Let’s Talk About Content, Baby

So there’s another article on the perception of fantasy readers.

But even SF fans have it easy compared to followers of fantasy. These are the people Red Dwarf fans sneer at for being nerdy. They are the zit-ridden little brothers of the SF geeks, whose even-less-healthy obsessions include trolls, giving Anglo-Saxon names to phallic weapons, and maidens with magical powers.

Sigh. Firstly: the dude clearly hasn’t been to DragonCon – if nerds look like this, sign me up. But is it me, or is there too much debate about the image of fantasy these days?

I remember discussing the Gemmell Award with a friend recently, and we both couldn’t find much wide-screen discussion on the quality and content of the books, of the literature, of what it offers, the context within genre (the taxonomy even), the nuts and bolts and nuances of the text, standing the books alongside each other and digging deep. All that I’ve seen is Damien G Walter’s thoughts, but little else other than a report of the night, or a brief note on the winner, or those cool little axes (yes I do want one, but that’s not the point.)

Compare this with the Clarke Award shortlist discussion.

Rampant debates followed in various forums and blogs, and on occasion veered into a belle-lettristic circle-jerk (but that’s all part of the fun, right?). The point is, the books were being examined in ferocious detail, and that meant people are interested in SF as a literature.

So where is the wider analysis of the Gemmell Award books? Why hasn’t anyone cranked-open these bad boys (and girls – we are gender neutral here!) to open up a wider discussion on the merits of the books against each other, a real show-down to get people talking about what’s in the books, rather than talking about the people holding them?

I love reading fantasy fiction and all that it can offer, from the fast entertainment to the deep reflection, the challenging content. That sensawonder. But I think we can get caught up in the aesthetics of fantasy as a genre, rather than the content of the individual books. We’re asked to celebrate all that’s good about fantasy – and I’m totally for that – and I think the forums and blogs celebrate the genre well. The community throngs.

But how can we persuade those who look down upon us to treat fantasy literature with more respect if we’re not respectfully discussing these great books in detail ourselves?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

30 replies on “Let’s Talk About Content, Baby”

So where is the wider analysis of the Gemmell Award books?

Coming to Strange Horizons later this summer. It would have been sooner, but the reviewer was busy getting her doctorate. πŸ™‚

Well, it is only the first year, so I think you need to cut it some slack. But, it does seem to have gained a lot attention quickly, so I suspect that you will see more discussion in the future.

Niall – I’m looking forward to seeing what your epic-fantasy-hating ezine has to say on the matter πŸ˜‰

Neth:Dude, I wasn’t complaining at the award; I think it’s a good thing. Maybe even a great thing. It’s more the reaction to it online – I mean, this is an online-voted award, so I expected more debate – just like the Clarkes.

Well i guess i’m as guilty as anyone. In spite of my Gemmell awards wristband I have barely mentioned them on Un:Bound. Coverage has been pretty light this year, but no one knew quite what to expect, I would hope that next year both the awards and the coverage would have hit their stride. Back to the main point though, I agree completely that trad fantasy does not get the serious consideration alongside other genres or standard fic that it deserves as an art form. It doesn’t help when certain authors get offended at the suggestion they might be fantasy (Breckon, looking at you). This is turning into a post. Perhaps I should just do that instead of mad long comments.

I was referring to it being in its first year – so I think some people have dismissed it, others are waiting to see, some don’t care because its focused on epic fantasy, and most are simply unfamiliar with it.

I also think that part of the reason it hasn’t been discussed much is that the winner hasn’t been widely read in English. Sure, he’s huge in his native Polish and other translations that have been around for a while, but to the English-speaking world, he’s a relative unknown.

Less flippantly, the Clarke has one thing the Gemmel doesn’t: judges. Which, when it comes to online debate, means “a set of people to argue with”. Certainly you can, and people do, argue with the shortlists of voted awards, such as the Hugos, but you can’t (for example) assume that the shortlist was chosen with a guiding philosophy (even if that’s not always the case with the Clarke); you can’t know that if your favourite book is on the list it’s because six people argued about it and decided it wasn’t good enough; it might be that you’re the only one that likes it, or it might just be that not enough people read it. Nor does the Gemmell have the Clarke’s inclusiveness — for better and worse (and it is both, I think), it’s a core fantasy award, so there isn’t the same likelihood of left-field picks, which again generate debate.

I agree with Neth that the newness of the award is a factor, possibly even the biggest factor. But clearly what we need is (yet) another award! A juried award for the best fantasy novel published in the UK in the previous calendar year …

hagelrat: Villjamur encourages long rambling comments. Although I’d be happy to see people blog about this and hopefully get their teeth into fantasy literature more so.

neth: Fair points there. I would have thought that because Epic Fantasy has one of the largest fanbases – it is the stadium rock of genre – then there would have been more discussion.

Niall: Villjamur also invites flippancy. Interesting that there was going to be a jury for this one, but there was a change at some point during the setup. What I do like about juries is the chances to picking up a relatively unknown writer and saying “Here, World, is an author we think you should look at.” The Man Booker is brilliant for that. I see your point on inclusiveness, although I’d argue that there’s every chance that it could include more left-field books in the future.

I’ll leave that new award in your capable hands then… πŸ™‚

It probably needs a mention in SFX or something to get a little more recognition. Plus some time to grow will help too – especially if the winner can now shift more english translations.

It’s great that people are honouring Gemmel by having an award ceremony but if others, like Mark, compare it to the Arthur C Clarke or Phillip K Dick award – I think it’s going to suffer. The two authors just mentioned are two of the “Big” Sci-fi authors that the general public know. I think it would probably have to be a “Tolkien” award to have the same recognition in Fantasy.

I haven’t read anything by the Gemmel award winner so I honestly can’t say if it’s a good choice or not but I know there’s always a danger of getting someone who many think are over-rated when the public can vote. How many votes actually came in for this?

As for the general perception of Fantasy fans stated in the post – sigh…

Niall, it’s an excellent choice. The Witcher books are incredible, i’d recommend them.

Mark, it’s certainly a topic that could use more discussion. I shall think on it in the morning, when I should be working.

10,000 votes is pretty impressive for the first year. looks like the award has a strong following from abroad if only 500 uk votes were placed.

Yup, 10,000 votes from 74 countries.

There seems to have been an unfortunate dismissal of the award after the switch from a juried to an internet vote format. That switch generated a fair amount of discussion, but then very little afterwards. Maybe the problem with the award is the narrowness of the field. The SF award nominees are usually very different in character, writing style and can be very different sub-genres (a cyberpunk book can go up against an alternate history and a space opera, for example). Books that are ‘in the spirit of David Gemmell’ are going to be, by definition, somewhat similar to one another, and I’ve seen the complaint that there’s not much to argue about between the nominated authors. You can certainly say you think Abercrombie is a better author than Weeks and Sanderson, for example, but in terms of general content and ideas, they are ploughing in the same field.

Still, that’s part of the learning process. Whilst I like the idea of the Gemmell Awards being for books in the spirit of David Gemmell, the idea is unsustainable. The Clarke Awards are not for books in the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke and ditto for the Philip K. Dick Awards. The winners of those awards are often very different from the two authors. With that in mind, the Gemmell Award should really be just for ‘Fantasy’, as broad a church as possible, rather than just epic fantasy.

This makes even more sense when you consider that Gemmell also wrote alternate history (with his Macedonian duology), post-apocalyptic science fantasy (with Jon Shannow) and outright speculative historical novels (Troy) as well as straight-up heroic fantasy. Seeing a similar variety on the list next year would be encouraging.

Fully agreed that stereotyping the readership is utterly pointless. Funnily enough though I’ve been thinking lately about how, once upon a time, Fantasy was actually linked to the counterculture, rock & roll, and so on – a far cry from the pimply herbert depicted in that Guardian piece for instance. I guess the world’s changed a great deal since Moorcock was dropping acid with Ballard and making music with Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult…

More in-depth analysis would be good too, as you say. I have a terrible habit myself of getting caught up in the aesthetics of Fantasy, getting stuck in pigeonholes rather than judging what I’m reading objectively and in isolation.

@Neil: A Michael Moorcock award? I think he best represents all aspects of Fantasy fiction for me, an iconic figure that wrote all kinds of things in all kinds of genres/subgenres. I think that’d be an award that truly represented the best and most diverse works that Fantasy has to offer.

I love the Stadium Rock comparison btw Mark. A marvellous way of putting it.

I blogged about the Clarke Award (well, maybe about 40% of it) and didn’t blog about the Gemmell Award; not sure how illuminating the following comment is going to be, but we’ll see…

Why blog about one and not the other? Purely a matter of timing, in my case: I wanted to have a go at reading and blogging about the nominees on an award shortlist; the Clarke was the big UK genre award, and it came along at a time when I stood a reasonable chance of reading the shortlist in time (although that didn’t work out). I’ve been too busy since to do the same again for another award.

I would echo previous comments that the reputation of the two awards probably has a lot to do with it; the Clarke has simply been around longer and is better known than the Gemmell.

Agreed also that there is a relative lack of detailed discussion of fantasy about, as compared to SF. I think your last sentence is key, Mark.

Neil: worth saying that Gemmell sold massively – especially in the UK – and was probably just as well-known as Phil KD.

Adam: fantastic observations, especially regarding the variety of his output.

Alex: I’m more than happy to drop tabs with any authors or bands out there. They only have to ask. πŸ˜› But you’re quite right about the image – it never used to be that way.

I don’t think that the aesthetics of fantasy are a problem per se – Farah’s book on the taxonomy of the genre is worth a look for contextual business – but yes, the aesthetics of the text itself are valuable.

Thanks, David. Good points there – and I agree that the longevity is valuable. As for my last sentence, it will be forever a mystery when it’s a known fact that the fantasy market is larger than SF.

@ Alex:

It seems traditional to give out awards in an author’s name only if they are dead or, if still alive, of stratospheric fame such as Arthur C. Clarke. Michael Moorcock doesn’t really fit into either category, although I agree him and Gene Wolfe are probably the shoe-ins to lend their names to an award celebrating more diverse forms of fantasy.

Well, the award is in its first year and at the ceremony there was mention of the possibility of more categories and that it was very much “work in progress”. There are also many reasons for the Gemmell Award, one being that there isn’t a prestigious award for THE fantasy which is essentially what keeps the whole genre afloat in sheer book-shifting terms.

Mention was also made of no recognition of commercial fantasy in awards and that it was good to see it (I think Joe Abercrombie made mention of this as well) being acknowledged with the Gemmell Award. That doesn’t mean that such fiction is devoid of subtext and depth or incapable of being considered as – aften seems to be a dirty word now – art. ‘Legend’ itself, Gemmell’s first published fantasy novel,
is a book wrought through with subtext, on one level one long piece of subtext.

There *is* debate about the award and the books/the winner on Westeros – although as it stands only two pages by Westeros standards is small beer – with its usual mix of telling insights, informed debate, skull crunching solipsism, high-minded underpants blogger-like disdain or outright insults (all of this has already occured on the 2-page and counting Gemmell Award thread!).

The notion of a Michael Moorcock award misses the point. It would be just one more award in the jamboree bag known as fantasy, given the stylistic and variegated sub-genre nature of Moorcock’s output. (Plus the curmudgeonly oracled one isn’t dead yet).

This is the first year of the Gemmell Award, over 10,000 votes were polled and shock horror the majority of them did not come from the UK! We are not the beginning and the end of the universe in fantasy terms (any more than the US is). But Britain does need a dedicated fantasy awards (I’m not even going to go there with the BFS is horror-centric debate, suffice to say that after it the Gemmell Award happened along) for a genre that dwarves other genres of the fantastic.

Once again, it has already been stated that The David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy is very much a work in progress. Quite honestly what Deborah Miller and Stan Nicholls put together in David Gemmell’s memory in little over the space of a year, garnering the backing of the major publishing players in fantasy in this country is right now to be widely applauded. It will grow with continued backing and support and it will be to the benefit of the many and varied branches that come under that confusing grouping ‘fantasy fiction’.

You can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. And the internet is now virtually living proof, that you just can’t please some people at all!

There’s a P.S. to this: The BFS has been undergoing a transition with a new chair in Guy Adams and one thing it has done is loudly trumpet the Gemmell Award ceremony and that can only be a good thing all round. As a society it does to an extent reflect its membership, be it horror, fantasy or whatever comes under the fantastical name. Right now that does still seem to be predominantly horror. The shortlist for the awards would still seem to bear this out. There was a strong feeling among many fantasy writers, especially following on from the death of David Gemmell, who was famed for his generosity towards new authors in the genre, that fantasy needed to fight its corner without such internicine confusions.

There is no reason why the two cannot happily coexist.

These fragments we shore against our ruin.

Some great discussion here.
Mark: I agree that David Gemmell was a sales powerhouse and very well liked but I’d still argue that he was an insular name eg how many movies are based on his books? This has nothing to do with quality but sadly if you want to get outside recognition you need to have movies or TV shows out there.

I’m sure that the organisers will be happy to see suggestions on how to make the awards better. If this discussion is anything to go by we all want to see more awards. There should at least be a best newcomer (don’t you agree, Mark?) as having said award stuck on a book is really going to help a new author, more than say an author who wins because he is a bestselling author already.
It goes without saying there should be a wider scope than just epic/heroic fantasy too and at least something that rewards people who try something a little different (realistically you can’t publish very different).
Hopefully the organisers don’t see the fan reaction as a reason not to bother with another but to come back with an even better show next year.

Thanks for all your comments, Nick. Good point about the BFS – Guy Adams is a terrific dude, and I hope he manages to successfully push the development of fantasy.

Hi Neil. I see your point about TV shows – perhaps you’re right there. And of course there should be a best newcomer… πŸ˜‰

Ultimately, I’d rather the discussion was about the content of the books than all the other stuff.

I’ll share something I discussed with a buyer at a major bookchain. I asked him, after an unnamed but *major* SF award, how many copies he might sell of the winner. And he replied: “About 50”. Which is nothing when we talk in terms of the thousands of books sold it takes to get an author’s career going. Make of that what you will.

interesting post… Thanks
for the mention. And I hold hands up, since I did play on the stereotype rather than the writing… In defence, I was trying to suggest the stereotype is unfair… And also, it was a first post on the subject… And like it or not, those stereotypes are the first thing most will think of relating to fantasy.

But you’re right that there needs to be more on the actual art of the books… And I think that the award will foster that. Indeed, I’m taking suggestions for further discussion over on the GU blog ( ) so do go over there and tell me what you’d like to read/ debate. I’ve hardly read any fantasy since giving up on Eddings when an early teen, so there’s a whole world out there waiting for me, I guess. Several hundred worlds, in fact…

[…] Mark Charan Newton: So where is the wider analysis of the Gemmell Award books? Why hasn’t anyone cranked-open these bad boys (and girls – we are gender neutral here!) to open up a wider discussion on the merits of the books against each other, a real show-down to get people talking about what’s in the books, rather than talking about the people holding them? […]

Further to Nick’s comments, I don’t remember the exact details, but wasn’t it originally suggested that an award in Gemmell’s name could be added to the roster of the British Fantasy Awards? And then there was some debate over (I think) the fact that they already have a Best Novel award — and the eventual upshot was the Gemmell Award as we know it today?

The BFS, I believe, originates from a time when the demarcation between fantasy and horror was perhaps not as great in people’s minds as it is now (NB. this is my personal opinion and nothing more); and there have been suggestions that it favours one or the other at various times throughout its history. I think it would be great if everyone began to feel the BFS was for them, regardless of their taste in books.

Question (and I am genuinely interested to know the answer): how fragmented is fantasy fandom? Does it split along author lines, or types of fantasy (and if so, what types), or something else?

It was a bit like that, David, but not quite! I think it is great that the BFS has the shot in the arm that it has now, change is a sign of life. That mad bad and dangerous to know b***** Adams and an influx of new committee members might just make all the difference!

The society has and probably will continue to reflect the majority interests of its members – it is a society after all and not an award in isolation, a distinction that is often overlooked – and right now that does seem to be a lot of horror for society members.

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