Thursday, January 17, 2008

Saving a book from its readers

So, back to our favourite subject. Last week I asked what a science fiction novel would look like if it could "think the totality of what it projects". That is, in the words of Blanchot scholar Michael Holland, "total transcendence in the here and now". To my surprise, not one comment arrived despite the frenzy when sci-fi was discussed elsewhere. Anyway, my own answer was "Literary fiction".

This needs clarification. By literary fiction, I don't mean the kind of books you see on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. It is unfortunate that these frequently very conservative novels are classed as literary fiction when really they are part only of the calcification called Establishment Literary Fiction. Genuine literary fiction escapes genre, including its own. Now "escapes" needs clarification.

It's been said that Cormac McCarthy's literary prize-winner The Road could not have been written without the tradition of post-apocalyptic science-fiction novels which has been ignored by literary prize committees. No doubt this is true. The inference is that what the literary readers regard as unique in The Road is actually very common and that lack of recognition for what came before is due only to ignorance or snobbery. (It might be conceded that McCarthy is distinct because of his prose style yet, ironically, this is what threatened to ruin it for me as I explained at the time. And anyway, fine writing is hardly worthy of a major literary prize. If it was, plenty of genre writers should have won a top literary awards by now.)

What makes a novel like The Road different, however, is its attempt to think of the totality of what it projects. In this case, the apocalypse has destroyed narrative as much as it has destroyed the landscape. Very little remains. The father and son seek a future as the reader seeks narrative comfort. My doubts about some passages in the book point towards where McCarthy loses conviction. Perhaps this is an inevitable failure. Beckett's post-apocalyptic Endgame, however, is an example of where the author's nerve never falters. Does it say something that sci-fi fans have never tried to adopt this play as their own?

This is the trouble with the debate. Genre fans, such as those mentioned above, seem to be drawn to the specific features of genre: the technological changes of the future, space travel, the particulars of forensic science, the horror in Horror, homo-eroticism in Westerns, and when they appear in fiction called Literary, they can't see the distinction. Hence Wikipedia's indignant summary of the perceived differences. Yes, Crime & Punishment is a psychological thriller but that does not mean that the latest hackwork with a disturbed young male protagonist is Crime & Punishment. Fortunately, Dostoevsky's book doesn't need to be saved from such readers. But others do.

I have tried to save Richard Ford's trilogy from the Establishment Literary Fiction label by writing an essay on it. Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee needed to be saved from Cult Fiction, so I wrote a long review, while Roubaud's The Great Fire of London needed to be recovered from the Hypertext fiction basket and David Markson's This is Not a Novel from its solitude. I'm as open to genre as I am indifferent. For instance, I would like to help Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante up the purgatorial mountain of Crime fiction, but I need to re-read it. Save to say here, the ostensible "Crime fiction" chapters of the book are what helps it to escape the pile. No doubt some of you will think I have missed many others. Persuade me.


  1. I've tended to feel slightly embarrassed trying to describe the post-apocalyptic/mythic masterpiece of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, though if it needed to be saved from cliched categorisation, its strange language safeguards against that.

    Victor Pelevin's 'Life of Insects' manages to be free from the taint of simply being Kafkaesque in its human insect allegorical weirdness, though admittedly that's not the most highly populated genre out there.

  2. Anonymous12:03 am

    It seems to me like the "literary fiction" category is the deadliest label of all. If you are in that category your Publisher, if you can find one, doesn't even think you have a chance of selling. All you get is pity, and maybe an Award--if you have friends who are . . . critics!

  3. Anonymous4:22 am

    Why not 'Solaris' by Stanislaw Lem? At least so far as science fiction, it transcends the boundaries set by that genre, and posits an intelligent, all-the-way examination of alien life, unknowable, totally beyond our comprehension...and also dwells deeply on the human soul; it has several themes working at once that tie together nicely, and the prose (mind you, only in translation, is good.) I'd also add Stapleton's 'Star Maker' which is science fiction but whose canvas is so large in scope (ahem...the universe) it actually, as Frederic Jamieson said of it, exhaust the mind. 'Riddley Walker' is excellent and very difficult as well.

    This discussion reminds me of a recent book review show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where three authors and a moderator reviewed Chesterton's 'The Man Who Was Thursday'. They didn't get it; these pathetic writers, who value Martin Amis as one of the best writers out there (ahem), and who value Chesterton's work for its mimetic relation to reality; as its link to the 'real world' and realistic fiction (never the same thing) is tenuous, these lovely Canadians don't like it. "Oh, it's too goofy," clearly missing the point that a) Chesterton's book is sub-titled A Nightmare, is a dream of horror at what kind of God we might have...a detective thriller it is not, despite the CBC...and b) novels do not have be realistic or 'authentic' to reality to be good. So, there are some books that just don't need to be rescued from readers, but from critics and other writers as well!

  4. Anonymous1:15 pm

    Dear All,

    On the 19th of January, Steve was knocked off his bike while cycling near Ditchling in East Sussex. He suffered injuries to his arm and head and will be out of action, as far as this blog is concerned, for a while yet.

    I'm sure he will be back to fight the good fight, as soon as he is able.

    Andrew Lloyd, friend and colleague of Steve's.

  5. wish you recover as fast as you can! having been tracking this blog for a long time, I felt really sorry about the accident which made "this space" where people share their silence, tremble with an uncanny noise,...

  6. Very sorry to hear that. Hope your recovery goes well.

  7. Steve, get well soon. Your blog's the best.

  8. Hi Steve,

    I've acted the troll around your site more than once, but I withdraw all aspersions right now and wish you a full recovery with as little suffering as possible. It sounds like your injuries are severe but I hope you overcome them quickly.

  9. Here's wishing you a swift and safe recovery Steve

    -Ben G



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