Friday, 30 December 2022

The Hidden Genre Canon

 Being in the middle of reading Gustav Flauberts 'Salammbo' on the recommendation of Noisms, (I'm only in the middle so a review later)

But this is a HELLA D&D Sword and Sorcery book; orientalist opulence, raiding a gods shrine for a magic artefact, armies, slaves, chaos, strange faiths, greedy and manipulative heroes and villains, treasure vaults, bejellwed fish, a babe kind of makes out with a snake.

Point being, this is not the book people talk about when they talk about Gustav Flaubert. They talk about Madame Bovary, or the other one, the bourgeoise social dramas, not the epic orientalist adventure story.

It reminds me a little of Alan Moore brining up critics talking about H.G. Welles;

"aaalways Mr fucking Polley, the boring one, because that's the one they understand"

(actually this whole project/concept very much has an Alan Moore vibe, his reading for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

This got me wondering if there are any more hidden 'inverse classics'; books by normie literary authors which are effectively high genre and full of all the worldbuilding, weirdness, adventure, wonder etc which we high genre fans know are good-actually but which are largely ignored by mainstream critics because mainstream critics are dull.

I DON'T mean pulp or Genre authors or books which have been ignored because they are what they are. I mean specifically books by otherwise high-status literary types which stand out from their usual works.

What comes to mind immediately are only the actually-known one, like Woolfe’s 'Orlando'


Usually you lot vibe off recommending books so you should enjoy this.


  1. Not as pure an example as Flaubert, however:
    Evelyn Waugh sometimes has a reputation as something like a crueller Wodehouse - but it is worth noting that he was always willing to employ the unfamiliar or to write in settings outside 1930s Britain: witness the nameless future war at the conclusion of Vile Bodies, the Gothic fate of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust or the fictional nation of Neutralia in Scott-King's Modern Europe - all this neglecting anomalies like the mysterious voices in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold or the centralised dystopia of Love Among the Ruins. His novel Helena, about the mother of Constantine and the Invention (discovery) of the True Cross is another such anomaly.

    This is the same for Kingsley Amis, if somewhat less so - his genre influence is pretty obvious. Everyone thinks of Lucky Jim and forget stuff like The Alteration or Russian Hide and Seek. He also wrote a James Bond continuation (Colonel Sun) under an assumed name.

    I'm going to have to come back to this.

    1. EM Forster's The Machine Stops definitely counts.

  2. posts like this made me wish I wasn't functionally illiterate :(

  3. A few thoughts, though I look forward to seeing what others say:

    - Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse presents an extremely compelling slice of an otherwise fairly hazy future, and works as a sci-fi novel. I haven't read Narcissus and Goldmund, but the synopsis sounds like its got some elements of a good medieval picaresque
    - Possibly overly obvious: Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. That's some gothic horror right there.
    - Maybe not as neglected, but several of Dickens's stories are pretty genre, including his best-known and seasonally appropriate, "A Christmas Carol". I also found the orphanage and street-life bits of "Oliver Twist" work rather well as inspiration for grubby city D&D
    - Doesn't *really* count, since he was well known for his genre writing, but I think Lewis's Space Trilogy knocks the socks off Narnia, and with very minor tweaking, would serve for the sinister modern conspiracy game of your choice.

    1. -The Glass Bead Game definitely counts. The short stories in Hesse's Strange News from Another Star are pretty obvious bits of world-building as well.

      -It's only the final entry of the Space Trilogy that works as modern conspiracy, no? But then I suppose the first chapter framing device of Perelandra and all the set-up business from the first act of Out of the Silent Planet offer a sketch of what it would be like.
      In any case, my instincts took me to another aspect of gaming altogether when I turned to Lewis:

  4. Edmund mentioned Kingsley Amis's The Alteration above. He also wrote The Green Man, which is kind of a fantasy/horror genre story.

    HG Wells is probably the standout for The Time Machine, Dr Moreau, etc. I think I'm right in saying that later in life he was embarrassed by these genre efforts?

    Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" is probably an example of what you're talking about. I think there are also lots of Charles Dickens short stories that would fit the bill.

    Possibly Shakespeare plays, especially the lesser-known freaky weird ones like Titus Andronicus?

    A lot of Margaret Atwood's stuff would be in this category, I suppose, but she always insists she doesn't write SF and is just a bit of annoying, really.

    There's also Kazuo Ishiguro.

    1. Alternate history does seem to get them in for this - you've got Robert Harris's Fatherland and Philip Roth's Plot against America. But neither are very extensive in their world-building.

      Atwood's kind of got known for her genre material, though that's not where she started. Her book of essays In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination indicates that what she had/has an odd definition of Science Fiction vs Speculative Fiction.

    2. See also Laurent Binet, who went from an experimental novel about Rheinhard Heydrich, to an Umberto Eco-esque thriller about semiotics to 'What if the Incas invaded Habsburg Spain?'

    3. Atwood was my first thought too. "Proper" novelist, doesn't write genre, pops out a couple of (definitely not) sci-fi books, and sneaks a pretty good Conan type pastiche into another. But definitely doesn't do genre.

  5. Stephen King's Eyes of the Dragon comes to mind, although he isn't the non-genre-type anyways. Hans-Christian Andersen's The Galoshes of Fortune may count: Not the usual dark fairytale but a story with time travel and an actual alien civilization on the moon.

    For me it is quite strage to see Wells mentioned in the comments so often - to me (as a German perhaps) he was always a scifi-auhor first (and the better compared to Verne, whose characters were always crap, and Lovecraft, who assumed that encountering a non-human-centered universe must surely drive anyone mad).

  6. I recently read Infinite Jest and people don't talk enough about how much campy scifi is going on behind the scenes in the plot and worldbuilding of that book. We had a whole conversation about it a while back on my server.

  7. The works of French author Michel Houellebecq. It's not D&D, but it is mostly science fiction extrapolating from current society. His mind-bending cynicism and despair, plus his bizarre real-life personality, tend to overshadow the sci-fi elements on the public mind.

    Also Atomic Aztex, by Sesshu Foster. It's a political novel, alternating (I think) chapters about Latin-Americans working in a shitty meat-packing plant with chapters where the Aztecs are destroying the Nazis in WWII.

  8. I'd add The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff. He's mainly known for his play Journey's End - pretty much the archetype of a Very Serious WW1 Story - but also produced this 1930s apocalyptic sci-fi novel about the moon slowly crashing into the Earth. I'm not sure if I can wholeheartedly recommend it; the first third is a bit dull (basically the protagonist endlessly changing his mind about whether or not to worry about the impending threat) and the last section is mostly strained political allegory (a bit like the early chapters of Last and First Men, before Stapledon really cranks the oracular weirdness into gear). Nonetheless, in the middle section there's a pretty fine description of early 20th Century rural England coming to terms with imminent planetary destruction: defiant midnight cricket matches played under a moon that blots out the sky, and that sort of thing. Might be worth a look.

  9. Simone de Beauvoir's Tous les hommes sont mortels (All Men are Mortal). It's about a guy that stops aging in the 13th century and how he lives until the present day. It's the book that 1000 Year Old Vampire aspires to be, and White Wolf's Vampire could never possibly pull off.

    I found Fouqué's Der Zauberring (The Magic Ring) endlessly inspiring for RPG stuff. It's vast and gloomy and epic.

    Also, wait until you've finished the Flaubert, then check out Philippe Druillet's comics adaptation.

  10. Pale Fire by Nabokov might fit the bill here.

  11. First thing that comes to mind is John Steinbeck's retelling of Le Morte d'Arthur

  12. You will probably already know of it but Simplicius Simpliccimus comes to mind, but fails on a technicality that it is the authors most popular work. Same goes for Xenophon's The Persian Expedition.

    Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead is terrific S&S and was made into the 13th Warrior, but this is not a literary author.

    No I think I shall recommend On to the Alamo by Richard Penn Smith for Appendix N status and slyly make my escape.