Genre fiction’s cultural cringe; the annual repeat showing

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.

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