Posts Tagged ‘damien g walter’
In Friday’s Guardian, Alex Clarke predicted Granta’s 20 novelists under 40. It contains five eligible British SF writers:
- Ned Beauman
- Rebecca Hunt
- Sarah Hall
- Helen Oyeyemi
- Owen Sheers
In today’s Guardian, Damien G Walter presents his 20 SF novelists under 40. It contains five eligible British SF writers:
- Joe Abercrombie
- Frances Hardinge
- Elizabeth May
- Tom Pollock
- James Smythe
Aidan Moher asks: are fantasy readers ‘dumber’ than science fiction readers? The answer is: no, of course not. Moher’s deliberately provocative question stems from the fact Tor dropped Daniel Abraham after his critically acclaimed but apparently poor selling Long Price quartet and a suggestion on his blog that the relative intelligence of the fantasy readers was the reason for this. From these unpromising origins an interesting conversation about the difference between fantasy and science fiction springs up in the comments. Abraham himself puts in an appearance but unfortunately doesn’t make a useful contribution.
Cheryl Morgan asks: is the Locus Recommended Reading List biased against British authors? The answer is: no, of course not. But then no one had suggested they were. It is a typically muddled and defensive piece from Morgan who creates a strawman to attack a nameless group of people who apparently have concerns about the recommended reading list. In the comments there is some discussion of the underlying basis of these concerns which is the tension between Locus as an organ of the US publishing industry, predominantly read by American subscribers, and Locus as a journal of record for the field as a whole, with global reach through its website. In a related point, Abigail Nussbaum asks (again): what are the Locus Awards for?
Damien G Walter ask: is enough being done to support British libraries? The answer is: no, of course not. The value of libraries has always been clear but they persistently find themselves under valued. this is a particularly rough time as libraries find themselves first in line for cuts from local authorities following the drastically reduced spending settlement. Walter proposes a moratorium on closures and the establishment of a national standards and improvement agency. But the UK already has one of these and whilst you can argue over how well resourced it has been, it certainly isn’t going to get any more resource in the near future. So whilst I’m pleased that people like Philip Pullman continue to lobby passionately for the survival of libraries, I think this is one bitter pill (of many) that we will be forced to swallow. As Walter notes, when the choice is closing old peoples homes or closing libraries, no one is going to choose the former.
Finally, not one question but many: Hari Kunzru interviews Michael Moorcock. The was the lead feature in yesterday’s Guardina Review and starts with some interesting context on Kunzru’s on induction into fandom and Moorcock’s work in particular:
Most of my books came from charity shops or the Whipps Cross Hospital fête, where my dad – who as a doctor was expected to put his hand in his pocket on such occasions – would give me pound notes to convert into teetering piles of paperbacks. There was something so much more interesting about these books, fished out of crates and cardboard boxes, than the ones in the library, let alone the expensive, sensible fare which seemed to be on sale in ordinary bookshops. They were musty-smelling 10p messages from the futuristic past, complete with cover designs (and content) that were unlike anything I’d seen before.
I’m fairly certain that this was how I first came across Michael Moorcock, in an early-70s Mayflower paperback, with a psychedelic cover by Bob Haberfield. Soon I was combing London for these editions, which I’ve carried through numerous house-moves, keeping them even after I ditched the majority of my SF and fantasy collection in favour of student bookshelf-adornments intended to attract potential sexual partners
Then the article moves onto Moorcock himself:
Moorcock’s biography reads like a rebuke to every wannabe novelist who’s pottering through a creative writing MFA… Since the New Worlds days he has carried on writing at a furious pace, weaving an ever more complex web of novels and stories, filled with associations, refractions and knowing references, a delightful maze for his fans and a source of perplexity for bibliographers. This prolific, promiscuous output is perhaps one reason he’s not accorded the status he deserves in the postwar canon of English literature. Unlike his friend Ballard, whose reputation has been transformed in recent years, Moorcock remains something of an outsider, regarded with trepidation (if he’s known at all) by a literary establishment that prefers clear blue water between literature and genre writing.
Kunzru has made the full transcript of the interview available on his website and I think the only question that remains is: when is he going to write a science fiction novel himself?
But almost all conveyed the sense that there was something missing from bookselling. Commentors gave hints at what that something might be. We want quiet places to read and contemplate. We want steaming hot pots of water and infusions of fragrant teas. We want educated, erudite staff with whom we can discuss not just books but the broad range of knowledge we learn from them. Most of all, we want a sense of community, of connection with other like minded souls in search of meaning. We want a church.
I don’t and I don’t know anyone else who does. Turning churches into bookshops: good. Turning bookshops into churches: bad. There are over 180 comments on the Guardian article but skimming through them I didn’t pick up on this overwhelming desire for quasi-spiritual communion with like-minded souls. I did find a lot of “crazy, sentimental, Luddite talk” (to quote another commenter) from people whose tender sensibilities are offended by the very idea of commerce. A couple of people did rebel from reality so much that they call for the return of Edwardian reading lounges but that is as close as we get to church. Walter goes on to make an even more dubious assertion:
People turn to art for the kind of comfort and insight they once sought from organised religion, particularly people from the urban professional classes for whom books are of such cultural importance.
There may well be some small grain of truth in this but it is a remarkably contentious statement just to throw out there as if it is a common truth. Walter doesn’t go into detail so I won’t either but there are any number of issues you could raise against this simplistic statement. Anyway, he uses this as the basis for a disengenous comparison of books and other cultural institutions:
But while galleries, concert halls, theatres and other cultural institutions have geared themselves towards satisfying the (for lack of a better word) spiritual expectations of their audiences, the bookshop has gone in entirely the opposite direction. Galleries have positioned themselves as quiet, white spaces in the chaos of modern life. Bookshops are packed full of advertising and cross merchandising… Bookshops have become a feature of shopping malls, but are conspicuously missing from the major arts and cultural centres developed in the last decade.
The first thing to note is that a bookshop is a very different beast to a gallery and it is not immediately obvious why you would compare them. It is notable that for all the comparisons to other art forms, Walter ignores the music industry which is probably the best match: individual content producers, the means of production controlled by publishers, low production costs, easily distributable, retailers that provide little added value.
Even putting this aside, the most successful gallery in recent times in the UK is Tate Modern. It is hardly what you would call a quiet, white space. Yes, the walls of the individual galleries are white but that is no more meaningful than observing that bookshops have shelves. Tate Modern repurposes an obsolete building (much as retailers often do) to create a modern, heavily-designed space which usually bustles with activity. It certainly doesn’t shun the market in favour of the purely spiritual. The exhibitions in the Turbine Hall are free because they are sponsored by Unilever and for the charging exhibitions there are adverts. Nor is it free from the market in other ways. You would expect to find shops in a shopping centre but it is less clear why you would expect them in a cultural centre. Nonetheless, Tate Modern has an excellent bookshop. It also contains a cafe, a restaurant, a bar and a shop. Just up the river, the recently refurbished Southbank Centre now boasts a branch of Foyles.
This is all preamble though; once Walter has made his diagnosis, he then provides his prescription. It is not until the very end of his post that we finally get to the heart of the matter: “Is it time that bookshops and publishers made the case for public subsidy?”
In every other area of our cultural life, visual arts, theatre, TV, etc etc, we acknowledge the need for public subsidy to mitigate the less pleasant outcomes of commercialism. But because of their relatively strong commercial basis (theatre would long since have disappeared outside London without subsidy) bookshops and publishers have not made a case (and perhaps have never tried) to get support from the state.
Again, it is easy to get distracted by some of his passing assertions but the meat of his complaint is that publishing receives no public funding. The irony here – as Paul Raven notes – is that what Walter is describing in that first quote sounds much more like a library than a church. The government spends tens of millions of pounds on exactly the sort of community book places that he wants. As Raven says: “a strong campaign for increased library funding would be a better plan than suggesting recently-successful businesses go to the state with cap in hand.”
Bookshops, as the name suggests, are shops, they are not creative venues. There is absolutely no reason the government should be funding them, other than the strange sense of entitlement which over takes some book people. As it happens though, booksellers do receive a fairly substantial indirect subsidy from the state: books are after all exempt from VAT. Nor is it true that publishers receive no subsidy, literature is one of the six artforms supported by the Arts Council (to the tune of almost £6 million a year). Not surprisingly their policy focusses on the most important people – the actual writers – but some money is directed towards publishers. To take an example of this sort of state funding that should be close to Walter’s heart, for many years Interzone carried the logo of Arts Council South East.
There is perhaps a conversation to be had about relative levels of funding for different art forms but, in terms of realpolitic, it is hard to imagine a worse possible time to call for further public subsidy for the arts. There have been ten years of continuous investment in public spending but those days are over. In recent years the government has tried to trim some of its fat but we are starting to get into the meat and in a couple of years time – except for some areas like health and education – those cuts might well go down to the bone. Now, just because you don’t have the money for something doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. At the same time, the publishing industry is hardly at death’s door and you will forgive me for thinking the government might have other priorities at the moment.
Damien G Walter has a piece at the Guardian Book Blog asking why editors don’t get awards. Now, obviously editors make an extremely important contribution to literature. However, I’ve never been convinced of the need for a fan award for editors and, in particular, I think the Hugo catergories for best editor are pretty meaningless. In the comments to this I’m somehow tricked into progressively coming out against more and more other Hugo categories until I finally get to the stage where I can now present the shortlist for the 2009 Hugo Award:
- Anathem, Neal Stephenson (Morrow; Atlantic UK)
- “The Tear”, Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
- “True Names”, Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
- “The Gambler”, Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
- “Exhalation”, Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
The latest edition of Vector is out. I have a review and a letter of comment in it and other people have more interesting things – like Martin McGrath’s essay on John Scalzi’s feeble Old Man’s War books – in it. However, since the website hasn’t been updated for a couple of years there is nothing to link to and so this is probably only of interest to you if you are a member. In which case you will already have received your copy. So, instead, here are some links:
- Locus have launched a group blog which is still very much finding its feet.
- Jonathan McCalmont continues to bang the barleypunk drum as he thinks about the future of British SF.
- Elsewhere Damien G Walter is more conventional in his selection of bright young things.
- And Stephen King says Stephenie Meyer is shit. Although he also implausibly claims JK Rowling is not.
Damien G Walter says science fiction used to be too optimistic and now it is too pessimistic. Why can’t it be somewhere in between? To which I would say, why can’t it be anything it wants? I always react bady to this sort of attempt at constraint. If you want to write in a particular way get on and do it, don’t feel you have to stick your nose into what everyone else is doing.
Walter says he isn’t calling for science fiction that would “replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age” but naive is a good word to sum up his article. His sense of the importance of science fiction in particular is massively overblown:
The best science fiction, as with all great art, doesn’t just reflect the world but seeks to influence it. The dark warnings of science fiction have had innumerable, immeasurable effects on the world. The darkest and greatest of all, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, ranks among the most influential works of literature ever written. How many more totalitarian states would persist today if Nineteen Eighty-Four had not warned generations against the threat they represented, both abroad and at home?
This is a rhetorical question but I will answer it anyway: zero.
He also makes some interesting factual claims about the genre in support of his thesis that it is all doom and gloom:
Biotechnology and genetic research offer fantastic advances in medicine, yet their portrayal in science fiction is typified by the gloom of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Really? This is a vast area of speculation that has produced a riot of different ideas and stories. Genetic tinkering leading to the human race being wiped out is certainly one strand of this but it by no means typifies it. Then there is this:
The internet is already democratising many new areas of society, but our political future is still most commonly depicted as one flavour of Big Brother dystopia or another.
This is less outright wrong than just debateable. It certainly seems to me that there are more of a plurality of futures out there than Walter thinks. It is noteworthy that the only two modern writers he mentions are Atwood and Cormac McCarthy who both write science fiction from outside the genre and such writers concentrate almost exclusively on dystopias and post-apocalyptic scenerios (with a bit of alternative history thrown in.)