Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

“The endlessly arse-achingly expressed complaint from genre that no one takes us seriously”

with 6 comments

As you will probably know by now, the Guardian devoted Saturday’s Review section to science fiction. Since I like to spend my Saturday mornings reading both the Guardian Review and science fiction, this is obviously something I welcomed. My anticipation was slightly soured by a comment piece from Iain M Banks that was published online on Friday in advance of the Review. He opens with a long analogy about a young writer pitching a hackneyed detective story to his agent before revealing his target:

Now, even the most gifted literary author will be sufficiently aware of the clichés of the detective story not to let an initial burst of enthusiasm for a new idea involving any of them get beyond the limits of his or her own cranium, and even if they were foolish enough to suggest something on these lines to their agent or editor they’d immediately be informed that It’s Been Done . . . in fact, It’s Been Done to the Point of Being a Joke . . . and so all the above never happens.

Or at least, it never happens quite as described; substitute the phrase “science fiction” for the word “detective”, delete the 1930s murder-mystery novel clichés and insert some 30s science fiction clichés and I get the impression this scenario has indeed played out, and not just once but several times, and the agent/editor has – bizarrely – entirely shared the enthusiasm of their author, so that, a year or two later, yet another science fiction novel which isn’t really a science fiction novel – but, like, sort of is at the same time? – hits the shelves, usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.

The subs have entitled the piece “Science fiction is no place for dabblers” which seems a fair enough condensing of Banks’s argument and it pissed me off for two reasons. The first is that it is such a depressingly squandered opportunity; Banks has been given the chance to connect with a new audience to discuss something he is passionate about but instead treats them to a tired moan. It is the tendency alluded to by my title, a quote from China Mieville that appears in Justine Jordan’s profile elsewhere in the Review. Haven’t we got anything better to talk about?

The second problem is not Banks’s topic but the way he makes his case. Specifically, the way he scrupulously avoids any specifics and never names names. Who are the writers he has in mind? Who are dabblers who need to be taken to school? We’ve no idea because he doesn’t tell us. People in the comments are quick to make suggestions though and the usual suspects are soon trotted out: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy. Once someone is named as a dabbler, the validity of applying such a label can be debated (as it is in the comments). Banks doesn’t allow us that opportunity though. Personally, I am pleased that The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go and The Road exist but then I doubt Banks actually had those particular authors in mind. But who knows?

The result of his vagueness is that all writers of non-genre SF are tarred with the same brush. By reducing a disparate bunch of artists to a monolithic Them, he makes a real conversation about the way writers from outside the genre engage with the genre when they write science fiction impossible. Because there is certainly a kernel of truth to what Banks is saying. Elsewhere in the paper Ursula K LeGuin says the same thing: “You can’t write science fiction well if you haven’t read it, though not all who try to write it know this.” However, she continues: “But nor can you write it well if you haven’t read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup.” Dialogue is a two way street.

Banks concludes with an attempt at magnanimity that comes close to saying something similar:

However, let’s be positive about this. The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction – regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers – shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well. It’s certainly desirable.

It certainly is desirable and we should be positive but that is a bit rich coming at the end of such a negative piece. Further more, Banks’s point is made far more eloquently by the very existence of the edition of the Guardian Review in which it appears. It is therefore rendered both irrelevant and rather graceless. The contrast is further made by the Review’s lead feature in which leading SF writers – including LeGuin – choose their favourite novel or author in the genre. Here is their list of “leading SF writers”:

Brian Aldiss
Margaret Atwood
Stephen Baxter
Lauren Beukes
John Clute
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Andrew Crumey
William Gibson
Ursula K LeGuin
Russell Hoban
Liz Jensen
Hari Kunzu
Kelly Link
Ken MacLeod
China Mieville
Michael Moorcock
Patrick Ness
Audrey Niffenegger
Christopher Priest
Alastair Reynolds
Adam Roberts
Kim Stanley Robinson
Tricia Sullivan
Scarlett Thomas

I think it is safe to say that this is not a list a fan would be likely to come up with and I’m sure a lot of people would turn their nose up at the idea these are all leading SF writers. It is, however, a list of interesting authors saying interesting things about science fiction. More than that, it is a list without boundaries; it is a list that is open and optimistic and interested in dialogue. So let’s all be positive.

Written by Martin

15 May 2011 at 22:45

6 Responses

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  1. Agree completely about the feebleness of the Banks piece. He wastes most of it building his elaborate straw man (the supposed writer of literary fiction who embarks on a county house murder mystery without realising that the genre was largely mined out by the 1940s), never saying who he is criticizing—I guess when you’re a famous writer you have to be careful about naming names: you might not get invited to the fashionable parties.

    Nice to see Margaret Atwood is a “leading sf writer”, though (which she genuinely is, especially in her reach beyond the genre into schools: her novels are made for classroom discussion). There was a time when she was reluctant to be ghettoised (the “talking squids in outer space” interview).

    Gareth Rees

    15 May 2011 at 23:13

  2. Despite the headline to the lead-in, apparently authors were asked to choose *a* favorite book or author, not the-one-and-only-best. Still, that is how it was packaged for public consumption.


    16 May 2011 at 11:16

  3. I am slightly surprised at Banks’s reticience, he is so successful and well-established that there is no possible professional risk to him. As for private risk, surely as long as he can have the odd single malt in Edingburgh or glass of Krug in Soho with his SF peers, he doesn’t care about fashionable party invites. Is he really worried that Jeanette Winterson or Martin Amis are going to post poo through his letter box?

    Those are two other potential names for the unnamed that have come up in the debate. I think this post by Cheryl Morgan is a good demonstration of why it is important to name names since as once they are out of the bottle, you can actually have a proper conversation. Maybe he did mean The Stone Gods but LeGuin quite liked it. Maybe he did mean Time’s Arrow but Ellen Datlow quite liked it. Obviously, just because they liked them, doesn’t mean that the works are actually good but it does suggest that being a dabbler is very much in the eye of the beholder and not a black and white matter of Us versus Them.


    16 May 2011 at 14:58

  4. I’m as fed up as China is about this whole debate. It’s also why I chose not to sign the recent petition to the BBC about the treatment of genre.

    Al R

    16 May 2011 at 15:49

  5. Don’t get me started on that bloody petition! It never occured to me that Stephen Hunt’s idiotic crusade would have legs but apparently so. And I see from the Bookseller that Banks did sign it. Oh, Banksie :(


    16 May 2011 at 16:04

  6. The positive approach is to discuss the writers one thinks are being neglected because of “ghetto”, and that’s where Iain really goes wrong, I think. Better than making a list of all the people that fucked him over, he could have pointed to writers he feels deserve a wider readership. The debate (even if we need a debate, which is arguable) should be focused on great books rather than shit ones.

    Patrick H

    18 May 2011 at 09:28

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