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Saturday Book Discussion: Non-genre books for the genre fan




It's an epic fantasy with cleric-assassins!




Between high school and a few years ago, I did not do a lot of fiction reading outside of genre fiction. I was a SF&F fanboy, with occasional diversions into mysteries and horror, and every once in a while some historical fiction.

Since I began reading and reviewing books more intentionally, and expanding what I read in part with the books1001 list, I've read a lot of books that were completely outside my previous range of preferred reading and it's made me think about what it is in particular that keeps me primarily a genre fan.

The appeal of science fiction and fantasy is often said to be in its imaginative range, the ability to speculate about people and worlds that can't exist in reality, and the thought experiments and imagery and big ideas that such speculative fiction allows. But is that really true of most SF&F? How many different ways can you retell a story about fighting an alien invasion or hunting vampires in New York City or saving a kingdom with a magic sword?

Wired Magazine recently published an article by Clive Thompson called Why Sci-Fi Is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing. Basically, it's another one of those tedious "Literary fiction is boring and pretentious and real men read SF*" polemics.
Ferretbrain wrote a pretty good rebuttal to that article, but I see variations on this all the time on writing boards from people who supposedly want to be writers: "Telling people to read classics is like making children eat spinach" or "Literary fiction is for pretentious wankers who care more about getting circle-jerked in a book club than telling a story" or the one that particularly makes me die a little inside and throw up in my mouth at the same time: "I only read YA nowadays; the character arcs are so wonderful and it's so much more exciting and emotional than adult fiction!"

GTFO with that nonsense.

Even when I was only reading SF&F myself, I recognized this as nothing more than a personal preference on my part, not some sort of principled stand against boring literature.

Rather than argue about genre preferences, though, I instead want to make a different argument: that many literary novels, indeed, some of those old stalwart classics so hated by high school students, pretty much offer the same thrills and adventure and character arcs and even speculative exploration that your favorite genre novel does, just maybe without the trappings of elves and aliens or hard-boiled detectives.

So I'm going to offer a few books that I think "cross genres" to the extent that a fan of a particular genre might be surprised to find that it appeals to their tastes despite it not appearing to be that sort of book.

Epic Fantasy: The Hunchback of Notre Dame



As I said in my review of Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo's epic is pretty much a high fantasy novel. The gargoyles may only be stone and Quasimodo is just an unfortunate deformed hunchback, but someone somewhere has written a medieval fantasy with exactly the same plot except Quasimodo is a half-demon and Esmeralda is an elven princess and Claude Frollo is a literal wizard.

Epic fantasies tend to dwell on worldbuilding details, like the genealogies of fictional kings and the geography of made-up continents. Notre-Dame de Paris dwells on worldbuilding details in a world that actually exists, like the politics of 15th century France and the history of Parisian architecture. You have a spunky cast of characters who range from innocent to despicable, comical sidekicks, a caddish "hero," and a tragic climax. Do you really need magic swords to make it more interesting?

Trippy Fantasy: Jorge Luis Borges and Haruki Murakami



I know, I know, you're thinking "That's magical realism." Well, not really. I mean, sure, there is some overlap with magical realism. But many of the short stories in Borges' Labyrinths are definitely fantasy, some in the Lovecraftian vein, some closer to Robert E. Howard, all of them probably better while smoking a bowl. But if you like off-beat and edgy fantasy, not just the swords and sorcery stuff, Borges must at least be sampled.

Now, Haruki Murakami is a different kettle of talking fish raining from the sky. My appreciation for his fantastical fiction is not unmixed: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was truly a kind of epic journey with very strong fantasy elements, but it also kind of didn't make a lot of sense and the protagonist, like most of Murakami's protagonists, was kind of a dork. Kafka on the Shore is a similar venture into something approaching "urban fantasy" mixed with "magical realism." But the point is, Murakami's stories are just as full of fantasy and adventure and bizarre shapechangers as your average werewolf/vampire-fucker series, and while I won't say the sex is any better, the plots are certainly more creative.

Men's Adventure: The Count of Monte Cristo




Count of Monte Cristo

Yes, it's totally slashable too.


So you like James Bond, Batman, tales of manly revenge carried out by superhero Gary Stus? Read The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count spends fourteen years in a dungeon, and emerges a super-wealthy expert duelist and sharpshooter, seaman, horseman, master of poisons and disguise, and with a cunning plan to destroy everyone who wronged him. He's got an able Magical Negro sidekick and an enslaved princess. And it was written in the 19th century so you can excuse it as a "product of its time."

No, seriously, The Count of Monte Cristo is awesome, and if you read it you will see what pale shadows many of Dante's imitators are.

Horror: Blood Meridian



Blood Meridian

The Mennonite watches the enshadowed dark before them as it is reflected to him in the mirror over the bar. He turns to them. His eyes are wet, he speaks slowly. The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell aint half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of a madman's making onto a foreign land. Ye'll wake more than the dogs.


Cormac McCarthy's The Road is technically science fiction, though it's science fiction for lit-fic fans who think McCarthy invented end-of-the-world thrillers. But Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West is a far more powerful and horrific book. It's got all the blood and gore of The Walking Dead and better (and more disturbing) writing.

And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.


McCarthy represents all the elements of conventional horror fiction, from Lovecraftian monsters to the demonic Randall Flagg-like figure of the Judge, in what is ostensibly a historical Western. Anyone who claims to love horror fiction cannot pass up this book.

Romance: Pride and Prejudice




Colin Firth

I don't get what the big deal is, myself.


Well, duh. Most people think Pride and Prejudice is a romance. It's really not, but there's a reason why Jane Austen has stayed popular, and it's not just Colin Firth. Most modern romance and "chick lit" seems to be trying to capture some elusive quality called "voice" and often rendered down to "snark" which no one has ever done as well as Austen through Miss Bennet.

"I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so."


The HEA is a bonus, I guess, and Austen always delivers those, too, but I don't understand why anyone who enjoys tales of brooding dukes falling in love with winsome commoners wouldn't prefer a story written by an actual author.

Okay, so Austen was kind of stingy with the sex scenes.

Dysfunctional Romance: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Gone With the Wind




Heathcliff

Sooo romantic.


I don't know what it is about the YA genre, but creepy creepsters with boundary issues seem to be the new hotness. Of course they've been a staple in conventional romance for a long time (hence the term "bodice ripper" and titles like Surrender to the Highlander).

What kind of dysfunctional asshole creep romantic lead do you prefer? A psychopath who digs up his ex's corpse and spends his life trying to destroy everything she touched? Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff is the Byronic hero, and he totally out-creeps that pale penis Edward Cullen, while providing all the same obsessive intensity that supposedly makes Edward appealing. ('Cause he loves her that much!)

How about one of those May-December relationships, with a guy who locked his crazy wife in an attic? Edward Rochester is no prize, but Jane Eyre has a heck of a lot more backbone than most romance heroines, even if she does end up with the creep in the end.

If you really like heroines who are child-like ingenues completely dominated by an asshole older man, Rebecca gives you one who doesn't even have a name, with an added dose of gothic creepiness and a clever twist at the end. Also, Mrs. Danvers is scaaaary!

And my last entry in the category of "romance-novels-that-are-totally-not-romance-novels": Gone With the Wind. Scarlett O'Hara is too much of a sociopath to really love anyone, but that makes the chemistry between her and Rhett Butler that much more volatile.

As a bonus, GTWT should equally satisfy people who like epic fantasies with marching armies and dynastic power struggles and high and low plots, because it's got everything those books offer except maybe orcs. Well, in GWTW, Yankees and black people are orcs. Oh, don't pretend Tolkien was much better.


David Copperfield

if Voldemort had turned David CopperfieldHarry Potter over to us, we'd have sorted that little prick.


I could go on and on, recommending Dickens and Pynchon and Anthony Powell and Doris Lessing, but I am stretching my comparisons and also running out of pictures to write clever captions for. My point is that I've slowly discovered that there's really not that much correlation between genre and how much I enjoy a book. I still tend to read more SF&F than anything else, but looking at the ratings I give books I read, the SF&F books don't average higher ratings than the outside-my-comfort-zone reads, on average, and I've discovered many gems by trying an author whose appeal was not immediately apparent to me. I am building up a list of books I'd recommend to the hidebound genre fan depending on his or her preferences if they want to try something new. So what are some of the recs you'd make? What sorts of non-epic fantasies do you think would appeal to fans of epic fantasies? What contemporary realistic novel will appeal to SF fans? What authors write big sprawling character epics or quirky romances with snappy dialog who aren't shelved that way? Try expanding the tastes of your fellow readers here.

*If you call it "sci-fi" you are a NERD and a LOSER, and fantasy, of course, is for girls.




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  • The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen Flynn

    Time Travelers go back in time to meet Jane Austen. Harper Perennial, 2017, 384 pages Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing…

  • Mistress of the Waves

    Mistress of the Waves by George Phillies On another world, the narrator is fishing from her boat when an off-worlder is swept from his. She has to…

  • The Oracle Stone by Talli Morgan

    The Oracle Stone by Talli Morgan was awesome. Three mages are looking for a magical artefact, but things aren't as simple as they look. The author…