Wednesday, April 20, 2005

More about sagas

Last week I mentioned a new prize for saga writers, and it occurred to me, a bit belatedly, that not everyone might know what the saga business is all about.

The first sagas were the Norse sagas from Iceland and Scandinavia. These were written in Old Norse, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The word saga probably meant 'what is told', and the Norse sagas were tales of the exploits of kings, families, and heroes on quests of one sort or another. I ought to know more about them than that, because I was supposed to study them in my last year at school but somehow never got around to it.

Over the centuries, these original Norse tales inspired a good many imitators. These include such classics as Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight, the latter of which I did once read. (Later note: this ain't true, scholars have told me. Both were written before the sagas. I misread the source.) And, of course, they lie behind much of Tolkien, particularly The Lord of the Rings. (This is true; trust me.)

Once we get into the twentieth century, the term saga was chiefly popularised by John Galsworthy, who wrote The Forsyte Saga. As published in 1922, this is a series of three novels plus two 'interludes' or shorter pieces. It tells the story of three generations of the Forsytes, a rich middle-class family living in England. Thus the saga, in modern publishing terms, is widely thought of as a family history; or, at the very least, the life story of one individual. It is not just a brief episode from anyone's life, and it is usually long in wordage as well as in the period of time covered.

Forsyte's work was not only popular at the time of its publication, but it has twice been serialised on UK television, 35 years apart; the first occasion, 1967, caused rather more of a stir than the second, in 2002.

Galsworthy's story material, in essence, is not much distinguishable from such soap operas as the television series Dynasty. However, until I looked him up for this post, I had entirely forgotten that in 1932 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, yes, you see there was a time when the Nobel Prize, like the Pulitzer, was awarded to books that ordinary people could read with some pleasure, whereas today it is reserved for Bolivian poets and Burmese playwrights whom no one outside the awarding committee has ever heard of.

In modern publishing, at any rate in the UK, the term saga is generally used to describe a type of fiction aimed principally at women. The usual pattern is a multi-generational story covering the experiences of one family, the history concentrating very largely on the experiences of the women.

The term saga also crops up, occasionally, in science fiction, e.g. in relation to E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensmen series, or Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels. But such usage is more confined to the fans, I suspect, than to the publishers.

Which brings me to another interesting aspect of the saga. I have the feeling that the saga, as written and read in England, is not a highly exportable genre. True, a few writers, such as Rosamund Pilcher, have enjoyed substantial success in the USA, but Josephine Cox, who is an enormous seller in the UK, hardly gets any exposure in the US at all.

Demand for the saga, from UK publishers, seems to be as strong as ever. Kate Allan, author of A Notorious Deception, tells me that she has recently been asked by both a literary agent and a publisher to produce a saga for them. So maybe, if you want to get a foot in the door, this is the way to go.

If you're a man, you can always write under a female pen-name. Two of the most successful UK authors in this area, Jessica Stirling and Emma Blair, are both blokes -- Hugh C. Rae and Ian Blair respectively. Both of them Scotsmen, by the way. Must be something to do with the kilt. (The article by Ian Blair is well worth a look.)

And, er, at the risk of immodesty, let me not forget that I wrote a saga myself: Topp Family Secrets, written under the name Anne Moore. I can't say that it was a bestseller, but it was bought by quite a few public libraries, and the public lending right payments show that it is being read. Strictly speaking, this is only volume one of what was intended to be a three-part story. However, since time is passing so quickly, it now seems unlikely that I will ever write parts two and three. Pity, because I really enjoyed doing it, even though it was damned hard work keeping track of several main characters over a long period of time.


Simon said...

Beowulf (three hundred years older than Snorri's Icelandic sagas) is an imitation?

That really caused me to wince.

Lisa Spangenberg said...


Beowulf is not, at all, in any way, a saga; it's an epic poem, and it predates the Old Norse sagas, all of which are products of Iceland and associated bits (Orkneys, Gotland). The sagas really are about Icelandic farming families, their feuds, viking, and triumphs. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not at all an immitation of a saga, WikiPedia and derivatives thereof aside; it's an alliterative Arthurian romance.

Andrew said...

"...was a time when the Nobel Prize, like the Pulitzer, was awarded to books that ordinary people could read with some pleasure, whereas today it is reserved for Bolivian poets and Burmese playwrights..."

Your humor has become a staple of the morning with my coffee, so often starting the day with a chuckle.