Thursday, 25 November 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

My review of Super Sad Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is now up on The Zone. It's a terrific book that I enjoyed reading and writing about a lot. It's a very clear commentary on 1984, one of my favourite novels, and so I had a lot of fun with it. Plus it's genuinely funny and clever – the dystopian elements are pitch perfect satire of current media and trends and the characters do more than fill their roles as comic types and really come alive.

As is often the case, this review is just a thinly disguided excuse to write about something else entirely, though. In this case, I wanted to explore the divide between literary and genre fiction. I frequent a big geeky message board and it's a topic that comes up there quite a lot, usually in reaction to some statement by a mainstream type eschewing fantasy or SF (J K Rowling and Margaret Atwood are the examples that keep coming up). The last twelve or 18 months seem to have had a few mainstream SF releases and so the issue's been coming up again, most interestingly a discussion between China Mielville and literary critic John Mullan on the question of why SF novels never win the Booker prize. 

This question obviously stands in for a larger question of the status of SF genre writers in the literary firmament, because as we all know SF novels do occasionally make it to the mainstream awards short lists, they just don't come from recognised SF writers. The last decade in particular has seen a fairly impressive penetration of the Booker shortlist by novels incorporating elements of SF, what I call in my review “aesthetic choices”:  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 2005, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell in 2004, and Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood in 2003.

This demonstrates to me that there clearly isn't a great resistance to SF ideas in the literary world. Additionally, the best SF writers get a degree of mainstream literary attention: Mielville, Geoff Ryman and Ursula Le Guin, for example, can rely on broadsheet reviews when they release major new works. Great writers whose work is hidden behind genre walls will usually get recognition over time – Philip K Dick is possibly the best example of this.

That said, none of those writers is likely to be nominated for the Booker Prize any time soon (I'm not sure that Le Guin qualifies anyway). Mielville hasn't written a Booker-worthy work yet (but I reckon he's got one in him), but Ryman has perhaps some reason to feel resentful here as he is a superb writer by any definition of the term. So, yeah there is a problem, but I don't think it's as big a problem as some people seem to feel.

There's a couple of reasons for that. First off, who gives a shit? I've never been a big awards fan, or follower of a canon or anything like that. My literary tastes feel fairly unique to me, and neither of the labels "science fiction” or “literary” really describe what I look for in a book. Heck, by and large the writers I like don't get a lot of recognition from either side. Many years ago when I was a young fan (gasp wheeze) it seemed that everyone in the fan community wanted to talk about Heinlein or Arthur  C Clarke, and the hot young writers were people like Lois McMaster Bujold, David Brin or Orson Scott Card, writers I could never get into. No one seemed to want to talk about Philip K Dick in those days, or Tim Powers, let alone Alan Moore. And whoever even talks about a fantastic genre writer like Micheal Shea? No one, that's who!

The second reason (which is implied above) is that a lot of the writers that genre critics adore leave me cold. I don't care much for Charles Stross or Richard Morgn or Iain M Banks. They're fine writers in many ways, and I've enjoyed books by all of them at one time or another, but I don't have a great of respect for their writing chops in the way that I do for Hilary Mantel, say, or David Mitchell.

It's the difference between these appeals that I think I've trying to get at in my review. Genre work is fine as long as you understand its scope. Mainstream readers might come ot a genre work and find it lacking because it doesn't seem to attempt that revelation of character that is vital to literary fiction. A naïve genre reader will get the same impression from literary fiction that uses genre furniture: an unsuspecting James Elroy fan will not find much to suit them in the work of Paul Auster, eg. Neither approach is inherently better or worse as long as it's approached knowingly by writer and reader.

I've tried to articulate this in my definitions of genre. I've never been completely happy with the idea of genre as a conversation between authors and readers. It's clear that that kind of loop is important to genre, but I want a definition that applies to a text rather than its context. That's why I'm keen on the “aesthetic choices” aspect of it. I think these aesthetic choices align with the popular, common sense definition of a genre (“spaceships and that”) that shouldn't be ignored. From these choices come certain types of story, and that's where you get “speculative fiction” from, but I've always been equally suspicious of those definitions of SF as a philosophical structure, because they seem to exclude too much that meets the general, common sense definition. By and large, any broad definition of SF that excludes Star Wars and Star Trek seems wrong to me.

On balance, I think I prefer a literary approach, and I recognise that this colours my approach to this topic. I've tried to be even-handed here, and that's one of the reasons I chose The Space Merchants and 1984 as a contrast here to prove my point: hopefully they are distant enough to avoid getting wrapped up in issues of current popularity or tribalism. I considered contrasting Richard Morgan's Black Man with David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, for example, as a similar illustration of the difference between literary and genre approaches, but I think the differences are easier to see at a distance.

I have to admit while writing this, I was wondering about who my audience for this is. I mean, who really cares? Poor readers of the Zone looking for a straightforward review are going to be disappointed, although I was careful to put my critical discussion of Super Sad True Love Story upfront so that readers could read about that and then drift off when I start blathering. As with all my reviewing work, and this blog especially, I think it's basically for me, as a way to arrange my thoughts and understand approaches to my own fiction. So sod you, then!


  1. I don't think I buy that 2010 represents a particular cresting of a wave(surely there have been at least as many prominent examples of mainstream sf every year for the past five years?), but you're right about the general trend.

    Similarly, you're right about these two schools of aesthetic choices, but I'm not convinced that "choice set A" maps on to "genre fiction" and "choice set B" maps on to "literary fiction" as neatly as you want. Unless you're going to say that Geoff Ryman is literary fiction and Kiran Desai is genre fiction, which would be counter-intuitive.

    Fascinated that you enjoyed SSTLS so much, too, because pretty much every other non-broadsheet report I've had of it has been intensely negative!

  2. In general, it's hard to write about these things in a way that simultaneously makes the separation clear while admitting that it's a big smeary mess rather than discrete boxes. So I dunno if I see it as a neat mapping as such, but if you look at enough samples it gets clearer.

    Ryman's a pretty good example of the difficulty of fitting everyone into the boxes. He probably pushes too hard into the generic SF mode - setting as thought experiment, rather than setting as expression of inner state - but he clearly knows and understands real people and knows how to elucidate their hopes and fears.

    I haven't read many other reviews of SSTLS elsewhere - could you point me to some of the naysayers, out of interest? For me, I thought it was terrifically funny and the affair between Lenny & Eunice was generally gripping and moving. I so wanted them to get through! Sigh!

  3. Oh, on the wave thing: I'm sure I saw an articel on i09 saying something similar a while ago, but I couldn't find it when I came to write the review. Maybe I dreamed it. I think though, that the last 18 months or so has seen more than the usual number of mainstream/SF wotsits(run run, the goal post is moving!)

    I felt I was sticking my neck out further with the stuff about 1977, to be honest. I defend both points as cheap framing rhetoric rather than honest assessments of publishing truth!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.