George, Genre and the Booker

In the middle of October I had the pleasure of attending Octocon, a convention in Dublin. The Guest of Honor was George R.R. Martin, one of the most successful writers of epic fantasy. During his Guest of Honor speech, Martin said a number of interesting things about his approach to writing.

His bookcases, he claimed, were full of books that he had not finished because it was obvious how they were going to end, so he did not need to read further. Good fiction, he said, should keep the reader guessing.

Asked about his habit of killing off well-loved main characters in his long-running Song of Ice & Fire series, Martin noted that he strove for realism. When he writes a feast scene, he said, he wants the readers to be able to smell the food. When he writes a sex scene he wants the readers to become aroused. And when he writes a battle scene he wants them to be afraid, because in a real medieval battle anyone can die at any time. Obviously readers can’t be afraid of dying themselves, but they can be afraid that their “friends” — well loved characters — might die.

Martin also talked about his techniques when teaching at writing workshops. He mentioned two exercises that he was fond of setting for the students. The first is to write about the worst thing that you have ever done — a story in which you, personally, are the villain. The other is to write a story from the point of view of someone you would normally hate, and try to get inside that person’s mind.

None of these are things that are supposed to be typical of genre fantasy. Fantasy readers, we are told, like predictable plots in which the heroes win comfortably the in end. They want to be consoled with happy endings. And they prefer cardboard characterization in which characters are clearly either good or evil. Martin does not write books like that, and yet he is one of the best selling fantasy authors around.

While I was in Dublin, China Miéville was at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Unusually for such a major literary event, the program included several panels on science fiction, I believe all curated by Miéville. One of the highlights was a debate between Miéville and literary critic, John Mullan, who has been famously dismissive of the merits of science fiction — so much so he even attracted the ire of Guy Gavriel Kay over in Canada.

Kay, one of the most mild-mannered people I know, described Mullan as being guilty of “Hall of Fame-quality idiocy,” and from the reports I have seen (here and here) on the Cheltenham panel he did no better this time around. A particularly asinine comment was when he apparently claimed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is not science fiction because it is about the present day rather than about the future. I’m finding it hard to name any science fiction writer I know who thinks he or she is really writing about the future. Indeed, one of the main reasons authors give for writing speculative fiction is that it allows them to talk more effectively about real world issues. For that matter, did Shakespeare write Macbeth because he was fascinated by the influence of witchcraft on Scottish history, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream because he wanted to explore issues of marital infidelity amongst fairy royalty?

Over at the BSC Review Hal Duncan has also leapt into the fray. He points out that a large number of fantastical works of fiction, and their authors, have in fact been lauded as “literary”. He also notes that science fiction fans are sometimes guilty of the same sort of knee-jerk exclusion.

Mostly what is going on here is that people are judging books, not on their quality as works of literature, but by superficial qualities such as content — does the book contain spaceships, dragons, talking squid? — or by the marketing category chosen by the publisher. Mullan in particular appears to have read almost no science fiction, yet feels qualified to dismiss it as tripe.

In reality I suspect that there are deeper issues at work here. After all, books containing spaceships and dragons (and possibly even talking squid) do get recognized as being literary. The issue at stake, I think, is whether the person making the distinction regards the author of the book as “one of us” or “one of them”). Mullan wants Ishiguro’s book to be “not science fiction” because Ishiguro is a writer he knows and respects. Gene Wolfe, on the other hand, is someone he has barely heard of and never read, but is published as SF and therefore clearly “one of them”. Hard core science fiction fans may reject Ishiguro and embrace Wolfe for similar reasons.

Do we really need to be so tribal? Could we not just read the books and judge them on their merits?

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1 Response to George, Genre and the Booker

  1. John Meaney says:

    If I were GRRM, I’d be haunted by insistent dreams, even during the waking day. I’d hear books whispering, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong…”

    Because if he’s never read them, maybe he doesn’t know how they all end. Maybe the best ending ever is there on his shelf, unread because of his foolish pride. Maybe something happened at the printer, and his copy of a certain book is the only one in the universe that contains the most marvellous of endings.

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