escapism and the sense of wonder it evoked; and yet, as I grew older, I found myself craving fantasy that was a little more grounded in plausible reality, a little m
ore visceral, possessed of a bit more intellectual substance and an adult emotional sensibility. I wanted work that made me think and feel in addition to entertaining me. I suspect that’s true of others, too. Like many writers, I write the books I want to read. Thankfully, it seems there’s a large audience that feels the same way that we do.”

It certainly do. Where was I? Ah, yes.

Part of the problem I have with the whole notion of being “a fan of the genre,” or having “contempt for the genre,” or “a rejection of the genre itself,” is that implicit in the phrases seems to be the idea that fantasy is a huge homogenous blob that you’re either for or against, and that there’s a sharp line between us, defending fortress fantasy to the death, and them, in the dangerous mainstream. “Do not cross the fence after dark, my boy, there be dragons. They hate us out there beyond the fence. Stay here in the village, and marry your sister. Stay here forever.” I’m grandstanding of course, but, you know, is this your first time here? I see that there’s sometimes a value in simplifying, saying a reader, or a writer, or a book is one thing or the other, but I’m just not sure the world is really like that. I would imagine that pretty much everyone who reads at all will have read some fantasy at some point – Tolkien or Lewis, Rowling or Pullman, if we can count those last two as fantasy since things are much hazier in YA land. Similarly there will be many readers who dip into the fantastic here or there, or did at one time but have got out of the habit, or never used to but do now. Not fans, per se, just, you know, readers. Furthermore, even those (I think relatively few) who would consider themselves die-hard fans and read little else will all have different tastes and profiles of reading. Some might dig new wierd. Some might hate it but love epic with a passion. Some might like the paranormal romance, with the crop tops and the back tattoos. Or ye olde schoole classicks of ye genre. Pass me another Dunsany, my boy, this one’s gone out. My point is, there’s no fixed profile for what qualifies you as in or out, as knowing enough or not. No one’s read everything. For my part as a writer, I’ll take every reader I can get without prejudice. Die hard epic fantasy fan? You’re in. Read Dragonlance once? You’re in too. I’m here by mistake, can’t read? Pull up a chair.

Where was I again? Ah yes.

So why don’t I read much fantasy now? Well, you may be horrified to learn that I don’t read that much at all these days, and what I do read is mostly non-fiction, because a lot of the time I used to spend reading – train journeys, morning commutes and so on – I now spend writing, or at least revising my own work. I find reading fiction can be a bit distracting from the writing, and that’s especially true of my own genre – other people’s work draws me in a certain direction, dilutes my own voice a bit, and since I’ve constantly got deadlines I don’t want to miss I lack downtime where I might catch up with this or that. Purely my personal experience. But mostly I don’t read fantasy just because, well, I kind of like what I’ve produced with the ingredients I’ve already got, and don’t particularly feel the need to change the formula. Maybe in time I will, but at the moment, for why? It’s also worth noting that there are all kinds of places you can find ideas outside of books. TV and film are full of great writing. Computer games less so, but plenty of ideas still. And then there’s, you know, life. Nothing wrong with adding a sprinkling of newer, edgier stuff from outside a genre or even a given medium to the tried and tested classics within it to produce the familiar with a twist. In fact I’d argue that approach can lead to some of the most impressive work. Not mine, of course. But Unforgiven, anyone? James Ellroy? Tarantino?

Ultimately, there are as many approaches to writing fantasy (or anything else) as there are authors. Everyone’s going to have their own balance of influences, books and otherwise, their own styles and voices, themes and concerns. Many writers of fantasy are most definitely big fans – GRRM and Scott Lynch spring to mind from my own experience – but still very clearly have their own approach. Others aren’t necessarily fans. My perception is that Richard Morgan, for example, has an approach to fantasy not dissimilar to mine – a range of fantasy influences from way back when accompanied by a whole battery of his own concerns and style refined in writing SF. It hasn’t stopped him writing what I think is a very original and interesting fantasy novel. I guess my point is you can be a fan and write derivative shit or brilliantly original magic with a unique voice. You can be more of an outsider and effortlessly fuse the familiar with ingenious outside influences, or, again, write derivative shit. To be fair, that’s what most people polled seem to say on this issue. The proof is all in the pudding. I guess my feeling would be similar to the one I have towards worldbuilding. My taste, as a writer, is toward a light hand on the world, but this being (supposedly) the genre of infinite ideas, there is ample room for other approaches, and god bless those who do the opposite well.

There does seem to be a frequently expressed opinion that you need to read a certain amount within the genre so you know the form, and avoid repeating the already overdone, and I can see where they’re coming from, but to me that seems to miss the fundamental point that the first feature of a good writer is that they should have some individuality of voice, style, approach that is unique to them, and that renders any character or situation, be they ne’er so hackneyed, new and interesting (at least for some readers, nothing works for everyone, you know). Others seem to feel a more personal sense of slight, that not reading their genre somehow constitutes an offence. Perhaps I’m straw-manning now, but as far as somehow having contempt for the genre goes, the implication that by not reading it religiously you’re somehow standing sneering to one side or whining at the letterbox of the mainstream to be let in, well, if I hated epic fantasies it would have been a pretty strange decision to spend three years of my life writing one with no guarantee I’d ever make a single penny out of it.

Take that, you straw bastard! Now who’s tough?

Posted in opinion by Joe Abercrombie on July 23rd, 2008. Tags: ,

24 comments so far

  • Gabe says:

    Ahhh, blessed sanity.

    Thanks for that, Joe. Great post.

  • Larry says:

    Based on our discussion over at Westeros, I don’t think it’d be any surprise that I agree with you here. Pigeonholes are rather cramped and well, smell of pigeons, one of the foulest fowls.

  • King Rat says:

    I don’t think someone needs to be a fanboy in a genre to write decent stuff.

    However, if folks haven’t read much in a genre, they shouldn’t make sweeping judgments (good or bad) about the genre. At least not without appearing stupid.

  • Jebus says:

    I pretty much agree with Joe and King Rat – King you’ve summed it up quite succinctly there.

    Write and read what you want. I’ll read whatever I want (and I think my tastes within the genre are pretty broad) and if you write something I like – yay! If you choose not to read within the genre you are writing, then that is fine too, just don’t call us all cockheads for liking some of that hack ‘n’ slash stuff, right?

  • Jared says:

    Really good post!

    There’s probably even a flip-side argument that the reason your fantasy is so good is because you’re coming to it from an outside prespective. Writing a book in a fantasy setting, instead of a fantasy book (if that makes any sense).

    Mind you, I’m not sure that argument is correct – but it is equally ‘valid’ as the point that someone would ‘NEED’ to read fantasy.

    There’s also a lot of real crap out there that’s written by dyed-in-the-wool fantasy cultists, frankly. I’m not talking about the sword and sorcery classics (pulp or modern), but a lot of genre best-sellers that completely mystify me.

    I think it connects to the world-building vs. character-building post that you wrote ages ago… (and should be required reading).

  • Gabe & Larry,
    Seems that most folks, and I'm sure JG from Spec. Horizons too, when you get down to it, probably agree with you two that there are plenty of ways to skin a cat, as long as the cat is well-skinned at the end of it.

    King Rat,
    Good to see you back round these parts. I guess sweeping judgements, especially unqualified ones, are never a great idea. Most would agree Bilsborough's guilty of that. Probably I've made a few myself in my time. But you can't be endlessly explaining where you're coming from and qualifying every statement with 'my opinion', 'my experience', 'my perception'. I'm sure when you review you don't qualify every point you make, or always begin by explaining your credentials in terms of your previous reading. You just say what you think, which is exactly as it should be. It's up to every individual reader of a commentary, review, or, indeed, a rant, to decide whether the writer's talking out of their ass or not. This being the internet, and comments being open, if someone disagrees and has compelling counter-examples they can always provide them, give the writer the chance to explain their position, and turn a rant into a debate. Got to be a good thing, no?

    Otherwise, when does one become qualified to talk about the genre? When you've read ten fantasy books? Read ten thousand? Written one? Sold a million? Or just when you think you've got something to say?

    Fortunately I get an alert whenever someone posts, so I was able to follow the link. I got to get me some of those covers.

    Wouldn't dream of calling you a cockhead.

    Well, thanks man. I guess my feeling would be that I'm neither outsider nor insider, but somewhere in between and, indeed, when it comes to fantasy most folks are.

  • tomlloyd says:

    Hi Joe,

    Good article. Just thought I’d make clear that my jibes last weekend on this subject were jokey in intention – I’ve only just seen the bulk of the posts on the subject and hadn’t realised the extent of the debate! man it’s amazing what people can do with their free time, I feel like I’m wasting it by drinking when I could be sparking arguments on forums…

  • Elena says:

    Glad you got that then. When I checked, it looked like it didn’t post the whole link, which was pretty necessary for the joke to makes sense, and dinner was ready so no time to correct it. Longmire’s homepage wouldn’t really have done it.

    And yes, those covers are awesome. They are a pretty much failsafe pick me up. Did you see the fantasy ones he did at the bottom?

    For the curious, the page in question is Longmire Does Romance Novels, just type that into Google and it will spring right up (pun DEFINITELY intended).x

  • RobB says:

    I’ll just echo other’s statements and say you’ve covered it pretty well, if not briefly.

    I’ve said before, I think alot of this started (at least this go round) becaus of Bilsborough’s flippant attitude and sense that he was throwing shit at the wall to see what would stick and stir up the pot.

  • Mark Newton says:

    I think you’re right on this, Joe.

    I’m reading from my agent’s book again, but even with my writer’s or editor’s perspective — I think it’s important for *new* writers to at least know where their book is going to sit on the shelves alongside the fiction of the last few years. If they still think Eddings is OMG awesome and what everyone still wants to read now, then they might be in for a disappointment.

    It’s an industry mantra on repeat: ‘How are we going to sell this book, who can we compare it to?’. Market awareness can help new scribes hugely.

    I mean, a bit stupid posting this on here – because most people who read your blog will have read your books, and therefore already do have that market awareness… But it seemed like I had ten minutes spare. 🙂

  • Tom,
    You jibed me at the weekend? Come on, man! You know I don’t actually attend to the words when you’re talking!

    You’re a fan of epic fantasy, and you’re complaining that my POSTS are too long?

    You’re totally right of course. You should be writing what you want to write rather than what you think you can sell, but when it comes time to sell it, it behooves the writer to put some thought into how to SELL IT. Certainly you want to present your work as something that has commercial potential, no matter how worthy it may be.

  • Swainson says:

    Hey Joe,

    Good article.

    I have a yearly discussion, at christmas of course, with my mum’s other half which goes something along the lines of;
    “Why do you read that sf/f rubbish?”
    “Because I like it and there are some interesting ideas out there”
    “But why sf/f?”
    “Because I like it.”

    You can see what fun we have with this one!!

    Let people read what they want to and leave it at that.

    I don’t ask people to read what I read, unless I think they’ll like it and I don’t expect people to moan at my reading habits.

  • harvb says:

    There’s a good reason some SF/F writers don’t read other authors; they’re too busy reading history or contemporary fiction or biographies or atlases and coming up with ideas of their own. Just because you’re in that industry doesn’t mean you need to know it inside out. Some authors, Joe and Jacqueline Carey included I’m sure, write the SF/F they want to read; just because they haven’t read any in a while doesn’t preclude writing hit books, does it?

  • Myshkin says:

    I’m too lazy to try to find a new way to articulate my thoughts, so I’ll just re-post what I posted on westeros:

    Much of what we consider cliché in the fantasy genre stems from the collective unconscious. By collective unconscious I mean the basic human yearnings responsible for the same stories being told by societies separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles. The mortal man born of the gods, the good man triumphing over the evils of his father, the common man rising up to make an impact on the greater world; these are all stories anchored deeply in the collective unconscious, and these are all stories which dominate the fantasy genre. My point is that it is my opinion that unless you are at least somewhat versed in the clichés of the genre it will be very difficult to avoid them, because said clichés are rooted deeply within us, and speak to our most basic fears and needs as humans. In other words, we need a conscious knowledge of the clichés in order to override our unconscious desire to write them.

    Now I’m in no way saying that you need to be a fan of the genre in order to write in the genre. Nor am I saying that you absolutely must have read some genre fiction to write in the genre. I’m just saying that having a passing acquaintance with the genre you intend to write in is probably going to be of help in recognizing and avoiding the pitfalls you may naturally encounter.

    Sorry that this was so long.

  • disrepdog says:

    Sheesh, don’t some people have heaps of time on their hands or what???

    I barely have time to read what I want let alone argue about what my fav authors should or shouldn’t be reading!

    Writing fantasy is your job (possibly your raison d’etre) but all work and no play makes Joe a dull boy methinks. I presume you read for interest, research and relaxation and I should imagine that if you read fantasy you’re probably dissecting the book thinking ‘no I wouldn’t have done that there etc, or possibly getting wound up with ‘D’oh why didn’t I think of that’

    I heartily agree with the comment earlier that your books are probably fresher because you come at it from a non-jaded perspective.

    Anyone for a pint?

  • Swainson, Harv, Disrepdog
    Well indeed, and the proof ultimately is in the pudding, as we’ve said. I think it’s quite a bit more interesting what an author writes, than what they read.

    As I was saying above, I think it’s pretty unlikely that anyone who’s relatively literate won’t have some familiarity with fantasy. I think it’s very unlikely that anyone who chooses to write epic fantasy won’t have quite a lot of familiarity with epic fantasy. I also believe you’re at much greater risk of writing repetitive drivel if you read nothing OUTSIDE the genre than if you read nothing INSIDE. Still the point is kind of moot since in reality everyone has a vast range of influences, from inside, outside, and in the huge expanse of fuzzy ground between.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hello Joe,

    I’d like to care about characters but today the writers can’t write books which are filled with loveable characters.

    Second, when I’m entering a new world, I’d like to get more and more details about the world but the way of genre towards a single book or max. a trilogy. And this is big problem, because when you’re reading Hemingway you know the world (our world) and you have the hold-on. Opposite this a new world in 600 pages doesn’t offer you these hold-ons.

    So I stay with Jordan, Martin and Tolkien.

    (Sorry for my English.)

  • RobB says:


    Not a complaint, just a subtle jab. 😉 It’s ok because I posted a smiley, right?

  • Anon,
    I’d have thought writers were as capable of writing good characters now as they ever have been, no?

    Not sure I totally understand your second point, but I think a good writer can still easily create a vivid setting in a single 600 page book, even a very alien setting. Creating the mood and feel of a fantasy world shouldn’t be THAT much more effort than creating the mood of a real world historical setting, to my mind. James Ellroy can vividly create 50s LA, or Charles Dickens Victorian London, in a lot less pages than 600 and tell a story at the same time, and they’re hardly settings I’m that familiar with. An author might not be able to exhaustively catalogue a truly alien world in 600 pages, but should that be the purpose of a novel?

    I took it as a subtle jab. Don’t worry, you’ve got to go heavier than ‘not brief’ to upset me. It’s ok because I used CAPITALS, though, right?

  • Anonymous says:

    “An author might not be able to exhaustively catalogue a truly alien world in 600 pages, but should that be the purpose of a novel?”

    (First, thanks for your letter.)

    We have learned history, we have read similar settings in novels, so we can place Dickens’s world in our mind, we can compare the things in his novel to what we learned.
    And when I’m as reader get into a whole new world I must find basis. (Details, details, details.)

    I hope this sounds a bit clearer. Sorry, it seems to me that I cannot explain this in my native language Hungarian) especially in English. 🙂


  • Cseresz,
    I hear what you’re saying, and the whole area of world building, creating the setting, communicating it to the reader is a fascinating one worthy of a lot more discussion.

    I’d argue that most fantasy worlds are extremely similar to ours. They nearly always have gravity, air, bipedal life-forms with two genders. With epic fantasy they’re usually EXTREMELY like ours at a certain period (often medieval, castles, swords, aristocracies, tunics) and usually employ some cultural characteristics common to our world. That is to say they use a kind of cultural shorthand that brings up all kinds of real-world associations, not to mention all kinds of other epic fantasies we’ve read. So we’re never really starting from scratch.

    That said, if you’re a reader that really likes to get into the nitty-gritty of invented history and geography (an impulse I totally understand), I can see why you might like those bigger, more detailed series. Nothing wrong with that. Not so much my taste as a writer, though.

  • Anonymous says:

    Interesting discussion of the controversy , thanks Joe.

    I read the first of your books three weeks ago, was very impressed and have since read the rest of your trilogy. I have been promoting your books to my mates as ‘like David Gemmell, only darker and more character driven’. Its interesting to find he is clearly an author that hasn’t impinged on you at all…

    Very much looking forward to your next works.


    PS I agree James Ellroy is ace.

  • Den says:

    Bugger the reading, do you wanna come to my place and play Warhammer RPG?

    Bring fizzy pop and pringles! I’ve got all the dice.


  • Brian Turner says:

    And whatever happened to David Bilsborough?

    I looked him up on amazon and only found two books, the first of which only has a couple of reviews – which slate him for writing the sort of thing he presumably criticised other fantasy writers of producing:

    The second book isn’t even available except as an ebook. I guess he narked off more than just readers of fantasy!

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