Roundtable: McCarthy, Chabon, and Franzen

This discussion follows on from the Roundtable on Genre Accessibility posted on Wednesday. In today’s installment, Karen Joy Fowler, F. Brett Cox, Elizabeth Hand, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Guy Gavriel Kay, Russell Letson, Rachel Swirsky, Cecelia Holland, Rich Horton, Siobhan Carroll, N. K. Jemisin and John Clute all join the discussion, which focuses more on ‘mainstream’ writers using genre materials.

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Karen Joy Fowler

While all of these points about best-sellers and passion and calculation and all are well-taken and well-articulated, I was more interested in the question of whether our genre (or any other) becomes so insular and self-referential as to allow little movement in or out.  Not as a matter of prejudice, but as a matter of text.

F. Brett Cox

A couple of points:

The question about breaking into the sf genre vs. breaking out is an interesting one.  On the one hand, you have the carping from within the field about The Road, a novel that won a Pulitzer but was ignored by genre awards and was by a writer who could care less about genre concerns (who can, as far as I can tell, care less about any of the scaffolding of the world, literary or otherwise).  On the other hand, you have Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which won a Hugo and was by a writer who had proclaimed his affection for sf and edited an anthology of sf/f stories.  I heard more than one complaint that McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel was a less than original conception that stood on the shoulders of unacknowledged giants; I heard no such complaints about Chabon’s alternate history novel.

As for writing to the market, despite my earlier post about Art and All That, I don’t see where an author’s purity of intent is anything worth worrying about.  Someone mentioned Neuromancer, which is what it is in part because, as Gibson has acknowledged, he was a first-time novelist who was terrified from start to finish and determined to keep the pot boiling.  I don’t see that as either a weakness or a strength.

Elizabeth Hand

“Breaking out” is term beloved by publishers & marketers — I can’t think of a single writer I know who sets out to write a “breakout” book, though of course in popular terms many writers do exactly that.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Actually, I can: Jonathan Franzen. Months before the release of The Corrections, Franzen was quoted repeatedly in interviews and features about his desire to write, like many of the nineteenth-century novelists whom he admired, a novel that would be both a critical and popular success, and how he thought that The Corrections fulfilled this ambition. Mind you, I think this was a bit of marketing hooey. Franzen is cagey enough to know that if he espoused his intentions regularly and got his publisher’s publicity machine behind him, he could possibly help to make the book a self-fulfilling prophecy. It appears to have worked. The merits (and/or demerits) of the book notwithstanding, the advance publicity helped to raise consciousness about a book that moved Franzen from mid-list to bestseller.

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