In "Let's Talk About Genre: Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in Conversation," Neil notes that when Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings it wasn’t regarded as part of the fantasy genre:
NG: [T]he first part was reviewed in the Times by W.H. Auden. It was a novel, and that it had ogres and orcs and giant spiders and magical rings and elves was simply what happened in this novel. Back then these books tended to be produced in exactly the same way as you produced The Buried Giant, in that you’d written other things, and now you wanted to do a book in which, for the novel to work, you needed a dragon breathing magical mist over the world; you needed it to occur in a post-Arthurian world; you needed your monsters and your ogres and your pixies. There were people like Hope Mirrlees -- who wrote modernist poetry and profoundly realistic fiction and who was one of the Bloomsbury set, but produced a wonderful novel called Lud-in-the-Mist -- and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote books like Kingdoms of Elfin. And these were simply accepted as part of mainstream literature.
KI: So what happened? Why have we got this kind of wall around fantasy now, and a sense of stigma about it?
NG: I think it came from the enormous commercial success in the Sixties, when the hippie world embraced The Lord of the Rings and it became an international publishing phenomenon. At Pan/Ballantine, the adult fantasy imprint, they basically just went through the archives of books that had been published in the previous 150, 200 years and looked for things that felt like The Lord of the Rings. And then you had people like Terry Brooks, who wrote a book called The Sword of Shannara, which was essentially a Lord of the Rings clone by somebody not nearly as good, but it sold very well. By the time fantasy had its own area in the bookshop, it was deemed inferior to mimetic, realistic fiction. I think reviewers and editors did not know how to speak fantasy; were not familiar with the language, did not recognise it. I was fascinated by the way that Terry Pratchett would, on the one hand, have people like A.S. Byatt going, 'These are real books, they’re saying important things and they are beautifully crafted,' and on the other he would still not get any real recognition. I remember Terry saying to me at some point, 'You know, you can do all you want, but you put in one fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.'
Later in the conversation, Neil discusses his now-classic book Coraline to examine the ways that ideas about genre change. Since he and I grew up in the fantasy publishing world in the same generation, I remember this well:
NG: I remember as a boy reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which he writes about the way that people use the term 'escapism' -- the way literature is looked down on when it’s being used as escapism –--and Lewis says that this is very strange, because actually there’s only one class of people who don’t like escape, and that’s jailers: people who want to keep you where you are. I’ve never had anything against escapist literature, because I figure that escape is a good thing: going to a different place, learning things, and coming back with tools you might not have known.
I was book-reviewing a lot in the early Eighties, and it seemed for a while like all young adult books were the same book: about some kid who lived in slightly squalid circumstances, with an older sibling who was a bad example, and the protagonist would have a bad time and then run into a teacher or adult who would inspire them to get their life back on track. It was depressing. The wonderful thing about J. K. Rowling was that suddenly the idea that you can write books for kids that go off into weird and wonderful places – and actually make reading fun -- is one of the reasons why children’s books went from being a minor area of the bookshop to a huge force in British publishing.
When I started writing Coraline, in 1991, and showed it to my editor, he explained that what I was writing was unpublishable. He wasn’t wrong. His name was Richard Evans; he was a very smart man, with good instincts. When he explained why writing a book intended for children and adults that was functionally horror fiction for children was unpublishable, I believed him.
KI: The objection was what, exactly? That it was too scary?
NG: It was too scary, it was very obviously aimed at both children and adults, it was weird, fantastic horror fiction, and they didn’t have a way of publishing it. They knew which librarians bought what and how things got reviewed, and this was simply not something that they could have sold. It wasn’t until much later, when I was in a world in which the Lemony Snicket books had happened, and Philip Pullman and Rowling were being read, and the idea of crossover books aimed at both children and adults existed, that it was published.
KI: Perhaps things that deviated from realism were treated with great suspicion. But Coraline seems to be self-evidently a book that confronts all kinds of very real things. It’s about a child learning to make distinctions between certain kinds of parental love, to distinguish between a love that is based on somebody’s need and fulfilling somebody’s need, and what is actually genuine parental love, which may not at first glance look particularly demonstrative. I don’t see how anybody can mistake it for a kind of escapism: you’re not just taking children on some sort of strange, enjoyable ride.
NG: I think the rules are crumbling and I think the barriers are breaking. I love the idea also that sometimes, if you’re actually going to write realistic fiction, you’re going to have to include fantasy.
I recommend reading the whole conversation, which you'll find here.
Words: The passages above are from "Let's Talk About Genre: Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in Conversation" (The New Statesman, 4 June, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The illustrations are by Henry Justic Ford (1860-1941) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961). The photographs were taken on Nattadon Hill on a rare bright day. (We've had a very wet transition from winter to spring this year.)