The Tyranny Of Incompetence, The Possibility Of Art
My review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is up at Strange Horizons. It is a bad book. It is bad in familiar ways. It won an award. This makes me sad but it also makes me feel like I am banging my head against a wall:
In January, Blood Red Road won the 2011 Costa Children’s Book Award. The judges have helpfully provided a pithy citation with reveals their thinking: “It’s astonishing how, in her first novel, Moira Young has so successfully bound believable characters into a heart-stopping adventure. She kept us reading, and left us hungry for more. A really special book.” There is something of Chris Mullan’s infamous remark on his experience of judging last year’s Booker Prize that the novels “had to zip along” to this statement. Perhaps that is all a novel needs to achieve, perhaps such shoddily amateurish affair as Blood Red Road deserves awards for this. I’m not convinced. Please do give me heart-stopping adventure but to get my heart to actually skip a beat, the stakes need to be real, and that means the characters and the world are real.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over Benjamin Rosenbaum’s recent post on the wages of nostalgia which in turn links to Jeff VanderMeer’s rather older post on the triumph of competence. They are both entirely right that we should not settle for the merely competent but, reading genre fiction, it often seems that achieving such a state would be insanely aspirational. As a comparison, I have just finished reading The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht which strikes me as the very definition of competent. (See, for example, Dan Hartland’s review which accurately identifies the novel as toothless.) It does, however, display a level of competence rarely seen in genre fiction.
My complaint against Blood Red Road is that it is incompetent and that is such a basic criticism that it is depressing. So it is nice to be reminded that it is possible to aim higher and, not for the first time, such a reminder was provided by M John Harrison. As I was writing my review, he was publishing a credo that essentially says my diagnosis – that Young’s world needs to be made real – was misguided:
Don’t fauxthenticate. Don’t make a text that begs, “Believe in this, please believe in this.” Rationale is the sound of the stuffing falling out, the sound of the failure of imaginative intensity.
Harrison can write this because he has gone so far past competence that it disappeared into the distance long ago. There is no writer I would rather read on the subject of writing and his contribution to Foundation’s ‘Profession of Fiction’ series is the best thing I’ve ever read by an author about their own work. Originally published in Foundation 46, Autumn 1989, it was reprinted in The Profession of Science Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James (and available from Palgrave as a Print On Demand book for a mere £66.00), and Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison, edited by Mark Bould and Michelle Reid (and potentially available from the SF Foundation for a tenth of that). So, to cheer me up and to remind me of the potential of both writing and writing about writing, here is his dissection of his own career from that essay:
1966-69: The Committed Men. Identify the illusions central to the genre. The clearest illusions we have are to do with “meaning” and “choice”, with self-determination, problem-solving. Sf draws illusions of this nature across our fears: of death, of the ordinariness of our lives, of the consequences of our actions. A fantasy-world is precisely one in which action has no consequences.
1968-78: The Pastel City, The Centauri Device, The Machine In Shaft Ten, A Storm Of Wings. Subvert these illusions, not for the sake of it, or for political or literary reasons, but because to do so might be to reveal – for a fraction of a second, to yourself as much as the reader – the world the fictional illusion denies. Clearly, stories of immortality reveal death at the heart of themselves, stories of communication inarticulacy, stories of vast space and intersteller flight oppression and earthboundness, and so on.
1976-88: “Egnaro”, Climbers. Recognise (all too slowly) that these two poles of the dialectic – the writing of fantasy/the subversion of fantasy – make a discourse. This is in itself a form of escape. A discourse can be solved. It is like a chess problem. The world cannot be solved, nor can any non-elf reflexive problem with a “leak to the world”.
1985 onwards: The Course Of The Heart. Paradox reigns. We can never escape the world. We cannot stop trying to escape the world.