Friday, May 31, 2013

Mayor of Des Moines

Below is the opening of a London Review of Books essay by John Lanchester (above) about the series of novels called Song of Ice and Fire by fantasy writer George R.R. Martin. I'm interested in this subject of fantasy fiction because I am one of those ordinary readers described by Lanchester for whom the entire genre might as well be non-existent.

"The writer Neal Stephenson, in response to a question about his own fame or lack of it, came up with a usefully precise and clarifying answer:

It helps to put this in perspective by likening me to the mayor Des Moines, Iowa. It's true of both the mayor of Des Moines and of me that, out of the world's population of some six billion people, there are a few hundred thousand who consider us important, and who recognize us by name. In the case of the mayor of Des Moines, that is simply the population of Des Moines metropolitan area. In my case, it is the approximate number of people who are avid readers of my books. In addition, there might be as many as a million or two who would find my name vaguely familiar if they saw it; the same is probably true of the mayor of Des Moines. 

The crucial contributing factor to this condition, which involves being both incredibly, outlandishly famous by serious-writer standards while also being unknown to the general reader, is the fact that Stephenson works in the area of SF and fantasy writing. For reasons I've never seen explained or even thoroughly engaged with, there seems to be an unbridgeable crevasse between the SF/fantasy audience and the wider literate public. People who don't usually read, say, thrillers or military history or popular science will read say, Gone Girl or Berlin or Bad Pharma. But people who don't read fantasy just simply, permanently, 100 per cent don't read fantasy. 

That doesn't stop some of these books finding millions of readers. The works that do so, though, are almost always cross-overs from the category of teen, or as the industry calls it, 'young adult', fiction. Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and the Twilight novels are all in this category, and they're also not individual works but series. When they found a wider readership they didn't do so in a merely big way but in an apocalyptically huge one. Given permission to read books of this kind  permission derived from the books' success  people have shown that they are willing to wolf them down by the millions. (It's a subject in its own right, the self-reinforcing phenomenon of the contemporary mega-seller; by which I mean not just the garden variety bestseller but the book or books which go to the mysterious other place in the popular consciousness, when  it's as if reading them has somehow been made compulsory.)"