World Book Night was conceived as a UK/Irish effort to celebrate books and reading by giving them away: On March 5, 20,000 people gave away four dozen copies of 25 "carefully selected" titles to anyone and everyone, resulting, say the organizers, in a million great books finding their way into new hands. A successor event is scheduled for next April.
Sue Perkins, host of "The Books We Really Read," and novelist Stephen Hunt.
The BBC, one of the co-sponsors along with various UK publishers' and readers' groups, used the occasion to air a block of specials built around the idea of books and reading, including the BBC2 programs "The Books We Really Read: a Culture Show Special," hosted by Sue Perkins, and "New Novelists: 12 of the Best," a panel discussion led by English professor John Mullan.
The problem: unlike the World Book Night event itself, the BBC's specials excluded any mention at all of great works of science fiction, fantasy, or horror. To some, the whole tone of the coverage came across as elitist, looking down on commercial fiction as well as non-"literary" categories of fiction.
The snub did not go unnoticed. Stephen Hunt, the British author best known for the Jackalian series that starts with The Court of the Air (2007) and for his popular newsletter, SF Crowsnest, immediately fired off an email to his subscribers titled "How Annoyed am I?" In it, he called the BBC coverage "a truly stunning exercise in literary elitism and snobbery from a scheme that was ironically meant to be all about encouraging people to read and reversing the decline of the book in society."
For Hunt, this was one of the most splendid manifestations yet of what he sees the marginal status of speculative fiction in cultural reporting. "As the hour went by," he later remarked, describing his experience watching the "Books We Really Read" special, "strangely absent from this detailed parade of what people actually like to read was a certain genre, you know... the unclean one, speculative fiction, as in fantasy/horror/science fiction."
Positive comments on his web site, Facebook, and Twitter induced him to take action: he has declared war on the idea that the only good book is a "literary" one, and his war starts with calling the BBC to account for its behavior on March 5.
In the intervening month, Hunt has marshaled a petition signed by a broad array of 85 successful authors protesting the BBC organizers' "shabby treatment" of genre fiction. Among them are such famous names as Greg Bear, David Brin, Harry Turtledove, L.E. Modesitt Jr., Iain Banks, Michael Moorcock, Robert J. Sawyer, and Larry Niven. (The full list, as provided by Hunt, is below.)
"The sneering tone that was levelled towards commercial fiction during The Books We Really Read was deeply counterproductive to the night's aims of actually encouraging people to read novels," Hunt fumed. "The weight that was given to the single sub-genre of literary fiction in the remaining programmes was unbalanced and unrepresentative of all but a small fraction of the country's reading tastes. And closest to my own heart, the failure to feature a single work from the three genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction was a disgrace."
Hunt is forwarding the petition to Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, and the furor was written up in the Daily Telegraph. In its coverage of Hunt's protest The Bookseller attempted to elicit a comment from the BBC and could not do so.
The signers of the petition, so far, are: Kevin J Anderson, Neal Asher, Iain M Banks, Greg Bear, Jacey Bedford, Gregory Benford, Michael Bishop, S J Bolton, David Brin, Michael S. Brotherton, John Brown, Ramsey Campbell, Gail Carriger, Mark Charan Newton, Michael Cobley, Diane Duane, Kevin Duffy, Steven Lundin (Steve Erikson), Geraldine Evans, Russell B. Farr, Matt Forbeck, Gregory Frost, Gary Gibson, Linda Gillard, Felix Gilman, Debi Gliori, Alison Goodman, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Hand, Steve Haynes, John Helfers, John Hemry, Jack Hessey, Liz Holliday, Matthew Hughes, Stephen Hunt, Jasper Kent, Kay Kenyon, M. D. Lachlan, Jay Lake, David Langford, Bob Lock, James Lovegrove, Jonathan Maberry, David Mack, Juliet Marillier, Ian McDonald, Juliet E McKenna, Karen Miller, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Elizabeth Moon, Michael Moorcock, Theresa M. Moore, Yvonne Navarro, Stan Nicholls, Larry Niven, Jonathan Oliver, Phil Palmer, Steve Parker, Tamora Pierce, Jonathan Pinnock, Phyllis Irene Radford (P.R. Frost/C.F. Bentley), Robert V.S. Redick, Kit Reed, Mike Resnick, Adam Roberts, Steven Savile, Robert J. Sawyer, Ann Scarborough, Michael Shea, Lucius Shepard, Michael Marshall Smith, S.M. Stirling, Charlie Stross, Stephen Sullivan, Michael Swanwick, Harry Turtledove, Robert E. Vardeman, Tim Waggoner, Ian Watson, Simon West-Bulford, Sean Williams, Walter Jon Williams, Geoff Willmetts, and Jane Yolen.
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