We Are the Orcs

Yesterday was the third annual Brooklyn Book Festival in Brooklyn Heights.  This is basically my neighborhood (my kids went to school a block from the site), so, when the first one rolled around, all my Brooklyn friends asked if I would be participating. “Of course not,” I answered. 

“Why not?” they asked. 

“Because I write genre.” 

New York is a tough town for genre.  You’d think that, as the publishing capital of the world, it wouldn’t be.  But, as far as most of New York is concerned, genre writers are the orcs of the literary world. 

Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of places where speculative fiction is celebrated in NYC.  It’s a great place to live and write.  Jim Freund has a two hour radio show that airs every Saturday (at five in the morning).  The KGB Bar and the New York Review of Science Fiction stage wonderful and well-attended readings once a month from September through June.  And I’m sure there are plenty of other venues I’ve never even heard of (it’s a big town). 

But, as far as mainstream is concerned, speculative fiction is stories by orcs, for orcs.  (They think Romance is even worse.)  You have to be Neil Gaiman or GRRM to get a review in the local paper.  And, if you do, chances are they’ll try to claim you’re not writing SF/F anyway.  (That’s how we all but lost Jonathan Lethem.) 

Recently, however, there have been signs of détente.  Even the NY Times can’t ignore our orcish success.  SF/F owns the movies, and NY ComicCon pulled in something like 100,000 attendees last February. 

Even more improbably, thanks to NY ComicCon being added to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, I was actually a participant.  Peter Brett, Brian Slattery, Anton Strout, Dave Roman, and I were on a panel titled Sci Fi and Fantasy in New York. 

We had the tent right next to the traffic jam. 

At least it’s a start.

 (P.S. – I just read Glenda’s post.  See remark about Jonathan Lethem above.)

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  1. 1. glenda larke

    Perhaps the most curious thing of all is this lack of correlation between sff movie/TV fans and SFF book reading. There are so many people who are passionate about all the SFF films and series out there, and yet who regard genre in books as beneath them. Huh? Why??

    I have even learned to be grateful that people now recognise (after the LotR movies and Harry Potter) that there is such a thing as a fantasy genre. In days gone by, when I said I wrote fantasy, I got questions like ‘Oh, you mean, um, like porn?’

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    This is similar to the last thread. I’ve felt like the Orc in the room far more often with genre readers/writers than with the lit-folk. In fact, the last work shop I attended was clearly slatted for lit writers. But my fellow aspiring scriblers were patient and encouraging of my ‘little story.’ In interacting with genre readers/writers the conversations were scarce and far less encouraging.

    I grew up watching everything I could find dealing with fantasy and science fiction. My friends and I would disect and examine every TV show, movie, late night cable-find and direct to VHS offering, ad nauseum. Later, much later, I began reading SF/F and boy-howdy was that a different crew.

    Don’t get me wrong, I find most fantasy-folk to be generous and considerate in sharing their favorites and discussing the genre with pleebs like me. The SF-folks? Not so much. Often, I encounter a person with a jaundiced eye and an interior cannon of work that you MUST have read or face inferior regard. Bring up Octavia Butler or Walter Mosley and watch the clique close ranks.

    I think this attitude is an immense barrier to entry. Only the most currious/determined may enter this exclusive world. To some kid who likes B5 or Star Trek or (gasp!) Star Wars, entry to the sanctum of SF, entry to discussion of Bova, Herbert, or Heinlein or current SF writers can be like running the gauntlet.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    Glenda – I have often gotten the same question.

    My favorite analysis of the genre/literary divide is Shippey’s in Tolkien: Writer of the Century, wherein he talks about rise of writerly narcissism as the Bloomsbury crowd came into literary power. Very compelling.

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    Elias – Yeah, I didn’t read Glenda’s piece until I’d posted my own. Woulda, shoulda, coulda. Then again, it’s not a bad idea to get a discussion going over several posts.

    That said, your experience with being the orc in the room is pretty much the opposite of mine. And the simple fact is that the mainstream press, which can have a very large effect on how well any given writer sells, is extremely reluctant to review SF/F unless it has some sort of literary pretensions (and the maijnstream accepts those pretensions).

    There is an Old Guard in SF that can be a huge pain in the ass, holding staunchly to their beliefs in hard vs soft SF, male vs female writers, etc. Luckily they are far fewer than they used to be and, like most dinosaurs, slowly approaching extinction.

  5. 5. Kate

    This is SO true! Every time I get that blank stare and have to say “you know, like Lord of the Rings,” I feel like crawling back to Isengard for a good long nap…

  6. 6. Anton Strout

    I want to bee a part of ittttt… New Orc New Orc!

  7. 7. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, no offense intended I assure you. I find the parallels interesting and I enjoy discussing a common problem from a variety of perspectives.

    And if I see how the mainstream press and reviews there-in may impact an author and sales. “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” is okay but the NYT reviews it and now it is GREAT and soon to be a movie. Wonderful; meanwhile “Lilith’s Brood” languishes. Meanwhile SF&F magazine is terrified to publish anything short of quick laugh of fantasy or anything short of a long-form MS math thesis.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Elias – No offense was taken – sorry if I seemed to do so.

  9. 9. Ju Honisch

    This won’t console you one bit, but it is probably even worse in Germany where mainstream culture is so stuck up and crusted over that people belonging to the so-called well-educated upper middle class are terribly afraid to lose their image as thinking grown-ups if they admit that they read “that stuff”. (The sales figures of genre books do speak a different language there but who would admit to it openly…)

    So “that stuff” leads a completely different life in the book biz from mainstream literature. They never overlap – which is ridiculous because no genre definition can be so absolutely straight. And the actual categorisation as the one or the other is rather random in many cases.

    You might have guessed: I write “that stuff”.

    “That stuff” is a quote by a feuilleton journalist who studied literature with me at the same university. When I asked her whether she might not – for a change – like to include some little coverage of the fantasy and SF scene in her regular articles on the Frankfurt Book Fair, she said: “Let me assure you that I am not interested in that stuff. None, not a single one, of us are interested in that stuff.” – ‘Us’ presumably being the entirety of journalistic staff of the Frankfurter Rundschau, one of the major German newspapers.

    This year I am shortlisted for the Deutscher Phantastik Preis (approx. the German Hugo). Mainstreamers do not even know it exists. But every year they choose book award winners around the time of Frankfurt Book Fair honouring the literary labour of someone who took up the fanshionable trend topic and who looks good in the media. And everybody thinks that’s CULTURE.

  10. 10. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Anton . . . you are sooooooooo wrong. *shakes head* But you are my herorc

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    Ju – Congratulations on your nomination for the DPP! (I’m guessing you have a more colorful nickname for it over there.) Good luck!

    But I actually don’t need consoling about my orcish status. I revel in it. Mostly I feel sorry for the folks whose reading is so narrowly focused. They don’t know what they’re missing!

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    Anton – I’ll make sure to bring you a shirt at the next Gang of Six (or Seven?) Signing! In the meantime, here’s a link to what’s on the shirt – http://www.valingstoneways.com/wearetheorcs.html

    Diana – If you and Anton are gettng into a punfest, this site is dead in the water. Where it will be devoured by, um, orcas, no doubt.

  13. 13. Kelly McCullough

    Anton wins the internets for the day!

  14. 14. NewGuyDave

    Sam and Anton,
    You guys have to get shirts printed, New Orc, New Orc. That’s hilarious.

    NGD

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Dave – I sort of already do. Check the link above.

  16. 16. NewGuyDave

    That has to go up on cafepress.

  17. 17. S.C. Butler

    Dave – I’ve still got a few. I should give you one next time I see you. Are you going to be at Albacon?

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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