Twelve of the Best

So far, the sf blogging community has refrained from commenting on John Mullan’s article in yesterday’s Guardian Review (entitled ‘Twelve of the Best New Novelists’ on the website, headed ‘Midnight’s Children’ in the paper version) perhaps because his pop at the genre reader is a bit half-hearted, perhaps because it seems pointless to keep arguing with someone who is so resolutely determined to ignore what people keep pointing out to him. [28/2/11 – It turns out I was entirely wrong about this as, while I was busy pounding the keys rather than catching up on my blog reading, others had got there before me. Thanks to Martin Lewis for flagging up great posts by Sam Kelly  and M John Harrison. I have a suspicion they make much of what follows here entirely redundant, but what the hell … ] On the other hand, I don’t think Mullan should be allowed to get away with continually flaunting his ignorance as he does here, so I’m happy to take up the slack this time around. And actually, I’m pursuing this less because Mullan is making an idiot of himself over genre fiction, more because he is now making an equal idiot of himself over literary fiction.

The article concerns a forthcoming Culture Show special about new novelists. Mullan was the chair of a panel of five judges which reviewed the submissions from publishers asked to send in their best debut novels from ‘the past couple of years’ in order to choose the twelve ‘best’. I’ve no particular complaint about the exercise as such, insofar as I don’t really have a major complaint about any similar exercise, up to and including the Booker, the Clarke and the BSFA Awards. Nothing that encourages people to talk about books and read a few more is ever entirely bad. On the other hand, I am by turns fascinated and disturbed by the claims Mullan makes in this article, particularly in the light of various encounters between him and the sf community in the last year or so.

Mullan’s main point in the opening paragraph of this article is that ‘[t]he growth of British literary fiction has been one of the most extraordinary publishing phenomena of recent decades.’ He goes on to comment that the label ‘literary fiction’ has often been used in a disparaging manner, suggesting that it is synonymous with ‘pretentious’ or ‘plot-free’. I’ve certainly queried the use of the term, on the grounds that it is functionally meaningless, because is not all fiction in some way or other ‘literary’? But really, has literary fiction, insofar as I am assuming Mullan means ‘contemporary literature that has not been published under a particular genre label’ been savaged in quite the way that Mullan seems to imply? The acres of often favourable coverage in review columns and in the broadcast media suggest not, so why this defensiveness?

Indeed, as Mullan himself notes, having put out the call to publishers, ‘[w]hat we got were examples of what we have come to call “literary” fiction.’ What he does not say is how many publishers were contacted, what constraints if any were placed upon them in submitting titles, whether the original intent of the exercise was to simply examine literary fiction, or whether it was the publishers who, through their submissions, shaped the nature of this list.

Finally, in the third paragraph, Mullan poses an important question – ‘What is literary fiction?’ and offers a definition: ‘It is not genre fiction.’ Glad that’s cleared up then. My university tutors would never have allowed me to get away with this sort of nonsense, defining something by saying what it is not, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and only then with an extensive back-up apparatus of argument and citation. As if recognising that he is on slightly unstable ground here, Mullan pursues his definition as follows:

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a historical novel. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the leading British prize for science fiction. Yet you only have to think about these two examples to see how they escape their genres.

And that would be how, precisely? Back to Mullan:

Mantel’s novel revisits the favourite stamping ground of historical fiction – Henry VIII and his wives – in order to rethink what it might be to see events filtered through the consciousness of a person from a distant age.

Which is obviously something no other historical novelist has ever done before. On Ishiguro, Mullan goes on to say:

[He] takes a dystopian hypothesis – human clones being bred for their organs – and then declines to put in place any of the sci-fi framework that would allow us to understand how this could be. Indeed, the whole interest of his story is in the limits placed on its narrator.

Say what? Mullan does not indicate what this missing ‘sci-fi framework’ is; he’s too busy moving on rapidly to his great point about these two novels: ‘[t]hese are both “literary” novels because they ask us to attend to the manner of their telling.’ This is another opaque comment, one that I’ll explore in more detail shortly.

First, let us go back in time a little, in a way that Mullan believes sf cannot do, to a discussion at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival between Mullan and China Mieville, this in turn arising from a Booker-related fracas in 2009. The most striking thing about Mullan’s comments in 2009 is how they suggested that he really didn’t know that much about sf, other than that:

When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres,” he said, but now “it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.

One assumes he would feel similarly about crime and romantic fiction, both of which tend to have special sections in shops and, indeed, conventions of their own for people to go do. Having said that, one almost senses a kind of envy in his comments. In 2010, as Niall Harrison reports, during the debate with Mieville, Mullan again contended that the borders have hardened since he was younger, though as Harrison points out, ‘the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side’ and I would dispute whether they were initially as porous as Mullan seems to suggest.

Also telling, I think, is Harrison’s account of Mullan talking about Ishiguro’s novel:

Mullan […] mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world).

Perhaps this is the mysterious sci-fi framework to which Mullan alludes in the Guardian article. Harrison noted how, during the Cheltenham discussion, Mullan constantly referred to crime fiction, describing a template detective story. There was no indication as to what a template science-fiction story might involve, but clearly in Mullan’s mind it is all about world-building.

And most revealing of all, to my mind, is this last comment from Harrison:

The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly.

Note that comment about ‘a documentary on first novels’ – I wonder if that refers to the Culture Show special. If it does, it would seem that at least one genre novel made it over the first hurdle, if only to crash against the barrier of Mullan’s incomprehension and indifference. And at the end of all this, even an intensive exchange of opinions with China Mieville on the differences between and comparative merits of genre and literary fiction has apparently not prompted to Mullan to re-examine his attitudes towards genre fiction in any way whatsoever. This is of course his prerogative but it makes me wish Mieville had been chairing the panel selecting these novels.

But back to establishing the credentials of the literary novel, which is really what this article is about. Mullan positions it first in the 1960s, claims John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman as a progenitor, before settling on 1981 as the key date for literary fiction’s coming into being. Nineteen eighty-one is, of course, the year that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Booker. Mullan quotes Ishiguro, interviewed for the programme, as saying that this was an ‘absolutely pivotal’ moment. Mullan himself goes on to say that not only was the novel ‘unparochial’ because of its subject matter, but ‘it owed more to Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez than to the modern masters of English fiction.’ That is an interesting juxtapositioning of authors, particularly if, like me, you’ve just finished thinking rather a lot about modern magical realism, as introduced into Europe by García Márquez with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s a label often applied to Midnight’s Children and, as it happens, to Grass’s The Tin Drum. I’m not sure what Mullan is suggesting here but it seems too coincidental to my mind. Does this mean that literary fiction can be fantastic so long as you don’t actually say so?

Equally interesting is the way in which Mullan is here setting out a history for literary fiction. It reminds me of nothing so much as the way in which we sf readers have been accused of bolstering the credentials of our genre by incorporating ‘respectable’ works of literature into a spurious literary history, not to mention his recruiting contemporary examples – let’s say, for the sake of argument, novels by Mantel and Ishiguro – to his cause. Which is not to say that Mullan is doing the same for ‘literary’ fiction as we have supposedly done for genre but I raise an eyebrow when, in response to Ian Jack’s comment, that ‘[l]iterary novels really depend on prizes, and they depend on lists’, he says ‘[p]artly it is just a matter of needing maps’, suggesting this is a terrain that isn’t as clear as his article would have us believe.

However, it is when Mullan returns to the idea that literary fiction calls attention to form, I begin to wonder why he hasn’t realised that what he is calling into being is as much a genre as crime or science fiction, with a template that focuses on structure and narrative experiment. Having said that, what is equally interesting is his cursory summary of the 57 submissions, and how they pass, or mostly fail, his criteria for good literary fiction. In fact, it turns out that characterisation and consistent plotting are as important to Mullan as anything else. So, after all, it’s not just about narrative tricks like experimental form, which suggests in turn that ‘literary’ fiction isn’t quite so different as Mullan would wish it to be. It is perhaps just as well, then, that ‘[l]iterary fiction invites discrimination’; presumably other forms of fiction don’t.

In fact, I think this delicacy, this nicety, this ‘discrimination’ – dare I even say ‘literary snobbishness’? – may be at the heart of Mullan’s funny little love affair with this genre that isn’t a genre, that helps novels to escape from other genres and find a haven with him. It starts with his almost marvelling at the fact that readers are so sophisticated these days they happily take in their stride novels that would not so long ago have been considered part of the avant-garde. Here his examples are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), with its six nested narratives, and Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (2006), with its reverse chronology, and also Ian McEwan’s Atonement with its mock ending, which reveals, shock, horror, that it wasn’t Ian McEwan who was telling the story but Bryony Tallis. This suggests that Mullan has a pretty low opinion of the general reader. Or rather, I think he has very little understanding of what the ‘general’ reader is capable of.

It is only at the end of the article that I think we get to the nub of the matter. Mullan notes that a third of the 57 novels submitted were from creative writing graduates and that some of the novels he most admired were written by creative writing graduates. ‘I wonder,’ Mullan says, ‘if the growth of creative writing is a symptom as much as cause, profiting from an increased interest among readers – as well as writers – in formal experiment in narrative.’ Mullan’s argument is that this increased interest in writing literary fiction is fuelled by, first, the perceived retreat of academic literary critics to the seminar room during the 1980s (I suspect he is really talking about the rise of Theory), where they taught the next generation of would-be novelists, inculcating them with an enthusiasm for form, which now appears in their writing.

It might be my imagination but Mullan seems to be suggesting, then, that a degree, a postgraduate degree even, is or will be required for producing ‘literary’ fiction, and that ‘literary’ fiction can be properly appreciated only by the ‘educated’ reader. The word ‘highbrow’ remains unuttered but it’s surely floating there unvoiced. Which leaves genre fiction in an interesting position, with its readers and its writers presumably consigned to some outer lowbrow darkness once again.

As Damien G Walter noted on Twitter, ‘Literary fiction continues the process of making itself the most narrow and irrelevant genre in fiction’. On the basis of this article it would be difficult not to agree with him. Mullan’s muddled distinctions make little sense though clearly, they offer him a measure of security. For my own part, I shall continue to cheerfully trample through them.

I await The Culture Show special (5th March, 2011) with the greatest of interest.

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7 thoughts on “Twelve of the Best

  1. peake

    There was one word missing from Mullan's piece: postmodern. His starting point for 'literary fiction', The French Lieutenant's Woman, with its authorial interventions and changed endings, is generally reckoned to be an early example of postmodernism. His ancestor, Tristram Shandy, is postmodern avant la lettre. His 'tricks' are all devices commonly associated with postmodernism. It's there all the way through his piece; yet postmodernism is now in decline. I reckon all he's trying to do is give a new name to an old style.

  2. Paper Knife

    I hadn't noticed the omission of postmodernism until you mentioned it. Does he have an issue with the term, I wonder? It would tie in with the way he elliptically referred to the retreat to the seminar rooms of academic lit crit in the 1980s when I presume he is talking about the rise of continental philosophy in literary theory. There is a sense of trying to sidle round it all. Is he trying to reclaim 'literary' fiction now that Theory is dead?However, it does seem to end up looking like another iteration of creating a genre which should be called 'stuff I like', which he can then delineate as being different from everything else, in its own special category.

  3. Paul Smith

    I think at the end you hit upon what has been on my mind for a while and Mullen seems to endorse, this idea that the only writers these days are those that go to university and write a novel as coursework (similar to the whole US MA thing). It is rather worrysome, that writing a new novel is starting to be conflated with taking the right post-graduate course. Mullen in general just seems to be all over the place to me. He is unable to define why science-fiction isn't literature, makes vague comments about realism while claiming non-realist works when he feels like it, and is seemingly unable to provide any evidence, showing he hasn't actually read that much SFF. As you say, it seems like it really is "the genre of what Mullen likes".

  4. Paper Knife

    When you look at the article closely, it seems to be about three different things that don't quite belong together, despite Mullan's best efforts to make them do just that. we have the selection for the programme, Mullan's putative history of 'literary' fiction all mixed up with his distaste for genre fiction, and the play for the formation of a new highbrow literature. He raises interesting points but doesn't develop them fully and, for the life of me, I'm not sure how several of them do join together. What I am going to be very interested to find out is just how many of the 'finallists' in this mysterious non-competition are products of the university. David Abbott is, so PaulK tells me, in fact an old advertising man.To me, the most annoying part is his refusal to just come straight out and say 'I don't like X or Y'. I'd think a lot more of him for simply saying that he doesn't. There is nothing wrong with not liking things. There's a lot of material I'm not that excited about – I've no interest in chick lit or mommy lit – I don't spend my spare time trying to rescue the bits of it I do like by claiming they're something else. Mind you, I suspect I, like most people I know, am more of a reader without boundaries than he seems to be.

  5. David H

    I like literary fiction, but I want it to be an open term that celebrates the best in all genres; I don't recognise as 'literary fiction' the closed-off oddity that Mullan describes. I can't think of any attribute he ascribes to literary fiction in the article that I haven't seen exhibited by works of sf and fantasy.That particular Culture Show special is going to be broadcast alongside another one on popular fiction; I will be very interested to see how the two compare.

  6. Paper Knife

    This is my problem with Mullan's use of the term, not to mention his frantic efforts to co-opt people like Mantel and Mitchell into his gang; it is so closed off. Terms like 'literary' should be at best signposts but Mullan employs it in precisely the same way he sugegsts that genre readers employ their terms and, for the life of me, I cannot see how what he is doing is different.I didn't know about the popular fiction show; this, as they say, is going to be very interesting.

  7. Hal Duncan

    My university tutors would never have allowed me to get away with this sort of nonsense, defining something by saying what it is not…As I've been arguing in the comments there, (some of it posted on my own blog,) I see this as a patent strategy of abjection. It is utterly about class (and I'd argue gender, race and sexuality too,) with the term "genre fiction" itself co-opting a blank attribute and recasting it to mean "having, for that property, one or more of a limited subset of possible variants." I.e. it parallels the use of "colour" to identify "coloured people" within a system of abjection in which pink, peach and pale tan don't count. As "whiteness" is constructed as the negation of "colour" in its new, politically-warped sense, so "literary" is constructed as the negation of "genre" in a long-established sense, equally politically-warped… and arguably for much the same reason, I'd say.

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