Sunday, August 01, 2004

Book of magic: The New York Times Magazine (registration required) has an interesting profile of fantasy writer Susanna Clarke, whose much-heralded debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is due out in September. The article takes a brief detour, assessing the position of fantasy within the publishing world:
"The two most successful commercial franchises that have come into the book and entertainment worlds over the last five years are 'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings,''' the literary agent Simon Lipskar said. ''Anyone who's going to be honest about that is going to see a marketplace that's rewarding fantasy.''

Fantasy has not, of course, been absent from literary fiction, but it has been admitted to the mainstream generally only when pedigreed (Martin Amis's ''Time's Arrow''), political (Margaret Atwood's ''Handmaid's Tale'') or exotic (which is to say, Latin American). Fantasy and science fiction as a capital G genre, meanwhile, has largely been shelved separately from the rest of the culture, in part because of the genre's mania for self-classification into ever-narrower niches (high fantasy versus alternate history, hard science fiction versus space opera, cyberpunk versus steampunk) and in part because of pure snobbery.

Still, it is hard to deny a sense that the boundaries between genre and literary fiction are slipping. Gaiman's ''American Gods,'' in which an ex-con joins the Norse god Odin on a road trip, was marketed as a mainstream thriller. Philip Roth is just about to publish his alternate history novel, ''The Plot Against America.'' And Kelly Link's self-published ''Stranger Things Happen,'' with its ghosts and giant dogs and men with tin noses, was named among the best books of the year by Salon at the end of 2001.
Gaiman-spotters should note that he's quoted in the profile, recalling Clarke's first short story, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu": ''It was terrifying from my point of view to read this first short story that had so much assurance. It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time and she plays a sonata.''