Books: Would you buy a book by this man?

David Gemmell's books sell millions but most people haven't heard of him. Why is fantasy fiction ignored?
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The Independent Culture
David Gemmell is perhaps Britain's most successful unknown author. He has sold 10 million books but because his tales are of warrior heroes he has been widely ignored.

"Fantasy doesn't get a bad press: fantasy doesn't get any press at all," Gemmell complains. But the fantasy market keeps on growing, with some industry experts saying it accounts for 25 per cent of all books sold.

"People don't realise how important it is to society in general. If you look at any ancient civilisation they've all used fantasy to train the young," explains Gemmell. "Fantasy stories deal with the conflicts within ourselves and provide role models to channel these forces for good."

Fantasy novels became popular in the Sixties. "When I was a kid we all wanted to be Davy Crockett or Wyatt Earp. You picked them because they had really achieved something," says Gemmell.

"But the revisionists were everywhere and someone at school would ask: `Did you hear Wild Bill Hickok had syphilis, ran brothels and he shot his best friend to death?' With no real idols to emulate there was a void."

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, originally published in the Fifties, was one of the earliest fantasy books.

Gemmell is a big fan: "Lord of the Rings changed my life. I was 15 and coming home on the train late at night from central London. As it stopped and the door opened there were three guys beating the hell out of somebody on the platform. My first thought was keep out of this but a voice in my head said: `What would Boromir do? He wouldn't walk away from this!' So I went piling in, and rescued their victim.

"I felt like a hero and from then onwards was not so frightened at school. That's also why I don't personally write elf and dwarf stories. I feel Tolkien did it so beautifully that the idea of opening up his coffin and ripping out another piece of dead flesh, flinging it between two covers and selling it is not for me."

Gemmell believes that the strong sales reflect the mood of the nation. "The Falklands factor did mean a dip in the early Eighties. For that brief period of time there was real heroism in our lives, our lads had done it. Readers left fantasy and returned to reality. Once the recession arrived and things were looking bleak everything picked up for fantasy writers.

"Thank goodness for Major and his cronies because the more sleaze, the more fantasy sales took off. If that's real life give me Druss the Legend. I did fear Blair would be bad for business, with the new optimism I thought I would suffer a 20 or 30 per cent drop in sales, but it hasn't worked that way."

The main criticism of fantasy books is that they are pure escapism with nothing to say about the real world. Terry Pratchett, Britain's best-selling fantasy author, disagrees: "My fiction is all about people, even though they might not be human or even alive! Discworld might be a variation on the classical post-Tolkien fairytale but I'm writing about the real world."

Fans of fantasy are legendary for their devotion. David Gemmell receives about 4,000 letters and e-mails a year. One admirer fashioned him a metal axe, a replica of the one wielded by his most famous character - Druss the Legend. Many readers use the books as a self-help manual.

One of the main reasons fantasy is not taken seriously is that the devotees are young men between 15-25, reinforcing the prejudice that is a genre which readers grow out of. Jane Johnson, publishing director of Voyager - the UK's largest fantasy list, says these fans give a misleading picture: "It's predominantly a female readership. The bulk of the market is late twenties to forties. There are some strong female characters, gone are the days when it was just muscle-bound warriors. Who wants to read another kitchen-sink drama when you can pretend you are this extraordinary explorer through this phenomenal world?"

Johnson blames snobbery for the genre's neglect: "We're so concerned about intellectual status in this country and for no apparent reason have decided that fantasy does not earn it. The literary establishment has always hated this fiction - largely out of ignorance. Not reading it they have no way of judging it."

The ultimate badge of acceptance is getting a review, but, with the exception of Terry Pratchett, fantasy authors are ignored by critics. It was a mistake that earned David Gemmell his first review. The Times gave him an appalling write-up for a book he had never written.

He wrote to them: "It is shame after 13 years of being an author that my first Times review is for a book I didn't write!" By way of an apology they really reviewed one of his books and now his latest paperback, Echoes of the Great Song, features a quote from their review: "A humdinger, a masterly tale told with clarity and verve."

"My sales have increased because people think I must be OK if the Times thinks I can write," says Gemmell.

"The ultimate revenge is that fantasy sells well and for years," says Johnson. Over 50 million copies of Lord of the Rings have been bought and it still sells annually into seven figures. A new fantasy author will sell between 25,000-30,000 books.

These figures will be boosted by a new Channel 4 TV series which is predicted to be next year's must-see show. When Merlin was shown in the States it captured the largest audience for any series ever shown - 73 million people per episode. Even if the credibility of fantasy authors is unlikely to grow their royalty cheques will.

David Gemmell's `Echoes of the Great Song' is published by Corgi at pounds 5.99.