British Fiction Focus

And Finally, For Now, the Fall of the Novel

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s regular round-up of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

In this, the last edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus before the column goes on hiatus over the holidays—more on which in a moment—we’ve got some pretty Patrick Rothfuss cover art, a round-up of some of the conversations to come from the UK’s first Young Adult Literature Convention, and an argument that the modern novel may be “losing the narrative arms race.”

All that, plus the Waterstones Children’s Laureate comes over all Klingon, author Allan Ahlberg takes a stand against Amazon, the first male Queen of Teen is crowned, and more.

A Holiday Hiatus

I don’t know about you, but I’m pooped. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to curate the news for you fine folks, but I haven’t, if I’m honest, had the chance to do much of anything else since the launch of the British Genre Fiction Focus (not to speak of the Short Fiction Spotlight) some seventy-five weeks or so ago.

And behind the scenes of the stories you read each week, there’s been drama, I dare say. Dreaded disinterest! And ill health, as well. Most weeks I’ve managed to come up with a column in any event. I’ve occupied internet cafes in the highlands and islands; I’ve blogged from the hospital; I’ve covered cover art with a heavy heart.

The long and short of all this is, I’m taking a bit of a break. A holiday, you could call it. So though the news never stops, the British Genre Fiction Focus will. But just for a bit. I’ll be back at it sometime in September, and I look forward to talking to you all again then—assuming the novel form lasts that long, as Damien Walter wonders.


The Fall of the Novel

True Detective

The Sopranos. Mad Men. Band of Brothers. House of Cards. Game of Thrones. […] True Detective. Individually the best shows in the HBO format (there are now other producers) are the equal of any stories ever told. And in many regards, better. Taken as a whole, there is a strong argument that they are part of the most amazing flourishing of story in human history. They combine the complexity of novels with the spectacle [of] film. And they bring another element almost unique to television. They are written collaboratively by teams of writers and script editors. These shows aren’t just the product of one superb imagination, but many of them, working in unison.

The novel, having pioneered the complex high quality storytelling it is clear audiences hunger for, now struggles to match the best of that storytelling in other mediums. Novels can’t touch the spectacle of film or the new king of that hill, video games. And they’re outgunned in the sheer richness of storytelling the best television shows can achieve. Not because the novel can’t match that quality, of course it can, but because doing so is very difficult. And the number of writers capable of producing stories of that quality is very small.

Quite despite myself, I tend to agree with Walter here. There’s been a lot of complex and compelling television of late. How many books have inspired a fraction of the widespread fervour Breaking Bad or True Detective did? My two pence: not a great many.

Which isn’t to say publishers haven’t given it a go. In fact:

For the best part of a decade now publishers have been flooding their distribution channels with fantasy series in the style of Game of Thrones. But instead of seeking out the few writers who might have the chops to make a new work on the scale of Martin’s epic, publishers have paid peanuts to debut authors to make third rate clones that lack all the technical expertise to equal the original. And this is far from a unique scenario. The publishing industry, instead of nurturing quality writing, has turned itself in to a cloning operation. There are still quality books to be found of course, but they are buried amongst a swill of third rate clones of the rare bestsellers that appear. And this, more than anything else, is destroying the audience for novels. Imagine if HBO, alongside True Detective, also released 200 competing television shows that looked similar but nowhere near as good. They would quickly undermine their audience engagement, just as publishers have. If publishers want their business back, they need to be as obsessed with story quality as HBO.

thomas ligotti the spectral link

It’s worth noting that a number of the projects Walter points to have their origins in the literary tradition. The first season of True Detective was deeply indebted to dark fantasy—to Thomas Ligotti and the like. Game of Thrones is obviously based on George R. R. Martin’s novels. House of Cards was adapted from a British miniseries in turn adapted from a novel written by Michael Dobbs. Consider also The Wire, and Hannibal. Both shows began because of books. I could go on.

But what’s the point? Walter of the Weird Things doesn’t dispute that the novel can be as brilliant as the best television. His point is it’s far harder, because it takes an entire talented team to make a terrific TV series, whereas books are produced—in this day and age, anyway—by individuals:

The writers who achieve real quality in their work do so entirely under their own energies. And that small minority of writers are now turning to self-publishing as an answer to the serious question, what value are publishers adding if they do not nurture quality? Because, if novels are to thrive as a medium in the 21st century, it is only an obsession with quality that will place them among the best storytelling on offer.

Quality, not quantity? You what?

As self-evident as that statement seems, I’d suggest that some publishers would be wise to take Walter’s words to heart.


Cover Art Corner: The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Last week, Gollancz unveiled what must be one of the year’s loveliest covers, for The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss.

Haunting, huh?

Note that The Slow Regard of Silent Things is not book three of The Kingkiller Chronicles. “It’s not a mammoth tome that you can use to threaten people and hold open doors,” the author allows. Instead, “it’s a short, sweet story about one of my favourite characters.”

Who could that be? Well, if you weren’t already aware:

The University, a renowned bastion of knowledge, attracts the brightest minds to unravel the mysteries of enlightened sciences like artificing and alchemy. Yet deep below its bustling halls lies a complex and cavernous maze of abandoned rooms and ancient passageways—and in the heart of it all lives Auri.

Formerly a student at the University, now Auri spends her days tending the world around her. She has learned that some mysteries are best left settled and safe. No longer fooled by the sharp rationality so treasured by the University, Auri sees beyond the surface of things, into subtle dangers and hidden names.

At once joyous and haunting, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a rich, atmospheric and lyrical tale, featuring one of the most beloved characters from Rothfuss’ acclaimed fantasy series.

It’s out at the end of October, folks.


Odds and Sods

  • To celebrate the early September publication of his new novel, The Bone Clocks, Man Booker Prize winner David Mitchell has taken to the “diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket” of Twitter to tell a tall tale set in the same universe as said. ‘The Right Sort’ will run to 280 tweets and take a week to complete. Helpfully, The Guardian has been collating the author’s tweets here.
  • “The world’s most democratic literary award,” namely the Not the Booker Prize, is now accepting nominations. Fittingly, given the actual Man Booker’s latest about-face, the Not the Booker is now open to all English language authors, up to and including Americans. You’ve got till July 27 to get some speculative fiction in, in any event.
  • Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, who welcomed attendees of the UK’s first Young Adult Literature Convention dressed in a Star Trek outfit on Saturday, has said that though there are “dogs, cats, rabbits [and] puppies” aplenty, “there are not enough characters from ethnic minorities in children’s picture books.”
  • In the interim, a bunch of other interesting debates have taken place at the Earl’s Court con. Author Isabel Harrop thinks that “the Young Adult field is ‘one of the best places to be a woman in the media,’” whereas Sarah Manning disagreed, whilst an entire panel of pundits admitted that they felt a “duty to write about sex in YA as it reflects the reality of life for teenagers.”
  • Fending off competition from eight other authors, including Cassandra Clare, Veronica Roth and John Green, James Dawson, the writer of Hollow Pike, has been crowned Queen of Teen at a ceremony in Surrey. He’s the first fella to be acknowledged by acknowledged by the body behind the award, which was set up in 2008 to encourage teen girls to read.
  • Angry Robot was “already set for a bumper evening with Anne Lyle, Mike Shevdon, Adam Christopher, Wesley Chu and Madeline Ashby at Forbidden Planet on Wednesday 13 August,” then they announced that this year’s Prometheus Award winner Ramez Naam would be coming to town too.
  • At a debate at the House of Commons last week, The Gospel of Loki author Joanne Harris spoke about the value of art and the perceived mystique of the writing life. “Understand that we have children and mortgages, and that writing is a real job that real people do,” she reminded an audience of industry insiders.
  • Children’s author Allan Ahlberg has knocked back “the inaugural Booktrust Best Book Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award, because it is sponsored by Amazon.” He explained his reasons in this letter to The Bookseller. Short answer: tax. “A good thing,” he begins. “It pays for schools, hospitals—libraries! When companies like Amazon cheat—paying 0.1% on billions, pretending it is earning money not in the UK, but in Luxembourg—that’s a bad thing.”

That’s it from me for this week, readers—and indeed, for the Focus for a few months. See you all on the other side of the summer!

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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