Tag Archives: john mullan

We Need To Talk About Dragons – John Mullan, George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction

It was something of a surprise to find John Mullan discussing fantasy fiction in the Guardian just a week ago. A surprise because, on past accounting, Mullan and genre fiction do not make good bedfellows. The nature of Mullan’s distaste for genre fiction is still not entirely clear to me, other than it is not literary fiction, his preferred kind of fiction. As I’ve noted elsewhere, one of the problems with this stance seems to be Mullan’s failure to recognise that literary fiction is itself a genre, with distinctive characteristics of its own, characteristics which Mullan himself has delineated in various articles.

So, what are we to make of George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction? My first response, when I read it, was that the article was poorly constructed and poorly referenced drivel. At the time someone suggested I was being a bit harsh on Mullan, as the article did seem to suggest that he had perhaps changed his mind about fantasy, and was attempting some sort of rapprochement with the genre. And perhaps I was being harsh: I decided to put the article aside for a few days and then look at it more analytically. In the meantime, two things happened: a lot of people noted that Mullan’s article had mentioned no women writers, to the point where the article briefly achieved a certain viral notoriety, and then the Hugo nominations were announced, after which all previous topics of discussion were lost forever. There is little I can usefully contribute to the Hugo discussions right now that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, but I can go back to Mullan’s article and give it the rigorous analysis I think it deserves.

Before all else, I should say that I’ve no problem with Mullan’s tastes in literature. Why should I? We all like different things, after all. My problem lies with his apparent desire to write articles about things for which he clearly has little if any sympathy, and about which he is obviously not that knowledgeable. This lack of knowledge has been noted before. In 2010, Niall Harrison reported on an encounter between Mullan and China Miéville at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and commented then that:

it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction.

I’ve been using the word ‘genre’ here, but I’m now going to switch to using Niall’s term, ‘category’, because I think it will help make a little more sense of Mullan’s arguments as this discussion unfolds. So, to recap, while I think Mullan makes a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, he fails to recognise that ‘literary fiction’ is as much a category as ‘science fiction’ or, as we begin this analysis, ‘fantasy fiction. And in fact, possibly the first thing to note about Mullan’s article is that there is a rigidly enforced distinction between science fiction and fantasy, to the point where science fiction is not mentioned at all, although at least two, maybe more, of the authors mentioned in this article have as much right to be described as sf writers (or horror, for that matter). I grant you I have a very fluid approach to defining sf and fantasy, but equally, it’s clear that for Mullan the streams will never ever cross. Which again is not a crime in and of itself but I think it is generally revealing of his attitude in approaching this discussion.

Mullan begins with a question:

Has fantasy fiction, for decades a thriving literary genre, finally taken its place in the literary mainstream?

It’s a nice, friendly sort of question. Mullan represents fantasy as a thriving genre, a literary genre even, which definitely sounds like an improvement on his previous stance. He goes on to note that fantasy does not need ‘bien pensant “literary” admirers”, and comments too on how fantasy fandom is characterised by ‘companion volumes, analytical websites, conferences and online commentaries’. It is also a genre [category] that has ‘always generated critical expertise, and fantasy novelists have long been in a dialogue with their readers that other novelists must envy’. (In particular, Mullan notes Neil Gaiman’s 2.2 million followers on Twitter.)

This all seems unobjectionable, though by the end of the paragraph, I did find myself want to keep inserting ‘and sf’ into Mullan’s description, and it did strike me that this description of the activity surrounding fantasy fiction was very carefully couched in terms that would resonate with a more scholarly audience. Substitute ‘conventions and blogging’ and the tone shifts entirely.

However, Mullan goes on to say is this:

Fantasy’s devotees must feel rueful as the critics now rush to declare their addiction to HBO’s Game of Thrones […] or record their admiration of Terry Pratchett.

And then says:

The debt to fantasy fiction of The Buried Giant, the new novel by one of Britain’s leading literary novelists, Kazuo Ishiguro, must seem overdue vindication of the genre. [my emphasis]

Are we rueful about the critics rushing in? By which I guess Mullan means the critics from the mainstream press rather than the category press. I suspect many would see praise for Martin or Pratchett as vindication of their tastes rather than encroachment upon them, but perhaps it says something about Mullan’s perception of ‘fans’ of fantasy fiction. By the same token, why would ‘we’ regard Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant as a vindication of our tastes, particularly if, as Mullan is simultaneously proposing, we are so insular we are supposed to resent mainstream critics saying nice things about ‘our’ category. All this would suggest that Mullan has some sort of agenda in writing this article; in particular, he seems to be suggesting the existence of a cultural power struggle between fantasy fans and mainstream critics. This might have been true once, given that sf and fantasy fans have at times shown a tendency towards insularity, but I’d argue that these days fans, in as much as they give it any thought, welcome intelligent commentary wherever they find it. What intelligent commentary might look like is something that I shall be discussing during the course of this article.

However, I think the issue that lies at the heart of this article is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant which has drawn a good deal of mystified commentary since its publication, since it seems to use fantasy markers, such as ogres, elves and dragons, oh my. I intend to discuss The Buried Giant in more detail in a later post, and indeed in other venues, but for now, to get some slight perspective on this lack of comprehension, I will just point out that ogres, dragons and elves are similarly mentioned in Beowulf, a text that is explicitly referenced in The Buried Giant on more than one occasion, and for very good reason. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed critics growing apoplectic that the unknown composer of Beowulf was using such figures in their fiction, so quite why mainstream critics have been so exercised, I’m not clear. On the other hand, I have been embarrassed by the way that one or two of fantasy’s own have criticised Ishiguro for talking about his novel as fantasy, but again, that’s an issue I’ll return to in another post. For now, I’ll observe merely that I’ve read his novel, I’ve read fantasy novels too, and I do not find Ishiguro’s observations particularly controversial. Indeed, The Buried Giant is precisely the kind of fantastic writing I like best.

But Mullan hasn’t let up on that cultural struggle he seems to think he has uncovered. ‘Ishiguro has spoken in the past few weeks of how the barrier between this once disdained brand of fiction and “serious” novels is breaking down’. Which, looking at the interview Mullan links to, are two actual things he did not say. In that interview Ishiguro explains his own ground rules for writing The Buried Giant, and is very clear about how he is writing within the world view of the characters, a world view which admits ogres, elves, pixies and dragons. I refer you back to that well-known work of fantasy, Beowulf (I’m using the Seamus Heaney version as my translation source, and he definitely says ogres, elves and dragons ).

At this point we’re two paragraphs into Mullan’s article, and already we’ve moved from fantasy fiction being a thriving genre for years to one that was ‘once-disdained’. How long ago was it ‘once-disdained’? Mullan doesn’t say and I’m not even sure he really knows. However, this shift of emphasis is important as he has begun to discuss George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) sequence, at which point we learn that Martin has a ‘host of fans who resent the low status accorded to their favoured genre and some distinguished admirers who rather agree’. What low status is this, I wonder, and who is according it? Because a moment ago, the genre was thriving and the writers and readers were happy: what happened between the lines?

Whatever went terribly wrong between the full stop at the end of one sentence and the capital letter of the next, Mullan can help, by invoking the ‘accomplished literary novelist’, John Lanchester, who likes both ASOIAF and Game of Thrones, and wrote an article to that effect in the London Review of Books a while ago. It’s rather a good article, in fact – Lanchester is clearly familiar with both text and series and writes well about them. He is also clear that people who are snobbish about not reading the likes of GRRM are missing out, but his target is people on the literary side of the divide, and he is not at all patronising about people who read a lot of fantasy. This is also an article that seems to have been drawn on rather heavily as research for Mullan’s article. Obviously, legions of disgruntled GRRM fans will be relieved to know from Mullan that they now have the support of an ‘accomplished literary novelist’ alongside the support of those presumably less accomplished non-literary novelists who also like GRRM’s work.

At this point, Mullan refers to ASOIAF as a roman fleuve, leading me to suppose Lanchester had done so. He didn’t, as it turns out, but this is the first sign of something else that becomes apparent as this article continues: Mullan is, I think, trying to construct a critical vocabulary for talking about these fantasy novels he’s discussing. So, rather than simply talking about a series or sequence, Mullan turns to roman fleuve, which I am inclined to think he uses slightly wrongly. Mostly, though, he is using Lanchester’s words to comment on the ‘richly imagined world’ and the ‘prevailing “sense of unsafety and uncertainty” of that world’, presumably because no non-literary critic or novelist would ever have managed to describe it in such terms, or if they did, their judgement has now been validated by an ‘accomplished literary novelist’. For example, we are told of ASOIAF that any ‘connoisseur of narrative drive’ who ‘crosses that divide’ ( by which he means the unbridgeable crevasse that Lanchester refers to in his article, although I’m not at all sure Mullan and Lanchester actually are on the same side of that crevasse) will be amazed at the drive and inventiveness in Martin’s novels, because obviously neither sf nor fantasy as category fiction are ever all about the narrative drive.

By now, it seems clear to me that if Mullan is going to praise fantasy, and I still think he is trying to in some way, he is nonetheless going to praise it with faint praise indeed, and mostly in a very backhanded way. In fact, I eventually realised that what Mullan was attempting was first to construct a lineage for fantasy, but then to construct a kind of reading schedule in which one begins with fantasy-fantasy but gradually, as one becomes more enlightened, one moves away from that towards something more literary, like, oh, let’s say Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant which is of course a serious literary novel.

Tolkien, we are delighted to learn, ‘has not been entirely cold-shouldered by serious critics’. Honestly, if someone had given me this as an essay to mark I would have by now plastered it in red ink, saying ‘define your terms!!!’, the exclamation marks increasing with each use of an undefined term. Having said that, while I might agree to some extent that Lord of the Rings is probably more of a cultural artefact than it is a great book, what is a great book? LOTR is a much-loved book, it is a book that has moved so many people in various ways. It has many constructional flaws, undoubtedly; it could be argued that it is guilty of nostalgia, that it lacks female characters, and that the language is stilted. It could equally be praised for the breadth of the project, for the mesmerising beauty and horror of some of the sequences (the journey through the Dead Marshes does it for me every time). And it could be argued that both Tolkien and Ishiguro are in their various ways drawing on the same stuff of Britain to tell stories, albeit with very different results.

I’m fascinated by an anecdote that Mullan interpolates at this point, of the 14-year-old Mullan being taken to meet Tolkien at Merton College, Oxford, because he knew one of Tolkien’s grandsons at school, and having his ‘battered paperback copy of Lord of the Rings, much reread’ signed. Fascinated because, if the time line fits together the way I think it does, while this was going on, several miles across town a 14-year-old girl was almost certainly embarking on her umpteenth read of a similar paperback copy, unaware at that point who precisely Tolkien was, and that she had spent much of her childhood regularly passing his house. And thus, forty-two years later, Mullan and I finally reach this point.

As to why Mullan inserts that anecdote then, I assume it is to provide two things: first, an imprimatur for what he is saying, in that he met Tolkien, and secondly, that he is firmly establishing LOTR as a childish thing, which can and must be put away as one grows older. Not least because Mullan moves on to offer us ASOIAF as the real deal, because it is ‘emphatically fantasy for grown-ups’. It’s not just the sex and violence but the Machiavellian principles, apparently, but I daresay the sex and violence helps. (I should say here that, assuming he has actually read ASOIAF, Mullan may have the advantage of me here, as I have not; on the other hand, I have read the whole of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time sequence, may god forgive my desiccated soul, and I doubt he has, so maybe we are even.)

Apparently, ‘Compared to The Lord of the Rings, [ASOIAF] is morally complex and undecideable’, and obviously no other fantasy novel has ever been like that before or since. At least, none that Mullan has read. And here I refer you back to Niall Harrison’s observation at the beginning. Mullan is in effect constructing a reading chart based on what seem to be a few very popular writers, writers who have in terms of popularity actually pretty much transcended the category to which they’ve been assigned by Mullan, and yet it’s clear that he has very little idea of what is going on in modern fantasy writing.

You can see this in the pegs on which he hangs his discussion. There is a long disquisition on the use of maps in fantasy novels. While Mullan correctly notes that Tolkien almost certainly initiated this habit he seems unaware that in turn the inevitable presence of the map has itself become an object of mockery. But Mullan is instead fastening on the fact that children love to draw maps – you can probably see where this is going.

He notes, citing Lewis’s Narnia books, the fact that there is ‘invariably a route from our world into a magical one’ (though it would have helped, when talking about Lewis’s ‘first Narnia book’, to actually note the title, because technically, while The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the first published, the wardrobe is also mentioned in The Magician’s Nephew, which is of course the first book, chronologically… but maybe that is too much information). While Mullan is correct in noting that Alan Garner’s Elidor requires the children to cross into another world, the whole point with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is that the magic comes to them, on Alderley Edge – there is no secondary world (and for some reason that is not clear, Mullan persists in referring to secondary worlds as alternate universes, which is not the same thing at all).

Which is interesting as Neil Gaiman is cited as the writer ‘of fantasy for adults’, whose stories ‘admit the deities and demons of different mythologies to this [world]’, again as if this has never happened before. Though I mostly treasure Mullan’s announcement that ‘Gaiman composes like the TS Eliot of horror-fantasy, patching together stories and personages from incongruous sources, amid a flurry of literary allusions, as if all pagan stories of the supernatural comprised a single compendium of our deepest fears. And perhaps Neil Gaiman does, but he is neither the first nor the last to do so; it’s more that he is cleverer at it than everyone else. But that’s actually irrelevant. More important is that comparison with TS Eliot. Because much as I like both Eliot’s writing and Gaiman’s writing, you know something? Eliot is no more Gaiman than Gaiman is Eliot. I call bullshit.

We’ll slide past the embarrassing encounter with the work of Terry Pratchett, and the bit where Mullan suggests that Pratchett stopped writing fantasy and started writing commentary on it instead through his satires, which are apparently not fantastic. ‘Many of Pratchett’s readers must also be readers of fantasy fiction, able to relish the irreverent parody as well as the real thing.’ Perhaps that would be because the irreverent parody as a version of the real thing is real thing itself. Possibly, just ever so possibly, fantasy readers read Pratchett, and Pratchett fans vice versa. They might also understand what’s happening because the tropes that Pratchett is dealing with have already long since infiltrated our culture. That would be, before ASOIAF arrived on the scene.

And finally, we return to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Buried Giant, confirming my suspicion that the dalliance with ASOIAF as the real fantasy deal is but a smokescreen for what is really on Mullan’s mind. Is The Buried Giant a fantasy? With Mullan’s guidance, we’ve been led from Middle-earth, all pastoral nostalgia (no, it wasn’t, really it wasn’t), to the gritty, sexually and militarily violent and incestuous reality of Westeros, and here we are, finally, in the rarefied surroundings of imaginary sixth-century England, in a work written by a literary novelist. We have undergone our quest and have won through, and got to the good stuff. Except, how is he going to justify that dragon: ‘Dragons are the grandest inhabitants of the genre’, which I think means Mullan is wondering how he deals with Querig.

How Mullan deals with Querig is by claiming that The Buried Giant is ‘no more echt fantasy than When We Were Orphans was a detective novel or Never Let Me Go a work of science fiction’ (a Clarke shortlisted non-work of sf, no less). Mullan, by past account, is quite keen on representing things that read like category fiction but that he likes as having transcended their category. So, like Wolf Hall and Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant has transcended the perceived limitations of category. ‘It declines to provide much of the superstructure that the genre addict would expect.’ What superstructure does Mullan mean, exactly? No map? No gritty military action and incest? He doesn’t say, but as Niall Harrison also noted, Mullan is a man who thinks very much in terms of category templates; I suspect that the need to construct a ‘three ages of fantasy’ for this article is in part born out of his not being able to find one easy template for fantasy (to go along with his past failure to find a single easy template for science fiction). That desire for a category template surfaces too in his endless reiteration of this notion that bookshops have special rooms for, variously, science fiction and fantasy. I assume he means the shelves that are marked ‘science fiction and fantasy’ as a marketing tool, for half the argument here is really about category in marketing rather than genre qua genre, because that’s actually an entirely different theoretical argument, as well he ought to know.

So, what are we to do about that dragon? She is ‘disappointingly undernourished and lethargic’ … thank god, she is not a proper dragon after all! Thus, Mullan can confidently state that Ishiguro ‘is using some of the conventions of fantasy fiction to produce a fable of violence – always at the heart of the genre [i.e. category] – and about the capacity of societies to forget the violence of their pasts. Fantasy has enabled him to do this obliquely, daring us to take seriously a kind of narrative that is often called childish’. Mostly, I would venture to suggest, by mainstream critics. Fable is the weasel word here, a way of saying fantasy without saying fantasy.

And then, suddenly, finally, for no reason I can see, we’re back to GRRM and the announcement that he ‘employs a shifting of viewpoints that some critics do not expect from the moral and narrative conventions of fantasy writing’. Because, again, no one ever did that, not even Tolkien – oh, wait.

It is easy, far too easy, to poke fun at Mullan’s article, because it is so woefully wrong-headed in its execution. He raises some interesting points along the way but rarely in such a way that they are actually germane to whatever he is discussing at any given point. The article is one long betrayal of his lack of familiarity with what is going on in modern fantasy writing or indeed his failure to understand the breadth of modern critical work on the fantastic. Even just reading Farah Mendlesohn’s The Rhetorics of Fantasy and Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland might have helped him to develop a more nuanced view of the critical side of things, and god knows there are enough histories of fantasy as a genre or category available to us all.

The big take-away for many people from the article was the fact of no women writers being mentioned, except Amanda Craig as critic, and Trudi Canavan as a quiz answer (which latter leads me to believe that was interpolated by someone else because if Mullan had got as far as reading Canavan at all, I would like to think he might have managed to mention her in the main text too). But, much as it pains me to say this, the failure to mention women writers is not the main issue, but symptomatic of a broader failure to understand fantasy as a category at all. Or, rather, Mullan’s use of fantasy is done so to co-opt some visible markers of the category in order to construct an argument as to why a book he wants to talk about isn’t fantasy, despite its own author being entirely comfortable with the fact of the book’s being a fantasy. He was never was interested in fantasy except insofar as he could relegate it to childhood.

Once more unto the fray …

I normally avoid the bear pit of readers’ comments on Guardian articles, because I am a delicate, wilting flower who dislikes unstructured conflict, but Hal Duncan’s comment on my previous post, ‘Twelve of the Best’ prompted me to go back to John Mullan’s article and read the comments it has accrued, including Hal’s own trenchant observations on genre and literary fiction. I suggest you do the same, not least to read Hal’s arguments.  There are two pages of comments: here and here – Hal’s are in the second page. Alternatively, you might just want to go straight to Hal’s own Notes from the Geekshow and read his comments there.

The comments are generally interesting, though a lot of the usual issues are raised once again, from the now perennial claim that all authors will be better off publishing themselves, through various complaints that publishers don’t want to publish what a particular author is offering (which is unfortunate but not immediately germane to the discussion, I feel), through a little light sf-bashing, complaints that seeking ethnic diversity is tantamount to racism, and to more thoughtful discussions of the issues that have been raised lately.

Mullan and Alex Clark, two of the judges, contribute (though not as usefully as I would have liked), and I am still looking in vain for any clear indication of the protocols under which this exercise was operated in the first place.

(It was also interesting to read the comments in the light of a number of conversations I had yesterday about how we discuss things on the internet and to think about how, as an individual commenter, I can make my contribution to the process more helpful.)

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.