Genre fiction’s cultural cringe; the annual repeat showing

Paul Raven @ 07-02-2011

Damien Walter at The Guardian last week:

… new works of speculative fiction rarely receive the critical recognition accorded to their literary cousins, a fact most evident in the major literary awards, not least the Man Booker prize. In the last decade, British SF has been through a period of intense creativity and brilliance. […] Whether any one of these books would have swayed the Booker judges is an open question, but the fact that only one significant work of SF from this extraordinary decade (Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) was even longlisted suggests a systematic problem in the Booker’s treatment of speculative fiction.

Over the same period, the fashion of literary fiction writers borrowing ideas from SF has continued. Putting aside concerns that novels such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go lag more than two decades behind in their treatment of cloning and genetics, for the Booker judges to consider SF ideas when recycled by literary authors, but to ignore the source of those ideas, only highlights the narrowness of the award’s perspective.

Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon, as the headline asks? My money’s on “nope”.

As is Maureen Kincaid Speller’s, I suspect:

This is not to say that I am in any way advocating a rejection of the mainstream and a retreat to the teenage bedroom of the genre heartland, accompanied by a fading wail of “you just don’t understand”. Genre has its uses as a down-and-dirty taxonomic shorthand on occasion but I don’t believe these terms and definitions should be used to construct barriers, especially not in order to provide a platform from which to complain that people aren’t willing to make the journey through the barricade. It’s ridiculous and, dare I say, just a little childish.

Kinda similar to yours truly, right here last year:

… every time we moan that prizes like the Booker don’t recognise the genius that resides within our ghetto, we confirm the opinion we assume that they hold of us: provincial geeks with marginal interests and a persecution complex. We wear the bruised vanity of the snubbed underdog like sackcloth and ashes, and it does us a disservice far greater than being passed over by a prize that – by its own implications and history, if not outright admission – is just as focussed on a small (if ill-defined) set of aesthetic criteria as our own in-ghetto awards.

Let it go, people. Let it go.

As remarked in the comments thread of Maureen’s post, I’ve been that petulant underdog advocate myself in the past, and I think most people deeply involved with any subculture go through a similar stage. This is natural. However, when you’ve been sailing on the Good Ship Genre for a little while, you get pretty tired of seeing that distant landmass to port, and knowing that there’ll be an earnest but thoroughly done-to-death debate about how thoroughly mean it is of the people who live there not to let us settle on the beaches.

Lest it seem I’m picking on Damien, though, here’s a post from his personal blog where he makes a strong argument against attempts to technologize the fiction experience:

We won’t have novels with embedded videos either. Or sound-clips. Or RSS feed streaming content. And stories won’t be interactive. Most of all, they will not be interactive. Not that people will stop trying to do these things. They make perfect sense from a marketing perspective. The customer is always right. Prose fiction, says the marketeer, must adapt itself to the whims of the customer.

No. The customer must adapt themself to the demands of prose fiction. The book is defined by the fact that it takes time, and during that time you must concentrate on what you are being told. You do not get to lapse in to the zombie state of the television viewer. You do not get to choose what happens. The book does not change, the book changes you.

The book does not have a future. It is already the thing it needs to be.

I usually vacillate like a pendulum on that particular topic, but Damien can be pretty persuasive when his heart’s in his mouth.


Booker Prize longlist snubs genre fiction (again); should we give a damn?

Paul Raven @ 28-07-2010

It’s that time of year once again where Britain’s booklovers (and others around the world) get to see and discuss the longlist of nominations for the prestigious Booker Prize. And, as is traditional, there’s a complete lack of genre fiction on it; cue much kvetching from the genre fiction scene. (Like we need an excuse, right?)

At the risk of sounding contrarian, I really don’t think it matters. Sure, there’s the argument that genre titles and authors would benefit from the prestige and exposure, but in response I’d say you can’t miss what you’ve never had, and Dan Brown’s certainly not suffering from lack of acclaim by juried prizes (more’s the pity).

What we love to read just isn’t widely appreciated; perhaps it could be (if we assume that the sort of person who consciously chooses “literary” fiction over any other sort is no more picky or prejudiced than someone who consciously expresses a preference for “genre” fiction, and that they would be influenced toward something they previously turned their noses up at because of an award nomination, which are pretty big assumptions, not to mention ones that probably wouldn’t wash if you reversed the polarity of the preferences in question), but it’s not. And while I’d love for the authors I most enjoy to be rich, successful and still cranking out great books, I really struggle to care that they’re not on that list.

As a cautionary parable, I’d point out that this reminds me of the way I and my fellow thrash metal fans at college used to bemoan the lack of mainstream exposure and appreciation for our chosen genres. If only people had the opportunity and encouragement give this stuff a chance, they’d be able to appreciate the musicianship, give the imagery and symbolism a chance to sink in properly, understand that there’s more to it than studs, leather and album covers with demons on them. Wind forward a decade an a half, and we got our wish: MTV and daytime radio is full of watered-down imitations and knock-offs of authentic and innovative rock and metal music, enthusiastically and uncritically consumed by people to whom it’s nothing more than three minute chunks of momentary audio diversion. And so the subgenres move on and progress, continuing to develop new ideas (or new takes on old ideas, perhaps), pushing at the boundaries of expectation and possibility, and selling their work to a handful of thousand people worldwide; meanwhile, mass-market cookie-cutter product makes millions for middlemen and elevates talentless hacks to superstar status, simultaneously providing a whole new bunch of tired cliches for everyone outside your fandom to assume must apply to everything within it.

Be careful what you wish for, in other words; an explosion of public recognition for the obscure cultural product you love rarely works out the way you want it to. And every time we moan that prizes like the Booker don’t recognise the genius that resides within our ghetto, we confirm the opinion we assume that they hold of us: provincial geeks with marginal interests and a persecution complex. We wear the bruised vanity of the snubbed underdog like sackcloth and ashes, and it does us a disservice far greater than being passed over by a prize that – by its own implications and history, if not outright admission – is just as focussed on a small (if ill-defined) set of aesthetic criteria as our own in-ghetto awards.

Let it go, people. Let it go.


Kim Stanley Robinson asks why science fiction isn’t winning awards; I ask why we should care

Paul Raven @ 17-09-2009

Science fiction heavyweight Kim Stanley Robinson crops up in the current edition of New Scientist to sing the praises of British sf… and of sf in general. In addition to presenting flash-length pieces by a handful of big names – Ken MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Justina Robson and more – he has a lengthy article decrying the blinkered tastes of the juries for awards like the Booker Prize:

… it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.

This is hardly a new complaint – fandom has always muttered darkly into its real ale about the shunning of science fiction by the literary establishment, and this year saw some Guardian book bloggers attempt to redress the imbalance by running an open-nomination “Not The Booker” Prize (only to see all the genre titles swiftly voted out of the running, natch) – but to have it appear on the pages of New Scientist is an interesting development. Indeed, NS seems to be quite deliberately aligning itself with a science fictional/futurist mindset of late; perhaps the editorial team are equally convinced of sf’s didactic and educational powers as Robinson is?

Personally, I’ve always felt that prizes and public acceptance are overrated, and that science fiction does itself a disservice by chasing after them; Robinson appears to me to be taking a similar stance. I’ve never picked books because they won awards; personal recommendation has always carried far more weight, ever since I was quite young.

And if we truly believe that science fiction has the power and potential to open minds (and change them), isn’t the sincere recommendation of a book from friend to friend the best form of evangelism? To use an analogy with science itself: many of the greatest scientific innovators achieved their leaps of progress in spite of great public opposition and the opprobrium of the establishment; rather than kowtow and beg for crumbs of approval, they just knuckled down and got on with it, fueled by their own defiance, converting their few faithful supporters through their unflappable loyalty to their own ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, here: I’d love to see the authors I admire being paid more, or being interviewed as insightful pundits rather than geeky fringe artists who are good for ridiculous out-of-context quotations. I’d love to see science fiction as a powerful and accepted part of modern cultural discourse… but I don’t think it’ll ever achieve that through us pleading for legitimacy on its behalf.

As recent events have shown, hearts and minds aren’t won with shock and awe; they’re won with honesty and sincerity. If you care enough about science fiction that you want to see it read more widely and appreciated as something more than simple escapist entertainment, don’t waste your time storming the ramparts of the crumbling ivory tower of literature, or decrying the inevitably populist results of fan-voted awards. Instead, try to convert one other book-lover. If all of us managed to do that, we’d double the power of the genre almost overnight, and weaken the factional schisms within it at the same time.

Rant over. 😉