More About D. Barkley Briggs and Genre Expectations

So, I really spaced on the last CSFF Tour–totally forgot to write/post a third entry. This had nothing to do with the quality of the book and everything to do with me being in the midst of traveling.

We were featuring D. Barkley Briggs’s Corus the Champion, which was a really great read. My one qualm about it was feeling like so many elements of the plot were too familiar. Anyway, Dean very graciously responded to my review, and I thought I’d post his response here because it really does touch on a major issue genre writers face:

Rachel, thank you for your thoughtful review. I appreciate the insights, and also the frustration of feeling the familiarity of a sub-genre’s distinctives. As far as I can tell, that’s the double-edged sword: color too much inside the lines, and people may feel overexposed to the story (i.e. that it is derivative of other works), but color outside the lines, and people who wanted an epic fantasy may feel cheated, i.e. “If I wanted steampunk, I would buy steampunk!” Personally, I wrote what I like to read: epic fantasy, and tried to do it in a way that raises the bar for the quality of what the Christian market could expect from such a title. As you briefly and graciously referenced me in the company of Tolkien, Lewis, Alexander, Cooper and Kay (swapping McKillip or LeGuin for Lawhead), I’m quite pleased. Thank you!

Let me say, first off, that Dean absolutely HAS raised the bar. He deserves those comparisons, and the genre distinctions he’s referring to–including many familiar motifs, background myths, and even plot points–will no doubt make their first encounters with many young readers in his books. Those young readers couldn’t ask for a better introduction, in my opinion. And the quality of writing, plus serious depth in the themes and characters, make these books original as well–I don’t want to give the false impression that they’re completely derivative.

(Mind you, I say all this based on Corus alone. I ordered Book of Names from Amazon, but it arrived with a tragically bent-double cover. I’m sending it back but will pick up the rest of the series when I get a chance.)

All of this makes me wonder anew, however: how restrictive are the boundaries of genre, really? As a reader, do you go after books in a certain genre looking for something familiar, or for something distinctive? Have you had an experience like Dean describes, where an author coloured too much outside the lines and you felt cheated? Does it bother you to run across familiar things in different novels, or do you actually want that?

I’m curious, so please do share your opinions if you have them.

One other thought on this: when you read inside a certain genre all the time, that genre tends to shape your imagination. Maybe that’s why fantasy-style stories come so naturally to me, and “real-world” stories don’t. The first book I ever tried to write was a fantasy that ripped off Lloyd Alexander and Terry Brooks in equal measure, and even now I find “derivative” scenes and ideas in my stories a lot. They just seem to be part of the way I think. Maybe that’s a reason to read outside of your genre?



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One response to “More About D. Barkley Briggs and Genre Expectations”

  1. Elisabeth Avatar

    Hmm … interesting. I’ve been reading (and loving) historical fiction since I was a child and that’s what I write. It comes more naturally out of my pen / keyboard than any other kind of writing. I can definitely see the value, therefore, of reading out of my genre for the sake of broadening the horizons of my imagination.

    As for whether I like or dislike it when books in a genre stick to the conventions of the genre … I think it depends on how it’s presented. If the writing is exceptional, the characters are real and endearing, the plot is engaging – then I can excuse a lot of writing inside the lines. If the writing is so-so, the characters are unreal and annoying, the plot is thin – then I won’t both to finish the book. A well-written book in a genre I like is comforting and reassuring, so even if it’s a new book, it’s like an old friend.

    How nice of Mr D. Barkley Briggs to respond to your comments about his book!

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