Why Are So Many People Snobby About Fantasy Fiction?

Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Booker prize in 1989 for his novel The Remains of the Day , is one of the literary world’s most respected novelists. It raised eyebrows in 2005 when he published Never Let Me Go , a dystopian science fiction novel about children who discover that they are clones destined to be harvested for their organs, though the book is now regarded as one of his best works. But when the literary world learned that his new book, The Buried Giant , is an Arthurian fantasy about the quest to kill a dragon, it didn’t just raise eyebrows—it made heads explode. Ishiguro was puzzled by the response.

“People are perfectly entitled to read my book and say they don’t like it,” he says in Episode 145 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “But if they’re saying, ‘I’m not going to read your book, despite having liked your previous books, because I hear there are ogres in it,’ well, that just seems to me classic prejudice.”

Ishiguro, who was born in Japan, was raised on samurai stories full of demons and shape-shifters, and avidly reads each new translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey , ancient tales of warriors, gods, and monsters. His longtime friend and mentor Angela Carter also wrote fiction full of myth and fantasy, and he thinks these various influences helped inspire him to write fiction that defies easy categorization.

“These are tools that have been used ever since people sat around the campfire as cavemen,” he says. “The Ancient Greeks used it, the Romans used it, Scandanavian folk tales, Japanese folk tales, European folk tales. We’ve used them all along. Why have we suddenly got rather snobbish and sneer-y about it in just the last few years?”

He admits that publishing books like Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant has gotten easier in recent years, as younger authors—like David Mitchell, whose 2004 novel Cloud Atlas was filmed by the Wachowskis—have helped expand the range of subject matter that’s accepted in the literary world.

“It’s enabled older writers like myself, who perhaps grew up in a crustier, more prejudiced kind of atmosphere about what we could and couldn’t do if we considered ourselves to be literary authors, people like me have been liberated by a lot of the work that’s being done by writers who are a generation, or perhaps two generations, younger than me,” he says.

He’s still not sure why certain topics provoke such consternation among some readers, but suspects it may come down to insecurity. Readers who are most attached to the idea of literature as a status symbol, and who are most desperate to be seen as serious, may eschew books that seem like too much fun.

“When we’re teenagers we’re very prone to this, you know, ‘If you like that band you’re not cool, if you wear those sneakers you’re cool,’ but with reading we should grow out of that,” he says. “And for some reason books with dragons in them arouse some sort of fear on the part of a certain kind of insecure reader.”

Listen to our complete interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in Episode 145 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Kazuo Ishiguro on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”:

“There’s a tiny little bridge passage where the hero, the young Sir Gawain, rides from one castle to the other across an ancient Britain. And it’s only a stanza or so, but there’s a little description of what a terrible place Britain was back in those days. And the poet—it’s an anonymous poet—the poet says, ‘There were no inns or anything like this for him to stay at, he had to cling on to rocks to sleep, in the driving rain,’ which kind of puzzled me. I don’t know why he has to sleep on rocks rather than under a tree, but anyway, that’s what it says. And then the bit that really caught my imagination, it says that often he’ll be chased out of villages by wolves or wild boar or by panting ogres. And the panting ogres are never mentioned again, they’re just part of the landscape, like unfriendly bulls or something.”

Kazuo Ishiguro on Angela Carter:

“She was much more than just my tutor at university—when I was doing a writing program many years ago—she then went on to be kind of a mentor figure, and we continued to be friends right up until her early death at the age of 51. I don’t know if her writing had a direct effect on something like The Buried Giant, but generally she was an example of an author who didn’t think in categories, she didn’t think some things were not suitable for literary fiction and other things were. She was a pretty out-of-the-box kind of writer, and I think to some extent her career suffered while she was alive. I mean, she was quite a neglected writer during the time when she was alive. It was only later on that people have come to recognize what an important writer she was. But that’s when I first started to write, it was right at the beginning of my writing life, and I think maybe because of people like Angela, I’ve never really thought in terms of categories, or genre even.”

Kazuo Ishiguro on fantasy and reality:

“I like the coexistence of gods and the supernatural alongside the banal and the everyday. I was brought up on a lot of samurai stories as a child. Not just samurai folk tales, but I read a lot of manga-type stuff featuring samurai, and it may be true to say—maybe I’m generalizing falsely here—but in a lot of Japanese samurai tales fantastical elements like that seem to exist very easily and naturally. … In that landscape, it always seems to me the coexistence of oni, as they’d be called in Japanese folklore—which is a kind of a demon-cum-ogre, I guess—and foxes that are shape-changers, and things like that, are very, very common. And it seems to tap back into something ancient and profound, so that all comes fairly naturally to me.”

Kazuo Ishiguro on religion:

“In my book … one of the accusations the Anglo-Saxon warrior aims at the native Britons—the Christians—is to say, isn’t it convenient that you’ve created for yourselves a god who is infinitely merciful? All you have to do with your god—never mind what atrocities your armies commit—all you have to do is pray sincerely, and maybe atone, and commit a few pious acts of self-inflicted pain, and you believe that your god will forgive you, because you’ve created a god of infinite mercy. But from our viewpoint, he’s saying, this is just a way of condoning hideous, vicious behavior. … And it’s the Christian nations that rampaged around the globe, creating these empires, all over the world, and it’s an interesting thought as to whether that would have been quite so easy had they not had this god who would forgive them anything.”

While You Were Offline: The Brontosaurus Is Back, Baby!

What’s that, you say? You’ve heard this was the week when the Internet was surprised by the return of a group of dinosaurs many hadn’t thought about in years? Hey, that’s no way to talk about Garbage. The ’90s rockers ended up on the wrong side of an open letter and, well, it got a little ugly. Elsewhere, the web was concerned with a couple of problematic nominations (well, in one case, problematic nomination processes, in the other, a troubled launch for a nomination campaign), what to wear on its collective wrist, and the revival of yet another concept thought long gone: the viral TED talk. This is the pick of what’s been happening online over the last seven days.

TED Talks Become a Thing Again

What Happened: A TED talk about female body positivity goes viral, reminds the world that TED talks exist.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: Lillian Bustle, an actor and burlesque performer, gave a TED talk about the need for positive portrayals of female beauty in the world, and how it impacts self-esteem.

Last weekend it was uploaded to YouTube (above), and—fueled by some blog posts—it took over social media.

(It was an even bigger deal on Tumblr.)

The Takeaway: Bustle just recently joined Twitter. It’ll be interesting to see if she continues to inspire in 140 character bursts—and also interesting to see if TED can find more talks that will touch on such a nerve in the future.

Republican Presidential Nominees Don’t Have Good Luck with the Internet, Round 2

What Happened: The video announcement of Rand Paul’s campaign to become the Republican candidate for president was taken down from YouTube on “copyright grounds.”

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened:Funny story about the video announcing Rand Paul’s candidacy for the president of the United States: Within hours of it debuting on YouTube, it was taken down following a copyright complaint from Warner Music Group. The problem, it seemed, was the use of a song called “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” by John Rich, which apparently led to an automated shutdown of the video by YouTube’s system. Embarrassing? You betcha, especially when it went viral. Nothing says “I can run the most powerful nation in the world” like “My campaign announcement video was yanked from the Internet because my staff didn’t do their research.”

The Takeaway: Music licensing, people. It’s probably a good idea to look into that kind of thing. Between this and the problems that beset Ted Cruz’s launch, all the next nominee has to do to look more impressive than his or her competition is buy up web domains in their name and ensure the rights to the music in the campaign’s videos have been cleared. (If reports are to be believed, this weekend Hillary Clinton will become the first candidate from the Democratic party to announce plans to run for president; what Internet calamities await her?)

The Future Is … A Few Decades Ago, It Seems

What Happened: The nominations for this year’s Hugo Awards were released, in theory recognizing the best science fiction writing of the last year. In practice, things were a lot more political, and far more disappointing.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: This year’s nominees for the Hugo Awards were released last weekend, prompting an immediate backlash on social media. The problem was, the line-up of names in the majority of categories is decided each year by members of the World Science Fiction Society … which means that anyone who pays the $50 annual fee has a say. So, if—for example—a group of voters decided to mobilize an attempt to minimize the influence of anyone other than straight white men (with the stated reason being something along the lines of “we’ve seen the Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award”), it’s not only possible they could move the needle: It’s apparently entirely likely.

As might be expected, social media was immediately polarized on what this meant:

A number of reports have underscored the flaws in the current system, and a number of SF creators have openly objected to the hijacking of the awards, including nominated author Matthew David Surridge, who asked voters to ignore his name on the ballot, and George R.R. Martin, who wrote about this history of campaigning for SF awards and complained that such activities “cheapens the Hugos.”

Winners of the awards will be announced August 22nd at Worldcon in Spokane, WA. Expect this story to stay alive until then, at least.

The Takeaway: Given the uproar, it’ll be a surprise if the way the awards work isn’t entirely overhauled for 2016. The question is, will that be too little, too late?

Yeah, She Could Really Do the Brontosaurus

What Happened: Scientists decided that it was time to admit that maybe the Brontosaurus existed after all. The Internet went wild.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: As you might have seen earlier this week, the Brontosaurus is back, after a group of European scientists declared that it was, in fact, a dinosaur after all (although perhaps not the one most people are thinking of). The news caused much excitement online, with coverage from NPR to Perez Hilton. Twitter, of course, was very happy indeed:

Not everyone is onboard, of course; Time published a piece arguing maybe we were all being a little quick in congratulating the dino on his return, while The Atlantic wondered if the whole thing revealed a problem with the way we classify such creatures in general. Can’t we have anything good without people complaining? (Spoiler: No.)

The Takeaway: We shouldn’t be surprised about this; revivals always tend to do well these days, although we’re sure there are some purists complaining that the early stuff was better.

Garbage Is Apparently the Right Word

What Happened: The band Garbage—remember them?—are not only happy when it rains, it turns out. According to an open letter from one photographer, using photographs without paying the photographer seems to make them crack a smile as well.

Where It Blew Up: Facebook, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: Pat Pope is a British photographer whose work has appeared in a number of outlets over the years, including the National Portrait Gallery in London. With more than 20 years experience, you’d think he’d be recognized as a professional—which makes the fact that he had to write an open letter to the band Garbage, responding to a request to use a shot he took of the band in the 1990s for free (he would, however, receive “proper credit”), all the more surprising. (Damningly, he noted that his work has already been used without permission on a Best Of compilation by the band. “I only found this out when I went into a shop and bought a copy, which, when you think about it, has a certain irony,” he wrote.)

The letter garnered some attention online, enough for Garbage to respond.

“HAVING ALREADY paid you in 1995 for the entire shoot from which these images were selected, we really didn’t expect such a hostile reception to our enquiry,” they wrote. “Over the years we have happily compensated many photographers, filmmakers and other kinds of content providers for their work and will continue to do so in the future. We believe completely in the concept of the artist being compensated fairly whenever possible. With that said, collectively as a band and as individuals, we have often provided our services and our music for no financial compensation in the spirit of artistic collaboration. Obviously we assess every request based on its own individual merits but we would never publicly admonish or begrudge a fellow artist for merely asking.”

So, did Pope get the closure he’d hoped for by writing the open letter? Apparently not. “Since it went out on the internet it’s caused a huge debate, and within that debate I’ve been called a ‘whiney weener,’ a ‘shitty douchebag,’ and an ‘egomaniac,’ and I’ve been encouraged to ‘watch your back’ because ‘we will find you.’ I found it quite hard to read those comments, not least because I’m English and I’m not sure what two of them actually mean,” he wrote in a second post. He directed people to the Stop Working For Free Facebook community and urged them to consider the costs of agreeing to provide efforts for no payment in future.

The Takeaway: The value of creative work (not only in how much it’s worth to the creators, but how much it’s worth to the end users) is definitely a subject that needs more discussion, and if Pope’s open letter can help make that happen, then all the better. Of course, the irony of Pope discussing the dangers of free creative work in Huffington Post was particularly thick.

Turns Out, You Might Not Need an Apple Watch

What Happened: The first reviews of the Apple Watch are out. It turns out, it might not be great.

Where It Blew Up: Blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: As pre-orders opened for the Apple Watch (and Apple execs confidently announced demand will outstrip supply, although others disagree), the first reviews for the wrist-top device started appearing online, with the overall take being that it’s not an immediate success. Is it too big? Too slow? Maybe not the best for phone calls? (That last one can’t be too much of a surprise, surely.)

It’s apparently too complicated for its own good, and worse yet, it might not be very good at telling the time. That said, the Wall Street Journal review had the best reason not to buy one just yet: You know that the second generation will be far, far better. “Every time I gaze down to admire it,” Joanna Stern wrote, “I start seeing how the next one will look better.”

Still, it could be worse:

The Takeaway: Listen, you can always just duct tape your phone to your wrist. Pretend it’s a fashion statement. Someone will believe you.