Strange & Norrell: Where did that novel go?

A republished post by fantasy novelist Jo Walton asks a poignant question, Whatever happened to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?

"It did about as well as any book can do," Walton writes, "….but five years later, it doesn't seem to have had any impact."

Walton's piece first appeared in 2010 (hence the five years remark -- Clarke's wondrous strange novel first appeared in 2004). I just read the piece, which was republished on the Tor website to promote her latest book, a collection of writings and ruminations,  What Makes this Book so Great: Re Reading the Classics of Science fiction and fantasy. (A great idea for a book that any blogger could produce!)

'Magic Circle' - John William Waterhouse (1886)

Walton's is the kind of piece that every writer wishes to see -- it not only tells you that your book matters, but that it's worth reading a second or a third time (and that's quite a thing to say when it comes to Clarke's novel, which is Dickensian in length as well as style).

Walton's piece is thoughtful, and she entertains  several reasons why more novels haven't been clearly inspired by the Norrell/Strange epic (though, since 2010, I think her judgment is dated -- the landscape hasn't been nearly as empty as she claimed back then).

Among them:

  • Inspiration just takes a long time to have an effect on people, and Clarke's book will require time to inspire: "influence does take time to permeate through"
  • Maybe this novel is just too wonderful and unique to influence other fantasy works or to engage in a dialogue with other works of fantasy; in other words, it is sealed off on its own fictive island

I don't entirely disagree with Walton, but my immediate reaction was, hey, more of the burden's on the industry's shoulders, not Clarke's.

As I recall, Clarke's novel appeared in between two books in the Harry Potter series — it was an incredible stroke of timing for her. Magic-hungry readers snapped it up as they impatiently waited for the next Potter installment. The ten years that she spent writing her novel were amply repaid.

Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverBut afterwards, I think Walton is right: For a long time, the publishing field remained pretty clear of anything resembling Clarke's (or Rowling's) work. Some publishers did try to cash in with deliberate, pathetic clones. (Anybody out there read a silly series of YA novels about the adventures of Charlie Bone?)  But aside from these, it was mostly Harry who held the field.

That had less to do with the powers of Clarke's inspiration and more with the power of the publishers, the gatekeepers of what we see in bookstores and online.

I suspect — based on my own work, which draws some light from blessed St. Susanna, and from my other experiences in the industry — that plenty of admirers are out there, writing works that are in perfect dialogue with hers. But the buyers for various publishers are thinking of other things. They're chasing after tastes and trends -- one's hope remains, as always, to find that editor who believes in nurturing stories for a simple reason: They should be read and shared.

Walton, I think, forgot about that back in 2010.

As of today, in 2014, Clarke's book still pops up in discussions on the blogosphere. She seems less a solitary figure than a writer in company with the names Rothfuss, Gaiman, Grossman, Link, etc.

And there's a miniseries in the works, which should be terrific -- in other words, Clarke's novel is still alive and well in people's minds.


P.S. I do like Walton's idea of re-reading classic works and explaining why they're great. I've been thinking of ways to feed the Siren. That's a terrific one.

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