Guest Post: Part 2: A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen

For the Love of Pete, Don’t Mix Your Genres;
Or… The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, but I Don’t;
Or… Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society


- Read Part 1 at SFSignal -

Part 2: The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, But I Don’t.

We have just seen how we, the prejudiced book-buyers, are at least partially to blame for the state of the publishing industry. But why are we so prejudiced in the first place? Simple, we have been taught to be prejudiced! By whom, you may ask? Well, by everyone, of course. As readers we tell each other that the greatest strength of all, the most important thing to be, is critical – and by this we almost always mean deeply, embarrassingly prejudiced. I don’t know that we mean to do it. But we do. We take sides. EVERYONE takes sides – including both publishers and reviewers. I’m not sure why publishers do it. I have some theories, but nothing that makes sense from a business perspective. As for reviewers, they do it because they are human beings, and so labor under a host of imperatives and misconceptions that arise both as a result of the needs of their peculiar business and their prejudicial upbringing as readers.

Let’s start (and more or less end) with the BIG reviewers, publications like The New York Times Book Review (I choose that rag because it’s my hometown nest of vipers, and because it’s a good representative, not because they are the only such publication), henceforth to be called the NYTBR for laziness reasons. What a great many of us (maybe all of us) know is that the NYTBR is deeply conservative in their absolute fealty to that aforementioned monolith, ‘literary’ fiction. They throw a bone to the imaginative types every once in a while – likely to keep us from kicking their doors down – but at heart they are deeply prejudiced against fantasy, sci-fi, horror, YA, romance and all the rest of the so-called ‘genres.’

Don’t believe me? Just for fun, let’s see what the NYTBR thought of The Name of the Wind, a book that was all the buzz of the fantasy world just a couple years ago. It won awards, was almost universally praised by readers and online reviewers, and given all sorts of stars by pre-publication reviews like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. So what did the NYTBR think? Hmmm… You know, they don’t seem to have reviewed that book. It was on their best-seller list… but no review. Still, they can’t review EVERY book. Even good ones have to get left off once in a while. So let’s make it easier on the poor NYTBR. I know; I’ll link to their very best review for any book by Janny Wurts. She’s got so many books. Surely they’ve reviewed at least… What’s that? Not even one review? But she’s an almost universally admired fantasist! Obviously I’m being too tricky. Let’s try a really easy one. Let’s look for the NYTBR of the first Harry Potter novel. Hooray! We found a genre novel that the NYTBR seems to have found worthy of reviewing! http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/14/books/children-s-books-199338.html I feel good about this. I really do. Maybe the NYTBR isn’t quite as prejudiced as I thought.

But wait, Harry Potter debuted in this country in October of 1998, and they didn’t review it until February of 1999, after it was already a huge success overseas, winning awards by the bushel, and vacuuming up piles of cash. You don’t think the old gray girl printed a review so that she wouldn’t seem totally out of touch? I mean really, how rare is it to have a book four months old getting reviewed by the NYTBR? It must happen all the time, right? No? But not never, surely. Only for books they somehow missed the first time around? But how in the name of Thor did they miss Harry? He was GREAT! Everyone knows that now. Even they know it NOW, it seems. So how did they miss it back in October of 1998?

The answer, of course, is that Harry Potter is a part of two genres that the NYTBR is prejudiced against, namely fantasy and YA. And the NYTBR is not alone. The simple fact is that ‘genre’ work is ghettoized by big print media. It’s not that there’s a lack of excellent science fiction, YA, romance, fantasy or horror being published – I think even the editors of the NYTBR would agree that there most assuredly is – its just that those types of works are not really eligible for those types of big national reviews. The exception, of course, being ‘genre’ works by established ‘literary’ stars like Cormac McCarthy. The NYTBR loved The Road, and well they should. I loved it myself. It was probably no worse than the fourth or fifth best post-apocalyptic novel I have read (none of the others won Pulitzers, however). But let’s face facts, it is a sci-fi novel as sure as anything.

So what’s wrong with big print media focusing on ‘literary’ fiction? Remember the accusations our friend Sonya Chung made? It’s so much easier to be a writer of ‘imaginative’ fiction, right? The ‘literary’ types need their big print reviews or else they’d dry up and blow away. Is this correct?

Let’s be honest, fantasy readers are not one whit more likely to pick up a fantasy novel by a writer they have never heard of than your ‘literary’ type is to pick up a novel by a writer she has never heard of, regardless of the quality of the book. But without a big voice backing them, the kind only big print media has, how exactly is the average reader supposed to hear about new books and new writers in the realm of imaginative fiction? The internet does huge service in that regard (thank god), but it’s a crapshoot at best. Even the most visited sites have only a fraction of the readership of the NYTBR, and are more often than not staffed by a tiny group of dedicated reviewers, nowhere near the numbers necessary to give each and every book a shot. The one way in which internet reviewers truly have it over big print media is that they for the most part do what they do for love, and so are not as irreparably bound in by prejudice as the NYTBR and its ilk. Sure they have specialties, but as they are more like Mom and Pop enterprises there are no corporate sponsors who will cry if they decide to go outside their normal milieu.

Well, now THAT is a horrendous accusation! Am I suggesting that big print media is somehow bought? That they are beholden to some faceless corporate sponsor? I am not. The corporate sponsors are anything but faceless. You need only get a copy of any of those big reviews and glance at the advertisers to get a taste for who really owns those publications. So who are these advertisers? I bet you already guessed it! The publishers themselves.

If you’re like me, the whole sickening nature of these big print reviews is starting to come into focus. But there is one more major player – as usual, the most major player – the identification of which will go that much farther toward explaining why the NYTBR hates You. And that is $$$$$$.

I am going to admit something which may surprise some of you. I used to work in publishing. I worked for an agent. It was a good job, with lots of free books, an inside view of the industry, and the opportunity to converse with loads of talented, dedicated people who all cared about the same sorts of things I cared about (and still do). But one of the things I learned while working at the agency is that book advances are not equal, and really confusing. And this is where the whole pot begins to bubble over.

You see, the bigger publishing houses pay huge advances to the ‘literary’ types. I can remember, all too often, high six-figure advances for first novels. FIRST NOVELS! Unless you’re hugely famous and a proven money-maker, you are not going to get that type of advance for any sort of ‘genre’ novel. But we don’t even need to use those huge six figure advances to see where the problem lies. Let’s imagine that our friend Sonya Chung (the ‘literary’ apologist we so enjoyed eviscerating above), got an advance of $20K for her forthcoming first novel (A lot of my genre friends are salivating, I know – and believe me, in the world of ‘literary’ fiction 20K is NOTHING). If she gets 10% (the standard royalty rate) of the sale price of every book sold at a cover price of $25, she would have to sell eight-thousand copies just to earn her advance (royalty rates do escalate as you sell more copies, but this is a good place to start). If we believe her rhetoric, that ‘literary’ books are so underappreciated and undersold, how in the name of heaven is she going to sell 8000 copies? And what if she has to sell enough to earn back $60K? Or more? How many books do those six figure advances have to sell? The mind boggles, and I think we can all agree that her publisher had better get busy making sure that we all hear about her book pronto!

Of course, that’s where the NYTBR comes in. They may not be willing to review books by relatively unknown fantasy writers like Patrick Rothfuss or Janny Wurts, but they review first novels by ‘literary’ types all the time! (A recent example: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/books/review/Thomas-t.html?ref=books) They have to! If they don’t constantly turn out a stream of information about the ‘literary’ newcomers, the publishers are going to go broke! And then who will buy ads in their publication?

The worst part about this is that, during the six years I spent working at the agency, there were only a handful of times when these ‘literary’ works actually managed to earn their advances. I won’t name names, but suffice to say that there are biggies in the field of ‘literary’ fiction who have likely never received a royalty check, and never expect to. Which means, undoubtedly, that the big ‘genre’ writers – folks like Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts and Dan Brown (the very writers Sonya Chung so damns) – as well as a whole army of struggling lesser-known imaginative writers, are in essence subsidizing the losses incurred by all those poor ‘literary’ types like Sonya Chung! And she has the gall to hate us?

You may ask yourself, why don’t the publishers simply stop giving out those huge advances to unknown, underperforming and underwhelming ‘literary’ writers? Then ‘literary’ fiction could take its rightful place as one genre among many; the NYTBR and its brethren could begin to review based on quality rather than prejudice; and as readers we could all hope that the cream of real literature might rise to the top, regardless of what color cow the milk came from. You know the strangest part? Holding back the huge advances would, in the long run, help the vast majority of the ‘literary’ writers as well, most of whom find themselves laboring under ever-growing records of low sales and losses, which even the publishers begin to see as odious (making future books that much more difficult to get published at all, regardless of quality. Remember this, oh hopeful writers, ALL failures are ultimately laid upon the head of the author!). It sounds so easy! So why don’t they just stop giving all those debilitating advances? Now that is a question I can not answer. In fact, no one can. No one knows the answer to that question. At any rate, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Nor should you expect the NYTBR to begin to see the light of openness, impartiality or artistic achievement in the ‘genres.’

So let’s all give a big hand to our master-mixologists, John DeNardo, Tia Nevitt and John Ottinger, as well as to all of their fellow philosophers of the fantastic, fun and imaginative, for keeping some tiny spark of hope alive for the new ‘genre’ writer. Without them, frankly, our side would be sunk.

And just to finish this topic off completely, keep in mind that there are ‘genres’ where the problems of prejudice and publicity are even more acute. Fantasy does pretty well for itself, all things considered. Think what would have happened in the present climate to some of our classics? JD Salinger died the other day. What do you think would have happened to his classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, if it came out tomorrow, labeled and shelved as YA? What would have become of our poor friend Huck Finn, if he’d been published last year? Would the NYTBR give either Holden or Huck the time of day? You can bet your life that it would NOT.

This brings me at long last to that bit of advice I promised for all the up and coming writers hoping to make a first sale. I offer no writing tricks, only a word of warning about what to write if you hope to get published and sell a big pile of books . . .

- Read Part 3 and Official Comment Thread at Grasping for the Wind -

Links to Buy page at IndieBound

Justin was born in Boise, Idaho in 1974. He graduated from Boise State University with a degree in philosophy, and from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. He is the author, most recently, of Year of the Horse, an all-ages fantasy-western that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Yen Tzu-lu, the child of Chinese immigrants and one of a band of treasure hunters brought together from every corner of the continent to recapture a stolen gold mine. Leading Tzu-Lu and his gang is the gunslinger Jack Straw, a figure who is as much legend as reality, as much magic as lead. Ultimately, this band of outsiders finds it must learn to live together, trust and care for one another. If they make it across a wild continent, they’ll be rich; if they don’t, they’ll surely be dead. Get your copy at Indiebound (why not support your local store?), BN.com, or Amazon.

Justin is roughly six feet tall, weighs somewhere around 185 pounds (often more, to his chagrin), has dark-brown hair and eyes, and suffers from near-sightedness, motion-sickness, and a tendency to get angry at airport personnel. His wife, Day Mitchell, a licensed master social worker, is trying to help him overcome this last item, but finds the going hard.

He can be contacted via justin-allen.com.

~*~

If you have comments or flames for Justin, he will be hanging out at Grasping for the Wind. Don’t leave them here unless you just want to talk to me.

35 thoughts on “Guest Post: Part 2: A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen

  1. Pingback: Part 3: A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen – Grasping for the Wind

  2. Hey All,

    I hope you have a good time with this. That’s ultimately what it’s about.

    But if you have any comments, questions or concerns, you can voice those here. Maybe you have a book that has been mostly overlooked, and you can’t believe it? Or maybe you are worried about what publicity and marketing will be like when you publish…? Anything you want to discuss, we can. You can even make a negative comment, of course, though I may not respond to it. This is meant to be a celebration of the artistic in Imaginative Literature, not a bitch session (no matter how I may come off for the purposes of the essay).

    Justin

    Like

    • I think Elom by William Drinkard was overlooked, even though I know the publisher supported it. It was a fantastic novel that started out a fantasy, and ended up pure science fiction. I loved it.

      Like

  3. I know I really appreciate Tia’s reviews. Before I had them and the reviews in Realms of Fantasy, a magazine I subscribe to, I had to go strictly by browsing whichever books caught my eye to find new authors. Reviews are definitely better. {SMILE}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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  4. Yes indeedy Anne, you are quite right, the on-line reviewers are a godsend, both to writers and reviewers. You make an excellent case for what I was really trying to talk about all the while. How do we find the books we read?

    Can I ask, what covers caught your eye? Did they have a look? Are their books you read now that you otherwise wouldn’t have? And most importantly, are their books that you have ‘discovered’ that you wish could have been found by the reading public more generally, rather than the readers of one ‘genre’ specifically?

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    • I haven’t really thought about what attracts me to a cover. {Smile}

      Genre is huge for me. I mostly read fantasy and science fiction, with occasional historical novels to spice things up. If I could go to the action-adventure section, I’d check those out, too, but the bookstores around here don’t tend to separate books out that way. {smile} I check out adult, young adult and juvenile, regularly, so age isn’t much of a question. {Smile}

      What catches my eye? Bright colors, for one thing. Pastels are good, too, but not dark colors, except for the blackness of space. I’ve noticed that dark colors tend to be found on mysteries, horror, and dystopias, all of which concentrate on not-so-nice characters who make me feel bad about myself when I empathize too closely with them. {resigned smile}

      Also, I like a character-oriented cover where the characters look like basically nice people. It also helps if it shows some action. Battles are okay, as long as the good guys look like nice folks. Again, this comes back to wanting to read about people who I can identify with without hating myself. The interest in action is because I find that basically nice characters who are busy doing things don’t have as much time to get in touch with their “darker half.” {Smile}

      Also it really helps if the setting of the cover lacks trash. I guess I associate trash with dystopias where everyone has ulterior motives I’d rather not think about. {Smile}

      Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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      • Wow,Anne. You’ve given us a lot to think about. You are right about all of that. Trash on the covers, scowls on the characters and dark colors all indicate dystopias or dark characters. It makes me want to assemble a post on cover analysis.

        Now video stores separate out action-adventure. I bet you find that cool.

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        • I’d be interested in a post on cover analysis. That sounds very interesting. {SMILE}

          The action-adventure shelves in video stores gave me the idea. It almost makes me want to watch more movies just to get more stories like that. {Amused Smile} However, both I and my migraine prefer books-on-paper. {Smile}

          Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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      • Hey Anne,

        I like your comments very much, and wanted to ask some follow-up questions. Do you ever read a book with a cover that you ARE attracted to, only to find that it was something different… AND of course, do you ever read a book with a cover you are NOT attracted to and find it was better than you could have hoped? Seems like this happens to me all the time. By the way, in case you all were wondering, I don’t REALLY buy books because they have girls in metal bikinis on them. That was just a joke.

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        • Oh yes. I’ve encountered both nice-looking books I couldn’t get thru (and forget too promptly to name) and terrible-looking books I love (Heart of Gold by Sharon Shinn is the most recent of these). I doscover mis-matches almost often enough to ignore covers entirely. Almost, but not quite. I tend to discover the less-apealing but very nice books thru finding the author thru a nicer looking book first. Otherwise, it has to wait until I’m waiting in the store long enough to get bored… well, as bored as I can get when surrounded by books. At that point, I’ll start picking out the “bad” covers because I know I haven’t read teh blurb before. {SMILE}

          I don’t exactly buy books because of chainmail bikinis, but I’ve picked up a few to read the blurbs. Oddly enough, the women often turn out to be more warmly dressed inside the book. I might have bought some of those mis-matches; I’m really not sure. {SMILE}

          Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

          Like

      • Interesting discussion of covers. I’m pretty much the opposite: if it looks too happy, I’m less interested. However, if the title caught my attention I’ll still read the blurb even if the cover doesn’t appeal to me.

        All this stuff we judge books on before we even get to the writing. :(

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        • Covers are a code, and they count on our associating certain things with them. Edgy looking covers with a knife-wielding woman will generally be an urban fantasy. Pictures of topless men with predominant abs means that there will be sex scenes. Starfields mean space operas. A book with a well-designed cover will give us a hint as to what is inside. When the expression, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” was coined, it was probably true. But now, not so much.

          Whenever that was, it was probably before The Great Gatsby came out. The original cover art is still widely used, and it is on the cover of my copy, exactly like it looked when it first came out. Check it out on Wikipedia.

          I’m so going to do a post on this.

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          • I don’t think the cover code was as refined in 1923 as it is now. I studied the history of books and libraries in graduate school. I think I remember that publishers only began selling pre-covered new books in the 19th century. Before then, you bought the text block, and took the pages to a book binder if you wanted it covered. When already covered books were introduced, it took a while for them to become standard. I’m sure the whole question of what to put on the cover is even more recent. {Smile}

            Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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              • I think the problem was that it took them that long to figure out how to mechanize the binding process. When all binding had to be done by hand, the binders would bind the books to the specifications of the owners of the books. Many had matched libraries, where the color and decorations on different books matched each other as well as different dye lots allowed. {Smile}

                Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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              • Fascinating, AEB. So much stuff I didn’t know. I do remember my dad knew how to bind books, though, and showed me. That was interesting.

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            • Wow Anne, thanks for all that. I knew about the covers coming much later. That’s the reason why libraries in big old mansions are so delicious. the leather covers were all chosen to go with the decor! Oh to have a house you wish you could play Clue in! I call my own office area either the Study or the Library, for just that reason.

              It’s funny about those covers with the chainmail bikinis. The point I was really trying to make in the essay was that, often as not such a thing is nowhere to be found in the book. Tia is right, the covers are coded. Those chainmail bikinis are to let us know, I think, that there will be swords and sorcery inside – reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian… I soooooo wanted a chainmail bikini on the cover of my first book, but alas… The problem with the codes, I was trying to suggest, is when a book needs multiple codes, you know? Covers can’t be collages, I don’t think (actually they often are, but still within code).

              Like

              • You’re most welcome, Justin. {SMILE}

                I’ve heard of such old libraries, where the books match each other, and add to the decor. I’ve never seen one, tho. I guess Hawai’i was settled too late to have many, and I haven’t happened to run into any on my trips out-of-state. {Smile}

                I think you’re right about the chainmail bikinis being for sword and sorcery. {Smile}

                Another blog I frequent has been spoeculating a lot about how publishers could handle hybrid genres. The blog is dedicated to science fiction romance, so they have that problem. Most suggestions seem to involve different ways to have characters int he foreground reflect the romance, while the background or setting reflects the science fiction. That works as long as you’re only combining two genres, but I’m not sure if you could combine three or more genres in one picture. I believe Tia said your Year of the Horse combines four. I could see having multi-racial characters in a western setting, but I’m not sure how to add in YA and fantasy. {smile} A collage might have to be the way to go when you have three or more genres. {lop-sided smile}

                Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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              • You are in Hawaii Anne? Must be marvelous. I am freezing to DEATH!

                A company i work for has a party every year at one of the old vanderbilt mansions in New York City, in the library. It has aone wall of matching books, and bunches of other walls with bookslike we see them now.

                I have also been to FDR’s house upstate, and another vanderbilt mansion, and they both had matching books in their libraries. Now that I think about it, I have been to Theodore Roosevelt’s house as well, but I don’t recall that.

                One way to get the same effect is to buy sets of books today. My mother in law does that.

                As to the collaging of covers. Really, at some point all of this becomes just so much garbage, don’t you think? The constant attempt to create codes in covers may nto be as good as finding a completely new way of getting the interior of books known…

                Like

              • Yes, I live in Hawai’i. I do like the mild weather of the tropical, maritime climates. {Smile}

                The libraries in those mansions sound great. They’d be worth searching out on a trip sometime. {SMILE}

                Yes, sets of books have some of the same effect. However, the sets i’ve seen are enough smaller, the effect is distinctly more limited than what you’ve described. {Smile}

                I think I was trying to say that. I agree that combining elements in covers can only go so far before the system falls apart. {resinged smile} I would like to see a better way to catch the eye while conveying what the book is about. {Smile}

                Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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          • Also Tia, that idea about judging a book by its cover – is of course a metaphor. As such, its not really about books. You know that obviously. But I think it sort of can’t be about books. If you haven’t read it, what ELSE are you supposed to judge on?

            For that purpose I have decided that my next book, no matter the content, will be titled – “Oprah says that eating whatever you want and having multiple orgasms will make you thin and financially secure”

            Think that will sell copies?

            Like

  5. So I would feel kind of narcissistic for posting this link on the official comment thread, but you guys know me here! Anyway, I have a longish response to Justin’s essay on my own blog–much too long to leave here as a comment. Here it is if anyone’s interested.

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  6. Hey superwench,

    Thanks for following up on this. You capture my thoughts perfectly, and in only a fraction of the space I used. Quite good. Also, I left a thanks for you at sfsignal. And I was serious when I said not to defend me there. I don’t want you getting hit by any of the whips meant for me.

    Love ya all,

    J

    Like

  7. Pingback: Links of Interest « Writing Made Visible

  8. No, Katie, it isn’t too bad. I have just been apologizing for the part I played in elevating the tone over there. I read one post in a mistaken tone and contributed to it all I’m afraid. Many such boards operate like dog fights, and I mistakenly came in with my hair on fire and covered in gore, ready to do battle. It was a mistake on my part, and one I am now paying for. The bizarre thing is that even where we agree we tend to fight. Or seem to fight.
    Anyhow, let me just say again how much I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of what I was really trying to get at. You’re a peach!

    Like

  9. Pingback: World Wide Wednesday: Black Prisms & White Cats | Fantasy Literature's Fantasy Book Reviews

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