Tag Archives: criticism

Princess Mashup and the Future of Genre Fiction

On one of the lists I’m subscribed to, I received an advertisement targeted to booksellers about a recent release. In the interest of protecting the parties responsible for its publication, let’s call it Princess Mashup and the Laser Vampire Steamship of Death (not the real title). I was especially interested in the ad’s claim that Princess Mashup is a “landmark work” and considered to be “the future of genre fiction.” This got my attention because I love reading landmark works and every author needs to know where the industry will be heading.

Based on the rest of the ad, the future of genre fiction–as contemplated by this one publisher’s marketing department–is going to be a rocky landscape of extremes. There are two main readership groups targeted by Princess Mashup: people who don’t read books at all; and people who obsessively devour books in all six of the genres that Princess Mashup falls into.

The ad envisions, first of all, a legion of non-readers stumbling into a bookstore for the first time in their lives when well-meaning relatives give them bookstore gift certificates for the holidays, perhaps as a joke. The ad instructs booksellers to hand-sell Princess Mashup “until every one of those gift cards are redeemed”…but why? They never say. My first thought was that books in the speculative genres are universally approachable vehicles to hook young readers into a lifetime love of reading–except that Princess Mashup is also touted as a YA/Adult crossover. By the time a reader is developmentally ready for such a book, their reading habits or lack thereof will probably be set for life already. Still, if you’re a sometimes-reader looking to survey six different genres to decide which you might like, maybe it is most efficient to get them all in a single volume.

For the second demographic of Princess Mashup, imagine a Venn diagram–that’s the one with two or more overlapping circles. We’ll start with circles for people who are rabid fans of vampires and those who love, love, love a good romance. At the intersection of those two circles are fans of the Twilight series, among other recent works, representing a number sizable enough to drive a book onto the bestseller lists. Then add a circle to represent more-than-casual fans of steampunk, and suddenly you’ve fragmented your potential-bestseller market into a hoping-for-a-cult-classic market. Now add three more circles for fans of alternate history, fans of dark fantasy, and fans of pulp adventure. At the intersection point of all six circles, you’ll find the set of readers who are omnivorous enough to already be familiar with the six distinct storytelling conventions required to truly appreciate why Princess Mashup is such a “landmark work.”

Giving Princess Mashup the benefit of the doubt, I figured it could actually be a fun cross-genre romp that the marketing department had no idea how to present. Then I just took a sneak peek at the opening pages and found them to be something about a princess on a steam-powered pirate ship using her magic sword to fight off a pair of startlingly handsome vampires in a world where the Macedonian Empire remains a world superpower. I know that sounds cool as a synopsis but the execution was underwhelming–and that shouldn’t be a surprise.

It’s hard enough to do just one genre well, but with six combined there’s an exponential increase in the difficulty level. My upcoming Galaxy Games series is a humorous take on sports and science fiction, and I had to pull out all my writing tricks and reader experience to make sure it was good science fiction, a plausible sports story, and genuinely humorous. Assuming my reaction to Princess Mashup is typical, cramming six different genres into a single book will only serve to nauseate a reader in six different ways at once.

This one publisher’s terrifying vision of the publishing industry’s future is one in which genre fiction becomes a mash-up, individual genres cease to stand alone, and all new books are grouped together in a single bookstore section ideal for non-readers and a select group of crossover fans. Readers will be required to either love the latest fantasy-romance-cyberpunk-zombie-detective offering wholeheartedly or give up reading altogether.

The blending may be starting already. In the past few years we’ve seen the monster genre almost entirely subsumed into the romance genre. I can’t recall any recent books about unrepentant vampire killing machines and the heroes who must stake them in the heart or die trying. After an entire tradition of standalone monster stories is lost, what genre will be next? I’m looking at you, Space Opera!

—Greg, who loves a good mashup and wishes everyone a happy Christmachannukkwanzanew Year!

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

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Crossing over to Children’s Books

Today, John Grisham’s first children’s book is being released: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. Though not speculative fiction, this got me thinking about “grown-up” writers who turn to writing books for kids.

Of course, as Joni pointed out, “Lots of us have either day jobs that involve writing for adults or have done other books, often nonfiction, for adults first.” Then there are those authors of the past who were writing for adults, but whose books are now often read by children or teenagers: Mark Twain, Jules Verne, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula Le Guin would fit this category, I believe.

But I’m really thinking about the famous names today, so let’s look at a few of them.

You can see my complete review of Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer (Dutton) at the New York Journal of Books. The short review is, good idea, mediocre book. It wouldn’t have sold if one of us wrote it. I don’t blame the author for this so much as the publishing process, and the public who will no doubt buy the book anyway, based on his name. I can’t guess why he decided to try writing for kids, but I can guess why this effort (in my opinion) failed — he wrote it too much like one of his adult books, just with a kid main character.

I also took a look at one of Clive Cussler’s books for children, The Adventures of Vin Fiz (Philomel, 2006). The jacket flap claims this is in “the classic tradition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The book does have a “classic” feel, if by classic you mean old-fashioned, with bland kid characters, lots of telling rather than showing, and a cheerfully condescending adult narrator’s voice. Maybe Cussler wanted to re-create a “wholesome” book like the ones he loved as a child, or maybe he just didn’t know that standards of children’s literature have changed. Either way, I doubt this book would have sold without the famous name. The story, about kids who get an enchanted box that can transform any toy into the real thing, has been done before — and better.  It’s sad, because this “true life adventurer” who has “discovered more than 60 sunken ships” surely has a more exciting tale to tell.

Lest you think I’m simply jealous and snarky, I’d better look at some (in my opinion) successes. James Patterson, the biggest name in publishing, was recently named author of the year by the Children’s Choice Book Awards. His Maximum Ride series (Little, Brown) about kids who are 2% bird is an innovative concept, and the books deserve their place on the best-seller list. I just started reading The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, which is a definite page turner. It opens with the main character describing how, when he was three, his parents were murdered by a vicious alien. This man does not talk down to kids! He has a new Witch & Wizard series, and I’m willing to bet this isn’t some cheap imitation of a classic.

Neil Gaiman is another author who seems to imbue each of his books with magic, from picture books such as The Wolves in the Wall to middle grade novels such as Coraline and the Newbery winning The Graveyard Book (most HarperCollins), to his graphic novels and adult work. You may not always like the bizarre and disturbing worlds he creates, but they are never dull! And he knows that kids are supposed to be the heroes in children’s books. His are typically stronger than the adults around them.

Stepping away from speculative fiction again, we get Carl Hiaasan, who has been successful with his middle grade novels Hoot, Flush, and Scat (Knopf). These have something in common with his adult mysteries — oddball characters and plenty of action — but they also have a solidly middle grade feel, with realistic characters struggling to make a difference in their world.

Sherman Alexie apparently wasn’t trying to write for young people with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), but his editors saw the crossover potential. Alexie tells his stories with humor and heart, drawing on his own unusual experiences as a youth.

I can imagine several reasons successful adult authors might want to turn to writing for children. Perhaps their own children have gotten them interested in telling stories to kids. Maybe they’ve remembered a childhood incident that would make the basis of a good book. Maybe they want to try something new. Or maybe they want to tap into another market, one that has remained stable in a down economy.

Regardless of the reasons, the ones who succeed are the ones who have a grasp of modern kids and modern kids’ literature. The ones who realize that books for children are different from books for adults, but that doesn’t mean they’re condescending or preachy. The ones who understand that children’s books are not easier or less important.

So now it’s your turn — what’s your opinion on the books I’ve mentioned? Any others that fit this topic?

Chris may start writing for adults someday, because, you know, it would be easier.

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Authors Criticizing Authors

stephenking1

You might have read Stephen King’s recent comment that Stephanie Meyers “can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to hear him candidly voice what others might be thinking but can’t afford to say. On the other hand, it’s nice when writers support other writers, especially when they write in a similar genre.

Which leads to my main point: you probably wouldn’t hear a children’s book author say this about another children’s book author, at least not in a nationally published interview. It seems to me that children’s book writers are held to a different standard. We’re supposed to be kind, supportive, encouraging, never critical of each other’s work unless it’s in a critique group setting.

I think that a lot of people who write for young people tend naturally toward this attitude. What do you think–is there a different standard, or does this attitude come naturally to children’s book writers? Do you think this sense of community is genuine or fake, empowering or stifling?

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Do Movie Critics Hate Authors?

The answer is no, movie critics don’t hate authors. At least not as far as I can tell. What many movie critics hate is fact checking, which is another reason why film studios shouldn’t bury the name of a story’s creator deep in the mile-long credits at the end of the film. (See “Does Hollywood Hate Authors?” for my previous rant.)

Because the marketing for the new movie Coraline plays down the Newbery-winning, Hugo-winning, Nebula-winning, Eisner-winning author who wrote the story, lazy critics across the country are assuming that only Tim Burton could combine dark themes with feature-length stop motion animation. Assuming to the point of printing their opinions on “Tim Burton’s Coraline.”

One of my old Superguy buddies, Randy Milholland, imagines that Neil Gaiman isn’t happy. He also imagines that Neil Gaiman has access to a sniper rifle. In the world of Randy’s webcomic, “going postal” has been replaced with “going authorial.”

gaiman

Panel from February 9th "Something Positive" webcomic by Randy Milholland

Update: Actually we don’t have to imagine Neil Gaiman’s reaction to such critics (or to the above webcomic) because Neil has a frequently-updated and incredibly popular blog.

Neil isn’t upset for himself, recognizing that the small credit he gets in the marketing material is already more than most authors receive. He’s upset for the director, Henry Selick, for reasons going back to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

A couple of days ago the front page at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting) website announced that it had interviews and reviews about Tim Burton’s Coraline. Which I saw moments before I saw a piece on the Chicago Tribune print edition front page announcing its reviews of Tim Burton’s Coraline. And my hackles started rising.

The hackles were, I should point out, not on my behalf, but for Henry Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas: he worked on the story with the screenwriter, Caroline Thompson (another person whose contribution tends to be forgotten), and the songwriter, Danny Elfman, to turn Tim’s character sketches and poem into a film script, then he spent years in a warehouse in San Francisco overseeing people moving dolls around a frame at a time, with Tim off making fine movies; and, then, a couple of weeks before the film came out, the title was changed to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Which tends to mean that people assume that Tim made the film and if they even notice Henry was involved as director, they assume it was in some strange kind of junior role. (Nope, he was the director. He grew Tim’s poem and character sketches into a movie. Tim produced it.)

Injustice and disrespect abound in movie credits, marketing materials, and reviews alike. Sixteen years ago Henry Selick got a raw deal that still overshadows his career on entirely unrelated projects, like Coraline. But I’m still outraged on behalf of Neil Gaiman and the larger majority of authors who get even less credit for their work.

Gaiman got his revenge, by the way, without the use of bullets:

So I was already not impressed with the CBC website or the Chicago Tribune, and then someone sent me a link to an online newspaper in which the reviewer’s first paragraph explained Tim Burton’s career and then went on to explain, in an extremely dim sort of way, why Coraline was a Tim Burton film, and I twittered about it. And then watched the delighted twitterverse pile onto the poor gentleman in the comments page with surprise, realising that this power must only be used for good.

I never thought I’d say this but… Hooray for Twitter!

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