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Only By Report

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Okay, what I’m asking about here is something I do not know first hand.  I’ve never read any of these books.  I have no idea how good they are in any technical sense.  I just don’t know what to think of them.

My son came home from college with a collection of paperbacks from two different series that place fantasy stories–witches, elves, dragons–in real historical periods.  The dragons were being used by the French and  English during the Napoleonic Wars, the witches were wandering around during the American Revolution.

These are not, from what I can understand from the things my son says to me, simply matters of throwing around a bit of fancy dress, like some of the vampire novels would be set in anteBellum New Orleans.  Instead, the novels comprise actual historical events (Concord and Lexington, Waterloo, the Continental Congress) and make their fantasy characters an integral part of those events.   Entire battles hinge on how well, or how badly, one side or the other is handling its dragons, andthe dragons can talk, too, which means they can interpose their own opinions on how things should go.

Okay, these are mind candy, and there’s nothing wrong with mind candy.  Matt gets an enormous kick out of them, and my best guess is that the American revolution ones, at least, are not too historically inaccurate.  Matt’s got more tolerance of that kind of thing than I do, but he does comment on it when h e comes across it, and he’s  not been commenting.

But this appears to be an actual fad, or trend or something–the latest big deal in fantasy series.  

And yes, I find it astonishing that anybody would want to read something like th is.  Dragons and witches have exactly the same effect on my as space aliens and alternative universes.  I really do like to stay in the real world.

But what really struck me about these–and I’m sorry I can’t remember the names of the writers or the series; I went looking for copies but I  don’t know what Matt has done to them–was that, when I was growing up, you couldn’t have gotten these books published at all except, possibly, as children’s books, and then they would have had to be considerably dumbed down in vocabulary and nuance than these are.

What happened in the last thirty or so years to change the tastes of the general public so much?

It won’t do to say that the literary writers started boring everybody, because there used to be other kinds of popular fiction:  Leon Uris, Irving Wallace, even Jacqueline Susann.  

Somewhere in the course of my life, an entire category of fiction has completely disappeared:  the popular mainstream novel. 

People here say “mainstream” when what they really mean is “literary,” as if the literary novel was ever “mainstream” at all.   But although some literary novelists had popular success–Hemingway and Fitzgerald especially–the books that actually sold were things like Gone With The Wing, Peyton Place, The Man, The Chapman Report, and even Airport.

They weren’t thrillers, or murder mysteries, or romances, or science fiction.   They were just novels, about people.  A lot of the people who wrote them have been forgotten, and if the test of whether or not something should belong in the canon starts with asking if it’s been in print for fifty years, a lot of the books have died.

But what I don’t understand is why there seems to be no market for that kind of thing any more:  big sprawling, sensationalistic complicated stories about people.  When did “entertainment” come to mean “has to have some element of the impossible in it?”

And it’s not just books.   Movies seem to have been going in the same direction, although not quite so absolutely.  You do still get movies about people that are meant to be entertainment and not art–romantic comedies, road trip movies, the “heartwarming” stuff like My Bi Fat Greek Wedding.

Still, the majority of blockbusters these days are science fiction or fantasies, two categories no A-list studio would have bothered with before World War  II.

Nor is it a matter of publishers once having refused to publish what everybody wanted to read.  Science Fiction didn’t sell very well in the Fifties, and Horror virtually didn’t sell at all.  They were out of the mainstream not only because they had elements of unreality to them, but because the mainstream wouldn’t buy them.

What happened to the big entertainment novel?  What happened to the taste of the public that turned it to a craving for the non-rational, the not-real, the imaginary in the absolute sense?

I liked those big entertainment novels.  I knew Arthur Hailey was a terrible writer, but h is people were interesting, and all the research he put in to figuring out how airports and other places worked made that part interesting as well. 

When did we get to the point where we seemed to decide that writing about people and live as lived on earth was the province of “literary” writers only, and therefore of no interest to the vast majority of the readers?  Leon Uris’s characters did not have angst.  They had Crises, often having to do with things like wars, natural disasters, and worldwide economic collapse.  The people in Peyton Place had smaller problems, but they were hardly angst, either, unless you call the case of a woman who breast feeds her son until he’s well past kindergarten just a matter of angst.

And then there was James Michener.   I really miss James Michener.

I can’t see, either, that people are getting this kind of thing from television, or the Internet.  It’s not that it’s been displaced, but that it seems to have disappeared.  And I  have no idea why.

Written by janeh

June 6th, 2009 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Only By Report'

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  1. People like some of the ones I mentioned the other day: Robert Ruark, John O’Hara, Frances Parkinson Keyes. Books like “The Tontine”.

    I miss them too.


    6 Jun 09 at 11:20 am

  2. I read the mainstream novels you’re talking about in high school in the 1970s, when they were pretty much all that was available. I remember mentally summing them up as “grownups behaving badly,” from which you can probably tell I didn’t care for them all that much. The big, sprawling ones never allowed me to get close enough to any one character to care what happened to him, and no character that I can remember had much interest in thinking about anything but themselves & what they wanted. Which gets really tiresome.

    Fantasy and science fiction, on the other hand, usually allow you closer to the characters (there are exceptions; Asimov springs to mind). And the good ones use the fantastic setting to give you enough distance from ethical & moral questions to let you look at them more dispassionately than you might if you had a horse in the race. I know you read Terry Pratchett; he is far from the only writer who uses fantasy to examine the real world, he’s just one of the best. And he comes from a long line of writers who’ve done the same thing. This is where practical philosophers go when they don’t want to live in academia.

    The Napoleonic series Matt is reading is the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. The basic series theme is an examination of slavery; in each book, the protagonist has to make serious moral choices which impact his life severely. This is accompanied by a great story & great characters; I’m not surprised Matt likes it. I don’t recognize the other series; if you find out, please let me know.

    Fantasy & science fiction are still not big sellers overall. The last report I saw, probably in Publisher’s Weekly, as far as I can remember had them at around 10% of the total US adult (J K Rowling not included) fiction market, with romance at around 50%, and mystery at maybe 30%.

    As to what happened to the movies, I have two words: Star Wars.

    Lee B

    6 Jun 09 at 2:08 pm

  3. You’ve got two questions: why is fantasy and SF more popular than it once was, and why is THAT SORT of fantasy-historical popular?
    The second question puzzles me a bit. I’ve run into both both the series and the one-off you describe, and haven’t read them, though I go through a fair bit of both SF and fantasy. My problem is that I expect an alternate worlds story to have–maybe only implicitly–a change date: history runs with ours until something changes–the assassination attempt on FDR is successful (MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) the Confederates take Cemetery Hill at the end of First Day Gettysburg (BRING THE JUBILEE) or a comet strikes the Earth in Victoria’s day (THE PESHAWAR LANCERS.) Everything else follows logically from that change. The Temeraire sort of fantasy assumes you can make major changes in who lives on the planet and the laws governing reality and still wind up after thousands of years, pretty much at the same place in 1795. I have troubles with that, and I suspect much of the readership doesn’t have enough history to realize how different their worlds actually would be–or is better able to put that aside for 300 pages.

    Naturally, this isn’t a problem if the fantasy world is created from scratch with only the most nominal connection to our own–Howard, Tolkien or Bujold, for instance–or if it is our world, but magic or non-human intelligences are a Deep Secret known only to a few. Fritz Leiber and Thorne Smith both did that.
    SF, at its most basic level, wonders what the future will be like. Saying that things will be different, and speculating on how is less of a strain on my imagination than inserting made-up people as contemporary senators and presidents and invented major multinational corporations, which was the stock in trade of a lot of “mainstream” writers.

    Why more fantasy and SF today, though? I think the “change date” here is World War I. The term “science fiction” didn’t exist then. H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs were simply novelists–and Western civilization’s view of scientific advances was benign and somewhat complaiscent. We might have improved communications and means of production, but if our society was going to be different it would be not through these but through politics. By the 1920’s, it was evident that technological change had potentially nightmarish consequences, that the young would someday live in a world we could barely imagine, and that the age of the hero was past. (Picture a GA Henty novel set in the Spanish Civil War, for example.) All the blank spaces on the map were filled in, and where 300 men with spears had once defended a nation, now men were called to arms by the hundred thousand, and the important decisions involved the design and production cycles in the factories. The world where individual heroism made a difference was very far away. So while Ian Fleming and Walter Wager worked the last of the contemporary seam in espionage novels, WWI vet Tolkien went to the “unrecorded” past, and WWII vet Heinlein to the distant future.

    But it took a while to work through the system. Between the Wars, SF and fantasy are published in “pulps” and have no prestige whatever, publishers being convinced that people buying hardcovers wouldn’t touch that sort of thing. (ERB bought rights and plates back from his publishers for nickels and dimes.) After WWII, SF and fantasy actually sold fairly well, often from specialty houses founded by fans–Arkham House, Shasta, Fantasy Press, Gnome Press and others–while the majors published SF mostly for Young Adult lines. After about 10 years, the majors realized that adults could and did buy SF, and most of the specialty houses closed. (Publishers’ Row may be a little brighter than Detroit–but not much.) SF started making money for publishers with the big post-WWII anthologies–outside of Wells and Burroughs, the first time they printed SF. SF started doing reasonably well on TV as soon as they put on anthology programs of it for adults, and better as soon as they did space opera for adults. SF took off in film the first time anyone spent the money to put a decent space opera in the theaters. Are we seeing a pattern here?

    That’s the long answer. The short answer is that with every decade starting somewhere very early in the 20th Century, more of the readership understands the conventions of SF and fantasy the way they used to understand the roman a clef and the western, and as the readership comes into the stories understanding more, the author can use on plot setting and character the pages he once needed to explain what a generation ship or an FTL drive are.

    As for novels of adultery and power politics in darkest Detroit and DC, my mother read Alex Hailey. Set my power politics in Jekkara, Barayar or Pell, thanks, and hold the adultery. There are strange doing in the Hub Worlds, the Codominium is in deep trouble, and there’s talk of an expedition to the Rim. Why set your story in Kansas when Oz is just a tornado away?

    Long answer to a short question. Sorry.


    6 Jun 09 at 4:19 pm

  4. I hope this makes sense. I woke up to discover I was out of coffee. No coffee for breakfast! The universe is coming to an end!

    “And yes, I find it astonishing that anybody would want to read something like th is. Dragons and witches have exactly the same effect on my as space aliens and alternative universes. I really do like to stay in the real world.”

    But the England of Jane Austen is an alterante universe (one which bores me). I do enjoy the alternate universe of Kipling’s India. And for anyone born after 1840, the US of Woeld War 2 is an alterante universe. For that matter, I find the US of the American left in the 1930s (USSR was a worker’s paradise, the Ukarainian famine never happened, the Gulag didn’t exist, the Purge trials were fair and honest) to be a fantasy set in an alternate universe.

    As Lee B says, good fantasy and science fiction you to examine ethical and moral questions dispasionately.

    I don’t know either of the series that Matt is reading. I’d guess the point of dragons in the American Revolution is to ask how aerial reconnaisance would effect war in the period of black powder and nussel loading guns. An interesting question. I might want to read the books if you can give us a title or author.

    But. frankly, I think its a matter of taste. Which is better? Apple pie or chocolate cake?


    6 Jun 09 at 4:22 pm

  5. My sympathies re the coffee, John. It has just occurred to me that the medically-required fast I have to start tomorrow means No Diet Coke AKA No Caffeine!!! I get the most appalling headaches when my caffeine levels drop.

    Well, re the topic. I always like a nice story about dragons or witches, although I’ve gone off the vampire shagger books. I don’t tend to go for histories adorned with powerful magicians or dragons or alternate histories much, although John’s tried to convert me, at least on the what-if alternate history type. I think they’re a bit like the period mysteries in which the detective is always passing the time of day with Churchill or Queen Elizabeth I. I can take a lot of implausibilities, but that type irritate me. So do the far more recent blends of biography and fiction in which the author not only makes up dialogue but adds extra characters as well.

    The appeal of the mixture of real and fictional history can be in the ‘what if’ factor – what if Hitler had never been born, or twentieth-century people were shifted back in time or talking dragons replaced warships? But I’d put the change in taste in books down mostly to changing times and changing fashions. And I never went in for a lot of the earlier popular fiction you liked so much, so I never really noticed when it vanished.

    You’re not alone in your dislike of elves and dragons, though. A friend – not from North America, which may make a difference – was startled when I admitted to enjoying Keven Sorbo in Hercules. Only children, she told me, watched that sort of thing!


    6 Jun 09 at 6:31 pm

  6. Cheryl, the diet isn’t so bad but the laxative is horrible. I speak from experience.

    Robert, that was a good essay. Both of us like Peshawar Lancers. I suspect Matt and possibly Jane might enjoy it.


    6 Jun 09 at 6:54 pm

  7. My mom used to read the Peyton Place type of book, so I tried a few. Bleh. I just kept wondering why these people were so stupid, why did they try to hide everything and lie to each other…why didn’t they just TALK to each other about the important stuff for heaven’s sake!?

    And that’s pretty much my impression of “just novels” to this day. Particularly the big, sprawling ones. Boring, and in large part, frustrating because the characters behave so inexplicably. People in my life don’t behave that way, and so the novels do nothing to explain human behavior to me. I don’t accept that what I see in that kind of fiction is a reliable depiction of real people.

    I have read James Michener with enjoyment in the past, but on my last vacation I hauled along “Alaska” and pretty much was bored through all 1200 pages. (Okay sometimes I’m a glutton for punishment too) Maybe it was just his declining writing skills, but it seems those interludes where you could spend some time with a group of characters were “this happened and then this happened” way too much tell and not enough show.

    And at least in an SF novel, when people don’t talk to each other, there are pretty spaceships to look at. (kidding) I’m not at all sure that SF & fantasy is really selling more or dominating the market any more than it used to. Without real figures I tend to doubt it. Unless someone is writing in the aforementioned, ahem, vampire shagger sub-genre, I think it’s pretty damn hard to get published, as always. I think that the SF & Fantasy genres may seem to have a larger market share just because the market for really long block-buster beach book type of novels is pretty much gone. Nobody really has time for that any more. If they read, it’s in much shorter spurts. If they bought a giant book for the summer it would take them all year to read it!

    I have read the first book of the Naomi Novak series, probably the book Matt brought home. They were offering it free on Kindle, and that’s probably the only reason. I won’t be investing in any more of the series. It was readable enough, but the premise of the dragons was too…unconnected to reality if that makes any sense. In alternate history novels, like Robert says, there’s normally an identifiable division event between our universe and the one being written about. This dragon series introduces a whole new evolutionary path, many new species of sentient beings, and yet takes place in a recognizeable historical moment. Too unlikely even for lovers of fantasy. We *do* have limits.

    However, I liked Lee’s analysis that it’s exploring moral questions of slavery. Giving the dragons sentience yet having them be utterly life & death subserviant to humans raises issues. It’s not a bad premise to hang a book on, if you can get past the disconnect. Apparently a lot of people can, because the series is quite popular.

    One thing that many fantasies & SF explore are matters of duty and honor. Not much of that in contemporary fiction, unless it’s in the breach thereof. Maybe that’s why we like detective fiction too. A lot of detectives have urges to duty, and their own type of honor to work out. I used to like Robert B Parker before he fell over his own feet for just that reason. But it becomes even more manifest when human notions of honor & duty clash with alien (or elven) concepts.

    Is this making any sense? In any case…

    Cheryl, ask your fasting supervisor if you could take something like Excedrin, which contains caffeine in lower doses, to get you over withdrawal. If you’re supposed to cold turkey on the caffeine, my sympathy.


    6 Jun 09 at 11:08 pm

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