Mon
Jan 20 2014 10:00am

A Great Castle Made of Sea: Why Hasn’t Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Been More Influential?

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell What Makes This Book So Great

Jo Walton’s new book What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), is a collection of some of her best Tor.com posts honoring, analyzing, and reassessing science fiction and fantasy. The full collection, featuring over 130 essays, is out on January 21st and includes great opinion pieces like this, originally published in July of 2010.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published in 2004. When I first read it in February 2005 I wrote a review on my Livejournal (full review here), which I shall quote from because it is still my substantive reaction:

It’s set at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in an England that is the same but distorted by the operation of magic on history, and it concerns the bringing back of practical English magic. What it’s about is the tension between the numinous and the known. The helical plot, which ascends slowly upwards, constantly circles a space in which the numinous and the known balance and shift and elements move between them. It’s a truly astonishing feat and I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’ve just read it again, and I could pretty much write that post again. In summary—this is terrific, it reads like something written in an alternate history in which Lud in the Mist was the significant book of twentieth-century fantasy, and it goes directly at the the movement between magical and the mundane.

I wasn’t the only person to think this book was brilliant. It won the World Fantasy Award, it won the Hugo and the Mythopoeic Awards, it was Time’s number one book of the year, a New York Times notable book, it was in the top ten of almost every publication in Britain and the US and it was a huge international mega-bestseller. It did about as well as any book can do.

But five years later, it doesn’t seem to have had any impact. I said it was as if the rest of us had been building sand castles on the beach and she had raised up a great castle made of sea, but five years on, sand castle fantasy is being published all around as if Clarke had never put finger to keyboard. I wonder why that is?

It may be that it’s just too soon. Publishing is astonishingly slow. Books being published now were written several years ago. Influence does take time to permeate through. But wouldn’t you think that in five years you’d start to see some influence? But even without publishing speed, it could take longer than that for Clarke’s influence to be assimilated and reacted to. I shouldn’t be so impatient. Ten years might be a better measure. If I’d looked for things influenced by Tolkien after five years I’d have assumed he’d had no effect.

Jo Walton What Makes This Book So GreatMaybe it will take a generation, maybe the people who read Clarke when they were teenagers will grow up to write fantasy influenced by her, but it’s not going to happen with people already grown up and publishing and set in their ways?

Perhaps it’s just sui generis, so wonderful and unique that it can’t really be an influence except as a spur to excellence?

Or maybe, in the same way it doesn’t appear to have much in the way of immediate ancestors, it can’t produce descendants? It’s wonderful, but it’s not what fantasy is, it isn’t in dialogue with fantasy and it’s hard for fantasy to engage with it?

After all, what do I mean by influence? There’s plenty of fantasy set in Regency England—there’s Novik’s Temeraire for a start. I don’t think we should have a sudden rash of books about Napoleonic magic or books with charming footnotes containing short stories. I don’t even want more books directly using faerie magic. (We have had some of those too.)

What I would have thought I’d have seen by now is stories that acknowledge the shadow Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell cast across the possibilities, things that attempt to engage with the numinous in the way it does. Fantasy is all about ways of approaching the numinous—and everything I read is still using the traditional approaches. That’s what I keep hoping for and not seeing.

Perhaps it will happen, given time.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is there, it’s incredible, and one can always read it again.


Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012.

43 comments
TheDoctor
1. TheDoctor
Well said. I love Jonathan Strange too.

A follow-up question. Why hasn't she written another novel? I'm dying here!
TheDoctor
2. dumarest
read the first quarter of JS&MN and found it dry and slow. should i persevere?
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
@dumarest. I did find it slow, and I am still not as blown away as others are by the book (although I recognize its very very good). So yes, persevere.

I think you hit the nail on the head, Jo. Books which are individually influential take time to permeate. All of the cyberpunks were already moving in that direction when Neuromancer broke, which is why the wave hit so hard. Not so with Clarke.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Dumarest -- every book isn't for everybody. If you've read a quarter of it without enjoying it, then this one, much as I love it, probably isn't for you.

TheDoctor: I believe she is working on a sequel, but she isn't a fast writer.
David Holden
6. davidholden
Yes, it took her like 10 years to write Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in the first place. She does have the Ladies of Grace Adieu collection, but I'd imagine we won't see another book for another 5 years at most.
Tex Anne
7. TexAnne
Dumarest, 2: Yes, you should! I bogged down somewhere around there, left it until I'd pretty much forgotten it, and then started over--whereupon it grabbed me and wouldn't let go. I think I might have read it in one day, actually. (And I've read it several times since, mostly after I bought the ebook...the gigantic hugeness of the paper version was a drawback.)

If you're not sure, here are a pair of fics that feel very like the book. Dip your toe into the sea!
http://archiveofourown.org/works/1093059 (10K words)
http://archiveofourown.org/works/604015 (3K words)
TheDoctor
8. Makhno
Maybe its influence will be more widely seen after the miniseries comes out?
TheDoctor
9. Stu West
I read the novel when it was published, loved it and told everyone that it shouldn't have been a word shorter than it was. Then I reread it last year and had the blinding flash of insight that actually yes there are probably a few dozen pages around the part with the Venetian woman in the room full of cats (if you've only read the book once you probably don't even remember her) which are a bit dull and could usefully have been edited out.

Maybe more people haven't emulated Susanna Clarke's approach to magic because they didn't realise she was doing anything striking and new? She weaves the supernatural into her story so beautifully that it feels like something writers have been doing all along rather than anything recently invented.
Adam Whitehead
10. Werthead
I think the problem is that it lacked originality. The novel was very reiminiscent of Jack Vance in tone and occasionally writing (particulalry of LYONESSE), and Vance's influence and impact on the genre is unquestioned. I don't think JS&MN brought as much that is new and original to the table as is often said to be the case. There's also the problems of it being overlong and having a poor ending: the twin traditional curses of fantasy, and if anything it's more prevalent in JS&MN because the first half is so very good.

Also, when an author does develop a style and has an impact, additional books are needed to sustain that. Clarke took ten years to write JS&MT and it's assumed that if she is working on a follow-up (it was reported she was, but a long, long time ago), it won't be along for another few years. That's too long to maintain profile in the marketplace, if we're talking from a pure marketing perspective.

I do expect to see a resurgence of interest in the book this year. I'll be surprised if there isn't a 10th anniversary edition, and of course the BBC mini-series adaptation of the novel will be airing at the end of the year.
TheDoctor
11. a1ay
I believe she is working on a sequel, but she isn't a fast writer.

Yes, there was an interview in 2004 in which she said that she was working on one focussing on characters further down the social scale - more Vinculus and Childermass than Norrell and Strange.

Eddie Marsan (Lestrade to Robert Downey Jr's Holmes) and Bertie Carvell (who I'd never heard of) have been cast as Norrell and Strange respectively.
Walker White
12. Walker
@10
The novel was very reiminiscent of Jack Vance in tone and occasionally writing (particulalry of LYONESSE)
I had not thought of this before, but you are absolutely right.
Terry Druga
13. toohey cohen
I wanted to like it; I enjoyed the characters and ideas, but it felt like slogging through mud. I finally gave up around three-quarters in. And I almost never stop reading a book. Oh well.
TheDoctor
14. Casejord
I really enjoyed it and have been meaning to do a reread.

I think one reason why it might be less influential/what makes it unique is how it is really legitimately written as if it was a Regency era novel, while also viewing the period with a lack of rose-colored-glasses. Atypically from other historical novels set in the period, it isn't a bodice ripper or twee.

Clarke reminds me a bit of K.J. Parker in the "coldness" of the prose and her total unsentimentality.
TheDoctor
15. RohanV
It's been a while since I read JS&MR, but I thought it fit into the same tradition as Patricia A McKillip and Michelle Sagara West (maybe Guy Gavriel Kay as well). Quiet, lyrical fantasy. Books where the magic is not looked at directly, but obliquely.

Pretty much the exact opposite of the way Brandon Sanderson treats magic.

There have always been writers like that, but it seems a rarer form than people who tackle how the magic works directly.

In fact, if you go off Sanderson's Laws of Magic, this other style is much harder to work effectively, because it relies on not being explicit about the magic, but still having the magic be pivotal in the conclusion to the story. I think that violates one of Sanderson's Laws. Since I generally agree with Sanderson's Laws, I think that shows how hard it is to pull off this other style effectively.
TheDoctor
16. Gerry__Quinn
It IS brilliant. But it is also sui generis, and more importantly, it doesn't create a system for derivative works to play off.
TheDoctor
17. olaf78
I believe it is too good - she bred the sheep, sheared them, scoured the wool, spun it, dyed it and made whole cloth.
It is damned intimidating.

And cold. This is a book of passion and cruelty and suffering but imo it is cold and remote much like the Raven King.
TheDoctor
18. twbd
There a some short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu . I both like them an was disappointed. They were to main stream and traditioanl after JS&MN.
The book is slow read, it is very Victorian in its structure. There is a large castand it is hard to appricate all them the first time through. It takes several readings, like Jane Austen and Mary Shelly before you start to appricate some of the sbtleties.
I see more that just your epic fantsey, there a bit of Regency Romances and other things.
For those of you who did not get through get the cds. They would be a welcome diversion on a rainy day or a long drive.
JS&DN set the stage to reinvet the fairy cannons- remininding us that some fairytales are uinversal. That is you can find them in all cultures.
TheDoctor
19. vjj
It was a great book. But I think part of the problem is that there wasn't a follow-up book by Susanna Clarke. It didn't even have to be a sequel. I think some fantasy literature fans are reticent to be influenced by an author who hasn't produced a follow-up book of comparable quality.

Having said that, "Queen Victoria's Book of Spells" anthology edited by Ellen Datlow explicitly states it uses Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as an inspiration for the stories in that volume.
D S
20. Ithilanor
I think one series that has been inspired by Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist books. I haven't read them, but I know they're Regency-era fantasy; I have to imagine JS&MN was one of the influences.
Bruce Arthurs
21. Bruce-Arthurs
I will second twdb's recommendation for the audiobook version if you have trouble getting into the printed version. (Also, that big thick volume is heavy to carry around!)
Michael Grosberg
22. Michael_GR
I listened to JS&MN on audiobook. It is amazing that a work with so many author's notes - some of them longer than a couple of pages - can be made into an audiobook at all, but it works and it was a joy to listen to - possibly the finest narration I've heard. JS&MN is possibly the best fantasy novel of the 200's, and I really hope there will be another Clarke book some day, but I'm beginning to lose hope.
As to its influence, I believe there is more than a touch of Gaiman (by way of stardust which was in turn influenced by Lud-in-the-Mist) in JS&MN. So it's not such a singular work, although I believe Clarke produced a better novel than Gaiman ever did (The Sandman is wonderful but it's a graphic novel and has less in the way of prose).
TheDoctor
23. a1ay
I believe there is more than a touch of Gaiman (by way of stardust

One of the stories in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" is actually set in the village of Wall.
TheDoctor
24. EggyToast
What would this influence look like?

I finished JS&MR and found it well written, but its influence seems more like it would affect future Jane Austen novels rather than fantasy. There are very, very few Victorian-style novels being written, though, and of those scant few, I imagine zero of them are considering adding magical elements.

Otherwise, fantasy novelists probably look to Clarke's novel as something pretty definitive. If you want to write a fantasy novel in the vein of Austen, well, there's the roadmap. I don't believe many fantasy authors want to do that. However, the next fantasy novel written like an Austen piece will probably look heavily influenced by JS&MR -- or heavily influenced by Austen.
TheDoctor
25. Jabberwocky
I suspect it could be because JS&MR is such a...literary book. I read it years and years ago, but it took me a month to slog through (I read most books in 3-7 days, tops) and while I could appreciate that the author had managed an impressive writing feat, the actual story was dense and difficult and honestly, years later I barely remember anything beyond the fact that the Man with Thistle Down Hair was super creepy.

Every so often I feel like maybe I should try to read it again, but it always just seems like too much effort. I read for pleasure and in the end reading JS&MR just felt like work. It may be a triumph of writing skill, but I think it's probably just not accessible enough to end up being widely influential.
Shelly wb
26. shellywb
Some books are just too unique to be cloned a la Tolkien, and this one is one of them. It took 10 years to write- there won't be many people trying to duplicate it. But its influence will likely be felt sideways by thoughtful writers.

In that way it reminded me of Freedom and Necessity. There wasn't a rash of epistolary fantasies after it came out, but it felt like people had read it by an increased subtlety of magic and serious attention to history in some of the books available later .
Sky Thibedeau
27. SkylarkThibedeau
JS&MN was avery slow read. I stopped about a quarter in. It is written in that Old Style from a time when there were no easily publicly accessible Paintings, Photographs, motion pictures, or Televison. The author had to describe things to the reader who had never seen an elephant or a tropical island and probably never would. I had a hard time reading classics like Les Miserables and Leatherstocking tales too.
TheDoctor
28. clew
How long did it take Tolkien to be `cloned'? I may be forgetting a generation of stuff, but it seems to me the mass of triple deckers started in the 1970s, even, with the immediate Tolkien coat-tail going to heroic fantasy that wasn't so world-building.
TheDoctor
29. Gerry__Quinn
I responded already, but I only just noticed all the comparisons with _Lyonesse_. I never linked the two, and I won't argue with those who see some resemblance in them - but one thing is obvious, if you wanted to write a story set in the world of _Lyonesse_ it would be almost too easy. And if you wanted to write one set in the world of _Strange and Norrell_, you wouldn't know where to start.
TheDoctor
30. AD
I approached this book like a real world biography or history. That's what made me stick it out through the slow parts and live with the not-very-satisfying ending (because how often does real life give us nice endings?) And it explains the tone, the footnotes, and the door-stop length. It's like a serious history book that fell through a wormhole into our dimension.

I've only read it once, but it has stuck with me better than most things.
Francesca Forrest
31. Asakiyume
I thought it was a fabulous book--yes, slow, but the inexorable upwelling of the magic, and the absolute other-ness of faerie, was completely captivating. Literally: I took the tome on a camping trip and felt as if I were under a spell; I felt compelled to keep reading. The scene where Childermas speaks with the Raven King--wow. Incredible.

Upthread people are talking about Susanna Clarke being cold--maybe yes! Scary, I thought, as I read JS&MN. She's maybe scary. But marvelous. She gets faerie.
TheDoctor
32. salumbre
The crazy old woman with all the cats is actually the one Strange distilles his essence of madness from. There's not a gratuitous page in that book. If anything, we don't get enough of certain characters, like Lady Pole or Stephen Black.

I get that slow, florid Austenian prose is not everyone's cup of tea. I completely get that. And to be frank, the book takes its sweet time setting things up. During most of he first half, I enjoyed the prose and the Dickensian subtlety of her characterizations, but found the fantasy dry and lacking. Until it suddenly opens this immense dark wings and starts flying, and you are like "wow!" By the end, it's quite a ride.

Perhaps the reason JS&MN has not been more influential is that it is too MATURE a book, if that makes sense. It's definitely not one for the Twitter crowd, and even well-read 20-somethings will find it cold. I know I would have. It's also too damn peculiar for its own good. A bit like Among Others, I guess... ;-)

And speaking of Twitter, I love, LOVE Neil Gaiman, but if I get another Tweet from him I'm going to bust a vein. I understand authors need to self-publicize and all that jazz, but COME ON!
TheDoctor
33. Priya Chand
I love that book—but every reread has involved me spending a lot of time in the Strange and not so much in the Norrell. They're both needed to make the book complete, but I think we live in a society where we have so many alternatives for instant gratification that if any part of a book doesn't hit that immediately, it's not as competitive in the overall market. Clarke has more than earned all the kudos she gets for treading in relatively foreign territory, but I can't see other authors rushing to emulate her--and there's something about that Victorian/Regency time period that seems to demand a more detailed, Austenian style.
TheDoctor
34. ojisan
Did any other readers get a whiff from JS&MN of that other great sui generis British fantasy writer Mervyn Peake? Maybe this style is cicada-like in its life cycle, and only hatches a brood once every sixty years or so -
TheDoctor
35. pjcamp
It won't happen because people are too much up in that China Mieville crap. This is the exact opposite.
TheDoctor
36. charming.quark
Yes, Asakiyume, I felt the same way, that Clarke really got faerie, and that she wrote to the way that faerie really would be, rather than establishing its rules to fit the story arc. (not naming any names, but we've all seen that.)

Oh, and I've been waiting for some place to share this little tidbit (!), which I think is characteristic of the thought she put into the book, maybe even more so because it's never explicitly spelled out.

Several times it's mentioned that the inhabitants of faerie called the Raven King their word for "starling," since he had no name of his own; and once or twice that the language of faerie was very similar to Gaelic. But no mention of what that word was. If you're like me, you may have thought, in passing, "hmmm, I wonder why they called him that?" So I eventually got around to looking it up in my Gaelic-English dictionary (what, doesn't everyone have one?).

The Gaelic word for "starling" is "druid."
TheDoctor
38. Phasma Felis
I still don't get what Clarke was going for with the first quarter of the book. A bunch of people have mentioned that it "starts slow," but I think it's more than that. The first two-hundred-plus pages are entirely devoted to Mr. Norrell, and Mr. Norrell is carefully calculated to be (a) absolutely as boring as humanly possible and (b) as unlikable as a person can be without doing anything interesting. I pushed through out of stubbornness, and matters explode delightfully once Johnathan Strange shows up, but that first huge chunk is really not any fun at all, and I think Clarke is too calculating a writer to do that by accident. So...I'm confused.
TheDoctor
39. pjcamp
No one ever wrote another Finnegans Wake either, nor anything in that genre.
TheDoctor
40. Greg P
I just read this novel for the 3rd time, and each reading gets better. It isn't just the story arc, it's the dry wit and cynical humor, the interesting and believable characters, the sublety and the fact that you (as the reader) often know more than the characters know. You are left at the end of the story feeling like you understand the story far better than any of the participants. To say it "starts slow" is to say that raw ingredients are boring as you set out to make a gourmet dinner. Yes, the payoff is in the dinner itself, but the groundwork is necessary to establish the setting, the characters, the situation. Thankfully, Ms Clarke does not feel it is necessary to write literally, or to slam you over the top of the head with plot elements. I remember the first time I read this book - I got three pages in, and stopped, and re-read the first three pages just for the pleasure. If you read the first three pages and do not find them in equal measure to be both amusing and intriguing, this is NOT the book for you.
TheDoctor
41. Tommy McGuire
Because it was, and is, not marketed as fantasy? I remember thinking when it came out that, "this sorta sounds like fantasy...why is it over here with the literary genre?" (Ah, the wonders of living in a major college town---the bookstore actually had "literary" separate from general fiction.)

After reading Jo's book and this essay, I remembered that I had meant to pick it up, and did so. Want to guess where I found it? Hint: not in science fiction and fantasy.
TheDoctor
42. Lawrence Bottorff
It's not because JS&Mr.N is sui generis that it is unclonable, it is because it is a "terminal" book. By terminal I mean a story that really can't go on. It can't go on because it would require the writer to do something nigh on impossible, that is, predict what England would be like with Faerie really out and in the open. Oh, sure, you could make a trivial, hackneyed attempt. Another Clarke, Arthur C., did just that with his terminal book 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that work we cannot really imagine what a quasi-Nietzschian humanoid would be about. And yet Clarke made the terrible mistake of churning out three horrible sequels.

Tolkien's LotR is also a terminal book. There is no sense to writing about what happens during the so-called Fourth Age. And even in LotR itself, he hasn't much of a clue about what to say about his demi-angelic Elves. He paints with a broad brush very lightly, relying on the hugger-mugger action to carry the story.

As a "fantasy" writer myself, the mystical well is deep and unfathomable. You can only allude to it. Any attempt to really describe it starts to sound cartoonish.

Susanne Clarke is really through with JS&Mr.N, if she has any sense.
TheDoctor
43. Dustan D
Sadly, despite SC's vivid tallents that delight and amaze, I wouldn't say she's been prolific. That might be why this book does not define a genera. I'd dearly love to read a new novel set in her world with a stories that snake around magic and through history.

I disagree with Lawrence B above on the notion that this book terminates in a unwritable unknowable magical apocalypse. JS&MrN's twisty unpredictable lives are draw from history, and history goes on.
TheDoctor
44. numo
Clarke knows the period of history she's writing about, she is obviously steeped in early-mid 19th c. English novels (and the worlds found therein), she's clearly an old hand at drawing-room comedy (and likely Regency-era plays), as well as the original Gothic novels. To somehow put that all together with such lovely prose style *and* to get Faerie so right is an incredibly tall order. While I realize it's not to a lot of peoples' taste, it is (imo) the work of someone at the vety top of her game, and i can't even begin to imagine how many drafts she went through.

The footnotes are just amazing and set the tone for the uncanny adpects of the book perfectly, while the scholarly writing style and citations ground it all in reality.

I don't think anyone else has written anything remotely like it, and wonder if any follow-up will work half so well. Though we can hope!

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