Tag Archives: awards

deep linking – 5/3/2014

I gave up the battle to keep track of the ebb and flow (and it was mostly flow) of  discussions surrounding this year’s Hugo nominations very early on. However, Stefan Raets has performed a Herculean task in gathering together as many links as he possibly can so I shall send you to his blog to read through them. Link here.

Having said that, I will pull out a small group of links, beginning with Larry Correia explaining how and why sf shouldn’t be all about the politics, which was followed by an article in that bastion of ‘journalism’, USA Today, by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, confirming that Larry Correia was just so correct about that (I was going to say ‘right’ but obviously I’d want to keep the politics out of it), and balanced by a contribution by Foz Meadows to the Huffington Post, arguing (correctly, in my view) that you really can’t separate politics and science fiction (or any other kind of fiction for that matter.

I’ve a vague notion to review the contents of the Hugo voter’s packet when it finally crashes into my inbox (I’m envisaging a world pixel shortage, given it includes the entire Wheel of Time sequence). If I do, I’ll be coming back to what is discussed above.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Magazine has published a piece by Eileen Gunn, How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors are Shaping Your Future. I should note (with no disrespect to Eileen, who was obviosly following a brief) that non-US science fiction authors are also doing this.

In The Atlantic Noah Berlatsky used Eileen’s article as a springboard for pondering Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People. A good question …

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Things I read on the internet – week ending 26/1/2014

Theory and Practice

12 Fundamentals of writing “the Other”(and the self). From D J Older, co-editor of the forthcoming Long Hidden anthology

Adam Roberts revisits a previous blog article about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, adds current thoughts.

The first in a new series from Alex Dally MacFarlane on Post-Binary Gender in SF

‘”I love your work, Jonathan,” she told Franzen, “but in a way you are smeared by English American literature … I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them,” she said.’ Xiaolu Guo at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

A sort-of-follow-up from Philip Hensher, which strikes me as trying to acknowledge and dodge the point all at the same time.

Authors

The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean by Andrew Liptak (Kirkus Reviews)

Awards

The shortlists for the Kitschies 2013 have now been announced, along with some special mentions.

Newly Published

International Speculative Fiction no. 5 is now available

One for the Diary

Comics Unmasked. Forthcoming exhibition at the British Library. And more information via the Forbidden Planet blog.

Miscellaneous

Oddly mesmerising evil brain from outer space

Things I read on the internet – week ending 10/1/2014

The usual bizarre mix of books, archaeology and the London underground.

Previously unknown letters by Mary Shelley discovered in Essex archive – the mention of Edward Trelawny should also interest people

Interesting piece by John Sutherland on how M.R.James took over Christmas

Fictional London Underground stations

Orson Welles interviews H.G. Wells – I may have posted this before but its wondrousness does not fade.

Adam Roberts discusses the Award Season 2014, and articulates some of my current reservations.

Adam is also currently reading his way through the entire Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. It is hilarious, not necessarily in a good way. I had a complete hardback set of these when I was a child. You may well ask what my parents were thinking.

And while we’re about it, Patrick Barkham extols the virtues of Brendon Chase by B.B. I remember reading this as a child and loathing it. Looking at it as an adult, I can see precisely why I did. While it was quite possible to ‘read’ myself into some ‘boys’ books, and I very often did, this simply resisted all efforts. (Also, I suspect I generally didn’t get along with B.B as I remember reading and disliking The Little Grey Men stories.)

Radio 4 Extra has been running a lovely series of programmes by or about Charles Chilton, who died a year ago at the age of 95. Best known to sf fans for Journey into Space, this particular programme is a delightful half-hour reminiscence by members of the original cast and Chilton himself. (I’d also recommend Chilton’s two autobiographical programmes and The Long, Long Trail.)

Illuminating piece by Martin Lewis about reviewing a book he didn’t like, by an author he does like, with genuinely classy comment by said author.

Aficionadoes of Children of the Stones will find these early maps of Stonehenge to be of interest. They were made by William Stukeley, an eighteenth-century vicar who believed stone circles were made by druids. Stukeley was of course entirely wrong but he nonetheless can arguably be called the father of British archaeology.

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.

Contesting the canon

picture by nikkorsnapper

In the Guardian last Wednesday, Damien G. Walter posed a question: Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? The article’s subtitle wondered whether 2011 would be the year the Booker Prize judges ‘acknowledge the flowering of British SF and fantasy’. Given the fact they’ve shown scant interest in it up until now, let me speculate a little in turn and suggest that, in 2011, the Booker judges will pay as much attention to sf and fantasy (and here I am eschewing Walter’s apparently preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ – all fiction is speculative, mainly because it is fiction, and I like to be clear what I’m talking about) as they ever have done before. They might put an identifiably sf or fantasy novel on the long list or the shortlist, or they might not. Most likely, they won’t. Will sf and fantasy publishing collapse in a heap as a result? I doubt it. Does it honestly and truly matter if the Booker doesn’t acknowledge the existence of sf and fantasy? I don’t think so.

Walter comments on the “narrowness of the award’s perspective” but this is hardly surprising. As Adam Roberts concluded recently, in Crunching the Booker Numbers, an elegant piece of analysis, “The Booker is not hospitable to genre – or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize – the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.” The Booker Prize has been inhospitable to genre for forty years, so there is very little likelihood that the 2011 judges will experience a collective rush of blood to the head and see the error of their predecessors’ ways. As Adam shows, it’s just not that kind of award. And it is not as though the sf/fantasy world is short of awards, from the popular votes of the Hugos and BSFA Awards to the juried Clarke Award, the Philip K Dick Award and so on, awards which derive from the community itself, and which are surely more informed as a result.

Given there are so few articles in which ‘literary’ commentators worry about whether borderline genre works might make the breakthrough this year and get a stab at the Hugos or the Clarke, one wonders why it is so imperative that genre novels need to be recognised by the Booker. Or, indeed, by the ‘literary’ world, as personified by the Booker. I think ‘recognised’ is a significant word here. I’ve been involved in the SF community one way or another for something over thirty years and it feels as though there has always been some sort of tussle going on between those who think that sf and fantasy should remain outside the mainstream literary community (or as Brian Aldiss so memorably put it, “Let’s get sf back in the gutter where it belongs”) and those who demand recognition from the mainstream, like needy children desperately seeking attention from unheeding parents. This article feels like yet one more expression of the latter.

What sort of recognition is Walter seeking? A Booker Prize-winner, obviously, but what will that do for science fiction and fantasy? There will be acclamation from within the community, naturally, and doubtless bafflement expressed by the ‘literary’ community, probably accompanied by yet more foolish and ignorant comments along the lines of “it can’t be sf/fantasy, it’s good”. More perceptive commentators, probably someone like Michael Dirda, will doubtless observe that it is perfectly possible to produce well-written narratives within a genre framework, and there will be a lot of foot-shuffling and throat-clearing as other commentators set out to show how the winning novel is not really that much of a genre piece and how, in the right light, it looks almost literary.

Let us be clear about one thing: it will be the novel that has won the Booker, not the genre. The author will become a Booker-winning author and may experience more interest from publishers as a result, and possibly a certain amount of pressure to produce more books of a kind likely to appeal to people who buy Booker Prize-winning novels. I do not believe there will be a rush to the genre shelves as the scales fall from people’s eyes and they embrace science fiction and fantasy as long-lost prodigal children. The winning novel will probably remain as one of the more wilful jury choices, to be joked over in future years or discussed by people who actually take an interest in the history of the Booker but I do not think science fiction and fantasy will be taken into the bosom of the literary mainstream as a result.

Something else that struck me about this article was its confusion over what this much-craved recognition ought to look like. Alongside the desire for a Booker Prize there is a lot of talk about the literary canon and “SF’s canonical works”. Indeed, Walter himself admits that “the number of SF authors being retrospectively rolled in to the literary canon seems to grow exponentially year on year”. If that were so, I can’t see the problem, but putting aside the misuse of “exponentially”, let us instead address this idea of sf being brought into the canon “retrospectively”. Because, after all, isn’t the inclusion of any author in a canon retrospective, the point being that they have to earn the right to their place by demonstrating the enduring qualities that distinguish them as being in some way “good” literature.

For my own part, I have little patience with the concept of “the literary canon”. At its dubious best, it’s little more than a convenience for teachers, a gathering together of titles which someone somewhere thought that everyone ought to have read (and the canon arose, as much as anything, as a way of providing a blueprint for literary self-improvement), a list from which to compile a syllabus. At worst, it has represented, and to some extent I think it still does, a spurious privileging and legitimising of certain texts, almost invariably those written by dead white males. We can attempt to update the canon or even construct counter-canons, but the canon itself continues to sit there obstinately, accusingly, defying us to mess around with the literary status quo, a reminder that someone somewhere once compiled a list by which people’s reading choices are still being judged.

How exactly are sf and fantasy to break into the canon if, on the one hand, they are already there anyway (not forgetting that many of the ur-texts of fantasy and sf already appear on university syllabuses, beginning with various Gothic romances and Frankenstein, there is at least one MA in Science Fiction Studies in the UK, and goodness knows how many academics writing about science fiction and fantasy in academic journals) and, on the other, canon-building is perforce a retrospective pastime? Or is Walter perhaps proposing something slightly different, namely a shortening of the period required to become canon-fodder in order to get more recent sf and fantasy onto the golden list and lend them some of this spurious authority. Because, brutally, the authority of the canon is spurious, and constraining too. A few authors and titles will be singled out for greater attention, as with the Booker, but again, it will do nothing for the genre as a whole, and possibly not even for an individual author’s complete oeuvre.

As I said earlier, I’ve seen various iterations of this tussle being fought over thirty years. It’s not new. Indeed, at various times I’ve fought on each side of the argument. However, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realise that the whole idea of science fiction and fantasy needing the imprimatur of the “literary” mainstream is a load of rubbish. Are we honestly so insecure about sf and fantasy that we need the blessing of another genre’s prize in order to feel that we have somehow arrived? Do we really need to participate in a flawed academic exercise in order to convince ourselves of our own worth?

What this demand for ‘recognition’ suggests, in fact, is that we don’t trust the genre to stand or fall according to its innate qualities. We know there is well-written material and poorly crafted hackwork within the genre, but it’s not a situation unique to fantasy or sf. All areas of literary production suffer from it but I don’t recall any of the others demanding greater recognition from the Booker for the “good” stuff.

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.

For my own part, I read “genre” fiction, I read “contemporary” fiction, I read “canonical” fiction, interchangeably and with equal pleasure. I do not need the approval of the academy, the Booker Prize judges or the sf and fantasy community when I make my choices about the books I am going to read. With everything I read, I read critically, and am happy to defend my opinions as required. Awards shortlists can be a talking-point, the canon is a useful jumping-off point and I value the cut and thrust of discussion with my fellow reading fans, but in the end I honestly don’t care a jot whether anyone else approves of what I read, and I certainly don’t feel I need to have my choices sanctioned by the awarding of a Booker Prize.