Graham Sleight: Listing to one side
So it’s clear that one of my sweet-tooths is for lists – but then, it seems, I share that vice with much of the sf/f community. Hence my interest in a recent post on The New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, on “Seven Essential Fantasy Reads”. The post’s author, Macy Halford, says that:
I’ve read a few best-selling fantasy series—Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Twilight, Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Dark Is Rising—but I would never describe myself as an aficionado. First because all these books are on about a fourth-grade reading level, and second because I read them for their best-sellerness, not their fantasy-ness (to stay in the loop, I tell myself). I doubted whether the genre had more to offer adults—literary adults, adults who enjoy reading bonafide novels. If you happen to be a fantasy aficionado, you are no doubt shaking your head at the ignorance of that statement, as my friend Hugh Lippincott did recently. Hugh is a graduate student in physics at Yale, (hopefully) in the final year of a Ph.D. He spends his days searching for dark matter—I’m not sure what happens when he finds some—and his nights, apparently, reading fantasy books. He is also the author of the blog Physics for Mom, a guide to what he does written for the scientifically impaired.
I asked Hugh what he would recommend for someone like me—a beginning fantasy reader ready to graduate to more serious (but not too serious) fare. Here are his picks, complete with explanations of their greatness. He sent them to me with the reassurance that “there is no shame in being a real fantasy reader.”
Hugh Lippincott’s list is:
- The Dragonbone Chair, Tad Williams
- Tigana (or most other books) by Guy Gavriel Kay
- Wizard’s First Rule, Terry Goodkind
- Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb
- The Scions of Shannara, Terry Brooks
- The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
- Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson
And honorable mentions for Glen Cook, J. V. Jones, Lois McMaster Bujold, R. Scott Bakker, George R. R. Martin.
As some people point out in the comments, this is an incredibly narrow list. All these books are in the same corner of the fantasy woods. If the goal is to reach “literary adults, adults who enjoy reading bonafide novels”, and to be “serious (but not too serious)”, then there are plenty more things that fantasy can offer. The real point is a definitional one. I don’t think that “fantasy” should be taken as synonymous with “heroic fantasy set in a secondary world”, and almost all of the books listed fall under that umbrella. There are plenty of other things to be found in a genre whose taproot works include The Man Who Was Thursday, A Voyage to Arcturus, the stories of Kafka and Borges, or the whole tradition of magic realism. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy all the The New Yorker‘s choices – I’d be happy to second the recommendation of Kay and Rothfuss in particular. But here’s an alternative list. Like The New Yorker‘s list, it’s mostly recent stuff, and all (so far as I can see) readily available on both sides of the Atlantic.
- Wise Children, Angela Carter
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
- Little, Big, John Crowley
- Coraline, Neil Gaiman
- Ash, Mary Gentle
- Perdido Street Station, China Mieville
- The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
I’m restricting myself to novels (hence the omission of, say, The Jaguar Hunter, Magic for Beginners, City of Saints and Madmen and almost everything by Howard Waldrop), and to books that are easy to get hold of (hence the omission of, eg, Geoff Ryman’s Was, M John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart, and John M Ford’s The Dragon Waiting). There are secondary-world novels there, like the Mieville, but also books that start in something resembling our own world, like the Gaiman. There are books that play with history (Clarke), with place (Carter), and the idea of story itself (Crowley). And there are swordfights and explosions (Powers, Gentle). The book I most regretted omitting was Ursula le Guin’s Lavinia, my favorite fantasy of last year, but I’m not yet sure if it’s going to become canonical in the way that other books I’ve listed have. I’ve steered away from the territory where fantasy shades into horror, and have assumed that the goal of reaching “literary adults” means that a YA-centred list wouldn’t be a good idea. With those limitations aside, I think this is a pretty representative list. I’d be very interested in knowing what others’ lists would be.
25 thoughts on “Graham Sleight: Listing to one side”
a) I'm not sure that your list doesn't fit the "serious (but not too serious) fare" part of the original requirement worse than Lippincott's suggestion.
b) Your comment re: Lavinia is very odd. First, why is canonical-ness a guiding principle in your selections? And second, if you think Lavinia should become canonical, as your praise of it suggests, why not start including it in the lists you make to help that process along?
a) Sorry, are you saying my list is too serious or not serious enough? [Insert mandatory serious-cat reference here.]
b) I think canonical-ness is one helpful guiding principle to this sort of thing, in the sense that it makes you check you're not just indulging your personal preferences. I was pretty boggled that Lavinia wasn't shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award this year, for instance, but it did make me question if I was right about its virtues. (I didn't change my mind.) I'm all in favour of advocacy-in-canon-forming, but it's more difficult when you only have seven spots to fill. The other issue with Lavinia is whether its relation to the Aeneid disqualifies it as an "entry-level book".
a) Your list is much more serious than Lippincott's list. I wonder if that makes it less appropriate for the person who requested it.
b) Except that if you're asking someone for a list, even an introductory list, you're asking for a personal slant. And as someone who hasn't read the Aeneid, I found Lavinia far more "entry-level" than Little, Big.
a) Well, maybe that's my personal slant on "serious (but not too serious" 🙂
b) But the whole point of the post is that even when giving a personal slant you have to take account of the state of the field as a whole. Otherwise you just end up with something as narrow as Lippincott's list.
a) Never give me your properly serious list, then.
b) Only if you are a reader who reads as narrowly as Lippincott apparently does. And to be honest, if you were taking account of the whole field, your list would have included a book by one of the authors or runners-up that Lippincott mentions. So your canonical-ness looks like a bit of a fig leaf anyway.
For a beginning fantasy reader, I'd set Little Big aside and replace it with Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, a great book and a great charmer for the genre. (I would also go for Rats & Gargoyles over Ash, mainly because the ending of Ash didn't work for me. And I haven't read the Carter.)
Lawrence: I freely admit that I chose Little, Big because it's a book I love. But, in this context, I felt that the range of its relations to other stories (Shakespeare, Carroll, etc) might make a "literary adult" feel more at home than some other choices. That said, the Hughart is terrific, though I'm not sure it meets my "easy to get hold of" criterion. And I loved the ending of Ash…
The only book on Lippincott's list that I think is missing from Graham's is Tigana. Lippincott's list is mostly a survey in "I've read Tolkien, what do I read that's vaguely in that mold?" (In that sense, Kay is an outlier–his works, like Tolkien's, are deeply engage with the past, but Kay is very interested in reinventing the actual historical process as fantasy, while Tolkien simply wasn't.) Graham is trying to point towards works that are very very different from J.R.R. and work within unmistakably distinct models of fantasy.
Kevin: you're absolutely right to conclude that my list isn't, quote-unquote, the best but rather intended as a corrective to Lippincott's list. Kay at least, and possibly others that Lippincott mentions, would have made it onto a list of "the best".
The giveaway in Halford's setup is in her characterization of her fantasy reading and of herself as a reader: "all these books are on about a fourth-grade reading level" (Tolkien? Really?) and "I doubted whether the genre had more to offer adults—literary adults, adults who enjoy reading bonafide novels." If this were funnier (or funny at all), it would be a candidate for one of Dave Langford's "As Others See Us" snippets.
I suspect that Lippincott's list is not going to do much to change Halford's mind–it's heavily weighted toward the nephews and neices of Tolkien (and Howard and Leiber, et al.) and clearly not nearly lit'ry enough for one who sees her proper activity as the enjoyment of "bonafide novels."
Since lists bring me out in a rash, I'm not up to suggesting any corrective, and anyway I wouldn't want to encourage anyone to go slumming. It doesn't really improve the slummer's sensibilities and it annoys the locals.
Well, besides the Tolkien, the books Halford cites are all explicitly marketed as Young Adult. So what reading level would she expect?
I like Graham's list much better than Lippincott's — even the Rothfuss, which I liked immensely, does not quite strike me as "canonical". Which isn't to say my list wouldn't be different.
I'd like to plead the merits of The Lyonnesse Trilogy by Jack Vance, which I honestly think is about his best work and one of the best fantasies available.
I would have added Silverlock………
Graham's list is curious, because I suspect that a contemporary book editor would be passingly familiar with Gaiman, Clarke, and Crowley, and would at least have heard of Carter or Mieville. (Powers, incidentally, has been reviewed in the pages of the New Yorker, which gave a positive notice to Declare.) It may simply be that the big blockbuster novels from the narrow end of the spectrum are simply too intimidating for the casual reader who might lose track of the various political machinations of A Song of Ice and Fire, but thoroughly enjoy Neverwhere, Sleeping in Flame, or Jonathan Strange.
The real question is, would most fantasy readers recognize the latter as fantasy novels at all? In all likelihood, novels like Little, Big or Coraline don't even register on the radar as "fantasy" for readers like Mr. Lippincott, whose definition of the genre is entirely post-Tolkienian, or more accurately, post-Brooks/Eddings/Jordan– massive ongoing serials issued in cinderblock-sized tomes, each installment as long or longer than LOTR in its entirety. Anything that doesn't fit the model, be it magical realism, slipstream, fabulism, etc. would fall under the rubric of non-fantasy or kids' stuff, regardless of subject matter. (The sole exception might be urban fantasy, which used to cover everything from Winter's Tale to Spider-Man, but lately has devolved into a catchall term for vampire romance novels and books about supernatural PIs.)
I would add Paul Park's Great Roumania quartet, a single novel published in four parts. (I suspect the total word count is similar to Ash or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.)
I would subtract:
Coraline (not up to the level of the others on the list)
Perdido Street Station (uneven, and more horror than fantasy)
The Anubis Gates (Powers has written better since)
Lucius: your argument rests on guessing what two groups of people think/know – "contemporary book editors", and "most fantasy readers". I don't presume to know either, except so far as I have evidence about them. For the first, I assumed that because a New Yorker blogger was asking about fantasy (and didn't mention any contemporary titles), she was asking for a from-the-ground-up representation of the contemporary field. For the second, the more I talk to people, the more I have the sense that fantasy readers are a pretty heterogeneous bunch, and I'd be wary of making any blanket statements about them. Certainly it's the case that Carter, Crowley, Gaiman, Gentle, and Powers get entries in the Clute/Grant Fantasy Encyclopedia (and I assume the others would in any updated edition – they hadn't published novels when the FE came out); and that the Crowley, for instance, won the World Fantasy Award. If you want to argue that Clute/Grant, or the WFAs, don't represent fantasy, then fine, but I think I'd want to see more than anecdotal evidence of that.
SF: I think we'll have to agree to disagree in our estimation of Coraline (for me, Gaiman's best book to date), Perdido Street Station (uneven, maybe, but what it does well more than outweighs any flaws) and The Anubis Gates (I wanted a title that could be read as a pure romp, which gets harder and harder with Powers's later books.)
I do agree with SF on PERDIDO STREET STATION, which seemed to me a lumpy mixture of fabulous stuff and boring stuff and simply gross stuff — but I'd leave CORALINE and THE ANUBIS GATES in — especially the latter, which as Graham implies is just plain a whole lot of fun.
Part of the problem of what to recommend is suggested by Graham's original post (the "taproot" paragraph) as well as Lucius Cook's response: "fantasy" is not really a genre but a mode (the complementary opposite of "reprentational realism"), except in the worlds of publishing practice and bookstore geography, where it tends to indicate particular actual genres (heroic/epic/elfy-welfy fantasy, vampire romance [itself a relatively recent offshoot of the general vampire story], urban-noirish fantasy, supernatural thriller, and so on).
The reader being addressed might be interested in various manifestations of the broadly/modally-defined "fantastic" and thus be interested in the range that includes Chesterton, Machen, Lindsay, Lovecraft, Straub, and Borges–but more likely she is looking for some particular kind of supernatural/weird narrative world and story-experience. The diagnostic questions that lead to a particular recommended-reading list start with what the subject already enjoys (Patrick O'Brian? Sex and the City? Patricia Cornwell? Bernard Cornwell? Raymond Chandler?) and projecting that taste-set into the realm of the fantastic. In the case of Halford, the combination of the "bonafide novels" crack and the "serious (but not too serious) fare" requirement define an interesting space–I'd call it a slummer's space, which would make it very hard for me to offer a serious and non-condescending list.
Graham: I think my problem with Coraline is that it doesn't reward re-reading the way the other books on the list do. It isn't as multi-layered, at least for me. Perdido Street Station does certain things very well, agreed. I love it's grotesque cityscapes. Still, I can't help thinking Mervyn Peake did much the same, and better. I concur that The Anubis Gates is tremendous fun (a madcap, gonzo, roller-coaster of a book — to quote my own blog). Power's Declare is a superior book by nearly every measure.
Rich and Graham: I wonder if you have a reaction to adding Paul Park's Great Roumania to the list.
SF, re Paul Park's Roumania: I very much admire the series (and I think I've said so in the pages of Locus), but I don't think it's the kind of work I'd give to a neophyte in the field. It's responding to, eg, past animal fantasies in such a way that (unlike the Crowley) I think it will work significantly less well if you don't have a sense of all the sources.
Also, Russell, there's a game to be had there, especially since I spend too much of my time looking at book blurbs that often wind up comparing new writers with old. How outlandish a combination of two authors can you get before you find that no-one's written it before? I mean, we've recently had books whose pitches are, "It's like Jane Austen crossed with Harry Potter!", "It's like Patrick O'Brian meets JRR Tolkien!", and "It's like Poul Anderson meets Armistead Maupin!". What next? "It's as if Virginia Woolf had written Starship Troopers"?
I had a terrible year last year keeping up with novels, and so the last ROUMANIA book remains on my TBR shelf, but I think Graham's point about it not being ideal for a neophyte makes sense.
Graham: Of all the books on the list, you say Little, Big is more appropriate for a neophyte than Park's Great Roumania. My own experience in convincing people to read Little, Big (which I love) is that it is the toughest novel on the list for beginners. That seems to be echoed by Niall Harrison and Lawrence Person earlier in the comments.
I'm interested in your thoughts about how Park's Roumania responds to earlier animal fantasies. I will have to dig through my back issues to see what you wrote. I agree that it is a challenging work. When I've gotten people to read it, they take to it like fish to water.
The Game of Pitch (a la the opening of Altman's The Player):
–It's like The Gods Must Be Crazy except the coke bottle is an actress.
–Right. It's Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.