Banks Lets Rip

The Guardian‘s weekend of science fiction has started a little early. Neil Gaiman has provided a heart-felt paean of praise for Gene Wolfe, but the article that has been gathering all of the attention is this one by Iain (M.) Banks, because it is essentially a culture war article.

Banks starts off painting an amusing picture of a literary writer who approaches his editor with a great new idea for a book, which turns out to be a crime novel so hopelessly stereotyped that it reads like a game of Cluedo (Clue, in America). He then suggests that this would never happen, because everyone would recognize it as a really awful book. However, he continues, the same sort of thing does happen with SF, because no one in mainstream publishing (authors and editors) reads any SF, so they have no idea what goes on in the field (they are not part of “The Conversation”). Literary authors, he suggests, have been guilty of slumming it in science fiction, and doing a really bad job because they haven’t studied the field.

It is a complicated argument, and one that a lot of people either haven’t understood, or have deliberately ignored. The comments thread contains the expected sneering from people pointing out that if a literary author wrote an SF novel then obviously it would be much better written than anything those SF morons could produce, so what is Mr. Banks complaining about? In some ways that may be true. For example literary writers, on average, probably produce better sentences than SF writers. It is something they focus on. But there are many others ways in which it isn’t, especially if you are a science fiction reader.

If you define literary quality along just one axis — the way that literary writers write — then of course they will always produce “better” books. But if you allow other axes that argument doesn’t hold. How you evaluate a book is a subjective decision.

It is also worth noting that the Conversation argument means much less to people outside the genre, and even to younger fans. If you have never read Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke then a book that ignores their influence and tries to re-invent things they did will seem much less stupid.

Other people have wondered what Mr. Banks is so bitter about. After all, the literary crowd look down on other genres as well. This is true. Romance is probably further down the greasy pole of respectability than SF but, because most romance is written by women for women, many men will see that as just the natural order of things. What is unusual about SF, however, is the zeal with which people try to deny writing it. I can’t recall hearing anyone say, “I’ve written this book that is about solving a murder, but it isn’t a crime novel!”

From the Banks viewpoint it must be particularly galling, because he has a successful career in both camps. His mainstream novels are praised to the skies by the literary folks, while his SF is dismissed as rubbish. I don’t know Banks very well, but from what I have seen of him I suspect he is more proud of his SF than of the other stuff, and quite likely puts far more effort into writing it.

The other big question that the article raises is, Who are the targets? Which literary writers is Banks talking about here? He doesn’t say, but there has been plenty of speculation. Kazuo Ishiguro has been mentioned, but he came along to the Clarke Award ceremony when Never Let Me Go was a finalist, and apparently fitted right in. Banks will presumably have heard about that. Michael Chabon has won a Hugo, so it can’t be him, and The Road has also got a lot of approval from the SF blogosphere, so I’m giving Cormac McCarthy a pass. Toby Litt is a possibility. I quite liked Journey into Space, but Le Guin didn’t.

My top suspect was Margaret Atwood, not for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a great piece of SF, and a Clarke Winner, but for Oryx & Crake, which to me read like the sort of eco-disaster novel that science fiction produced back in the 1970s. However, on Twitter whoever is behind the Gollancz account (Simon Spanton?) suggested that the primary target might be a book called Time’s Arrow. Given that making fun of Martin Amis is pretty much a national pastime here in the UK, I think that is entirely possible.

24 thoughts on “Banks Lets Rip

  1. My top suspect was Margaret Atwood, not for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a great piece of SF, and a Clarke Winner, but for Oryx & Crake, which to me read like the sort of eco-disaster novel that science fiction produced back in the 1970s.

    I am certain you will be delighted to know that Atwood will be published In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a collection of essays about SF, in October.

  2. P. D. James, for The Children of Men, springs to mind, because it hardly seems to be mentioned by British fen without a mention that Brian Aldiss did that plot first in Greybeard.

  3. Well, isn’t that comment thread toxic.

    I love the ignorance that comes with dropping the names of authors respected by the literary establishment as people to look up to, rather than “science fiction writers” (who are all workmanlike third-rate hacks)…

    …particularly when they’re writers who are/were proud of their science fiction and proud to be considered genre writers.

  4. My bet is Jeanette Winterson’s “The Stone Gods”. She writes beautiful prose, but that book is just one cliche, infodump, and as-you-know-Bob after another.

  5. Yeah, I was going to suggest the Winterson too. She was very vocal at the time that her novel set in the far future on an alien planet was not SF.

  6. Atwood is surely familiar with the roots of Science Fiction – “The Blind Assassin” demonstrates a deft appropriation of many a pulp trope. I’d certainly consider Amis a primary target; I’m not so sure about Winterson as I haven’t encountered “The Stone Gods”, and isn’t P D James normally considered a genre writer anyway (crime), thus again putting her outside the literary box?

    I can sympathise with Banks, one of very few people to have demonstrated mastery on both sides of the divide; one suspects that despite his literary successes, the mere fact that he writes SF (and very good SF at that – Use of Weapons, for example, is an abslute masterppiece and structurally/thematically is surely “literature”) makes him persona non grata in some circles. That has to rankle.

    If only people simply accepted that “literary” fiction is just as much a genre as crime, or SF, or romance, then this sort of kerfuffle would disappear. In effect, the “literary” snobs are saying their genre is inherently superior to any other, an argument that should be dismissed as completely absurd, but which is taken serious because of the cachet that “literary” authors have amongst… well, “literary” critics/academics. Frankly I read very little “literary” stuff because most of it is either thinly disguised autobiography (e.g. the first novels that brought Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith to fame) or else tedious irrelevant rubbish written by academics for academics, which utterly fails to speak to anyone who is outside that circle. I mean, come on, how many wish-fulfilment “literary” books can be written about a University professor having a mid-life crisis (usually made manifest in the form of an affair with a willing student or six)? Apparently, a shitload and a half.

    Here endeth the rant.

    1. Atwood is surely familiar with the roots of Science Fiction – “The Blind Assassin” demonstrates a deft appropriation of many a pulp trope.

      Well, she certainly knows from pulp. I went to an event a few months ago that was her and Ursula K. Le Guin places in comfy chairs on a stage and given two hours to talk about whatever they wanted. One of the things touched on in that conversation was that Atwood was an enthusiastic consumer of 1950s B-movies. Part of the reason it ran late was she was trying to recap The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (I can’t remember why exactly, though).

      FWIW, Atwood also said that evening that she doesn’t have a problem with sf, her publisher just isn’t “enlightened” enough to allow her books to be called that.

      1. I just remembered the conversation was recorded by the local PBS station for later broadcast. Checking their Web site, it’s available online! I can’t find a running time listed, but if it’s unedited, it’s probably close to 2.5 hours.

        If it’s been trimmed for time, most likely the Q&A at the end is what was removed. Most of the discussion about genre terminology happened near the beginning, so that should be intact.

  7. “I’ve written this book that is about solving a murder, but it isn’t a crime novel!”

    – Ian Rankin will tell you that when he wrote Knots and Crosses, he had no notion that he was writing a crime novel, let alone the first of a twenty-book series and the root of a bestselling career; he thought it a literary examination of a man in crisis.

    1. Well he may not have intended to write a crime novel, but does he continue to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that what he produced is not crime?

  8. Martin Amis knows quite a lot about sf. He was the Observer’s Sf critic for The Observer from 1972 – 1977. But because he never collected any of those reviews it’s a fact that’s been forgotten.
    He was very keen on much of the golden age, antipathetic to the New Wave, his admiration for Ballard is longstanding, and I suspect that much of his hard judgments on the likes of Priest and Waatson may have been because they were just a little too close for comfort.

  9. ‘If you define literary quality along just one axis — the way that literary writers write — then of course they will always produce “better” books.’

    Can you please elaborate? My first reaction is, How else do you define literary quality except by how writers write? By how many books they sell? By how many awards they win? By how young and personable they are? Or perhaps by how they sing?

    Yes, I’m being a bit snarky. I’m not particularly interested in taking sides in the so-called culture war, but even in conventional literary circles, there has never been just one axis along which quality is defined.

  10. “If you define literary quality along just one axis — the way that literary writers write — then of course they will always produce “better” books.”

    Tangentially to what the above comment says, I strongly disagree with this. I think there are plenty of sf writers who are at least as good stylists as “literary” writers.

    And FWIW, although I read Amis’s TIMES ARROW when it first came out, I remember liking it fine. There’s been plenty of bad sf by literary writers:
    Hortense Calisher’s MYSTERIES OF MOTION comes to mind (I think that was her sf novel).
    Paul Theroux’s O-Zone

    are two I can think of off-hand.

    1. Hi Ellen:

      I certainly don’t intend to suggest that SF writers can’t write good prose. In the previous paragraph I said I thought that “on average” literary writers produced better sentences than SF writers, but that doesn’t mean that some SF writers are not very good stylists, or indeed that some literary writers don’t produce awful prose.

      In addition, the way that a literary writer will approach a book is by no means limited to prose style. Literary fiction is a genre like anything else, and it has expectations. Those generally include the work being entirely realistic, and the story being primarily character-based. Plot, political engagement, and of course the impact of technology on society, are often seen as secondary, unnecessary, or even to the detriment of “good” fiction.

      (And before anyone starts, there is a difference between a story being “primarily character-based” and the ability of the writer to create believable characters. I am not saying here that SF writers can’t write good characters.)

      I am reminded of this week’s Coode Street Podcast in which Gary Wolfe is talking about van Vogt. By most accepted standards of good fiction, van Vogt’s books are awful, but there is something about them that grabs the reader’s attention. As I recall Gary says something along the lines of, “You can’t understand science fiction unless you understand why people like van Vogt.”

  11. Cheryl, I quote you saying: “then of course they will always produce “better” books.”

    As I’ve said I disagree with the above statement.

    I also disagree with what you’ve said in your last comment:

    ” Literary fiction is a genre like anything else, and it has expectations. Those generally include the work being entirely realistic, and the story being primarily character-based.”–and you ignore what about every magical realist who has written and is writing for the past 25+ years. Certainly they’re all considered literary writers.
    So is Jonathan Carroll and many other writers.

    1. Ellen:

      You are clearly not reading the scare quotes the way I am intending them to be read. If someone defines “good” fiction as being fiction set entirely in the real world, with no fantastical or futuristic elements whatsoever, then that person will automatically regard “literary” novels as “better” than science fiction and fantasy. And yes, such people do exist, especially here in the UK. But the fact that such people exist doesn’t mean that I share their opinions, I am just reporting them.

      As to your second point, the existence of excellent writers working in SF&F does not disprove a general point. Of course there are excellent prose stylists working in SF&F. Magic realists are a good example, though this particular conflict is largely one fought out in the English-speaking world and as only around 3% of fiction published in English is translated they don’t greatly affect the average. Also, of course, the literary fiction camp in the UK will insist that magical realist writing is “not fantasy” so doesn’t count.

      Nevertheless, one thing that you can say about the literary fiction folks is that they do try to insist on quality prose. It is hard to get published as a “literary” writer if your prose is awful. (And note that I’m not including “thrillers” as “literary” here.) In contrast SF&F writers sometimes get a pass on their prose if editors think they will sell for other reasons such as plot, worldbuilding and so on. Equally some of what is published as SF&F has prose that is deliberately simplified and accessible – I’m thinking of movie tie-ins here, where editors discourage flashy prose. As a result, on average, what gets published as “literary” fiction will, I think, have better prose than what gets published as SF&F.

  12. I’m a little surprised I didn’t read a reference in the article to China Mieville’s ‘Life in Writing’ article, also in The Guardian, where you slams the current literary establishment.

    However, while I think the Guardian is possibly the best of the mainstream’s book sites, I tend to avoid the replies as best I can. They seem to be populated by exactly the kind of people who refuse to acknowledge that LitFic is it’s own genre.

    1. The Banks article came out on Friday. I hadn’t seen China’s article when I wrote the above post, and I don’t suppose Iain and China saw each other’s words in advance.

      As to comment threads, I think it is a general rule that commenters on articles in high profile websites such as major newspapers are populated to a large extent by people who want to sneer at whatever cause the article is espousing.

  13. Banks’ piece is vitiated by the lack of specifics. If he won’t name names, why should we take his argument seriously? Maybe Banks is too nice to criticise someone he knows personally. But on the other hand, maybe his argument would fall apart if we looked in detail at the examples.

    Banks’ main criticism is that outsider sf tends to unknowingly repeat ideas that have already been well explored within the genre. This may be the case, but it’s also true that outsiders often bring fresh perspectives and have different concerns, and I think their contributions to the genre amply pay for what they take away.

    Take as an example Amis’s Time’s Arrow versus Dick’s Counter-Clock World. Dick takes a science-fictional approach to the idea: what if some processes ran backward in time? What kind of world can be spun from this idea? What experiences might people have there? (Being Dick, the structure is rather ramshackle, but the attempt is to build a world.) Whereas Amis uses the idea as a way of asking what someone’s life might look like in reverse, and of defamiliarizing history, giving him a way of writing about the holocaust without descending into pathos. Maybe it doesn’t quite work, but it seems to me to be a noble failure, and Amis uses the idea in such a different way from Dick that it seems utterly unfair to characterize Time’s Arrow as repeating well-worn ideas (and anyway, the genre ought to be big enough to support more than one book on a theme like time reversal).

    Or take Oryx and Crake. It’s far from only being an eco-disaster novel: it’s a wide-ranging satire of late capitalism, and it’s also a creation myth. All of these are classic sf forms, but mash them together like this and the result is original, disturbing and funny. It’s hard to imagine an insider (unless it were Ian Watson) writing this book because the usual science fictional approach is to try to build a coherent world out of the components of the story, and in Oryx and Crake they just don’t fit together. But Atwood isn’t particularly interested in rigorous world-building: her focus is on the symbolic or satirical meaning of each component and it doesn’t matter for her purposes that, for example, in one chapter the world outside the corporate compounds is an ungovernable violent hellhole and in the next chapter it’s a functioning economy that provides the income of the corporations.

Comments are closed.