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Sunday Read: Whose Genre is it Anyway? Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro Discuss the Boundaries of Writing

The Sleeper and the SpindleTrigger WarningFortunately, the Milk...The Ocean at the End of the LaneAmerican GodsThe Buried Giant
NocturnesNever Let Me GoWhen We Were OrphansThe Remains of the Day

How would the works of JRR Tolkien or Charles Dickens have been received today? Why does escapist literature have such a bad wrap? Do books belong in boxes, as the critics would like us to believe?

Legendary authors Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro recently asked and attempted to answer these questions and more in an interview for the New Statesman. Together they grapple with the nature of literary prejudices and the arbitrary classifications of stories in a conversation about the world in which they are writers.

Gaiman starts the discussion by asking Ishiguro about the furore around his latest book, The Buried Giant, and why other authors and literary critics, among others the mother of fantasy herself, Ursula Le Guin, are so preoccupied with placing the work in the correct category.

Ishiguro, in turn, asks the Trigger Warning author if horror still exists as a genre, and why Gaiman’s Coraline was deemed “unpublishable” by those in the know in the 1990s.

The authors talk about the importance of genres (which, they agree, are really just marketing categories for bookshops and publishers), the stigma surrounding fantasy and the sense of class or snobbery that is linked to books (more so than to films and TV).

They also talk about the popularity of dystopian stories, why “the act of imagining is as important as the act of toiling”, The Hulk, the Sixties, Doctor Who, copyright issues and much more. Gaiman also reflects on his collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett and the authors end off with a thought on the ability of stories to be sly, untrustworthy and, inevitably, uplifting.

Read the article for this fascinating dialogue between two masters of storytelling:

Neil Gaiman Let’s talk about genre. Why does it matter? Your book The Buried Giant – which was published not as a fantasy novel, although it contains an awful lot of elements that would be familiar to readers of fantasy – seemed to stir people up from both sides of the literary divide. The fantasy people, in the shape of Ursula Le Guin (although she later retracted it) said, “This is fantasy, and your refusal to put on the mantle of fantasy is evidence of an author slumming it.” And then Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times reviewed it with utter bafflement. Meanwhile, readers and a lot of reviewers had no trouble figuring out what kind of book it is and enjoyed it hugely.

Kazuo Ishiguro I felt like I’d stepped into some larger discussion that had been going on for some time. I expected some of my usual readers to say, “What’s this? There are ogres in it . . .” but I didn’t anticipate this bigger debate. Why are people so preoccupied? What is genre in the first place? Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?

* * * * * * * *

KI Does that mean horror has disappeared as a genre?

NG It definitely faded away as a bookshop category, which then meant that a lot of people who had been making their living as horror writers had to decide what they were, because their sales were diminishing. In fact, a lot of novels that are currently being published as thrillers are books that probably would have been published as horror 20 years ago.

KI I don’t have a problem with marketing categories, but I don’t think they’re helpful to anybody apart from publishers and bookshops.

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