A Genre Like Any Other

It is Booker Prize season again, and therefore time for wailing and gnashing of teeth around the blogosphere.

First up, if you want to see the long list, it can be found here.

And now the controversy. Last year, you may remember, Kim Stanley Robinson complained about the lack of recognition for his type of novel, and Booker judge John Mullan made a complete ass of himself by saying that the award didn’t look at science fiction because SF is, “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.” Unsurprisingly, a few noses were put out of joint.

This year the chairman of the judges, Andrew Motion, has tried to head off any discussion by insisting that, despite the apparent lack of SF on the list, the jury did not “consciously” exclude it. That, of course, is exactly the same argument put forward by people defending all-white-male award lists. It is the “I’m not racist/sexist/etc., it is just that the books by white men are better than anything else” argument.

Motion compounds this with a foray into victim politics. According to The Guardian he said, “the Man Booker prize was an award for literary fiction and there were plenty of prizes for crime and sci-fi.”

That, of course, is as clear an admission as you can get that the Booker is not a general award for the “best” books of the year, but actually a very specific award for a very specific type of book: “literary fiction”.

Remember, the whole point of genre is that it is a marketing tool aimed at helping readers find “more like this”. Books are identified as belonging to a genre if they have common tropes, a small subset of expected plot structures, and generally are predictable. People whose reading is confined to a particular genre are people who don’t like reading outside of their comfort zone. Clearly Motion is one of those people.

Exactly how a “literary fiction” novel is identified is not clear, though I’m sure that Motion will know one when he sees one, just as Damon Knight did for SF. Anecdotally such books have been about middle-aged university professors with unhappy marriages who have affairs, and indeed sex seems to be an important trope as Motion bemoans the lack of it in this year’s potential nominees. The important point, however, is that “literary fiction” is not defined by being well written, it is defined by the fact that it conforms to the expectations of the literary fiction genre. A book that is well written, but does not conform to the expectations of “literary fiction” is, in Motion’s eyes, not a potential Booker candidate.

On the other side of the fence, Paul Graham Raven argues that we in the SF ghetto should not care if Motion and his pals don’t read our books. Indeed, we should worry if they did, because if they outside world ever finds out what we are up to, and starts to like it, our art will be horribly polluted by their attention.

This is exactly the same argument I am used to hearing from the crusties at Worldcon. “Don’t pay any attention to the likes of Dragon*Con and Comic-Con,” they wail, “if the sort of people who attend those events came to Worldcon our little club would be ruined, ruined I tell you!”

There’s a certain type of person who likes living in a ghetto, who likes having exclusive interests that few other people share. Often such people feel better if the outside world despises them, because it makes them feel even more special. And if that’s what they want to do, fine, but they shouldn’t expect everyone else with similar interests to want to stay in the ghetto with them. After all, for the writers (and publishers) there is money at stake; lots of it.

Of course popular culture has already invaded the science fiction ghetto. For the most part SF outsells literary fiction very nicely thank you. SF&F books can often be found on the NYT best seller lists. Sometimes they are by big names such as Rowling, Pratchett and Gaiman; in other cases they are franchised works such as the Star Wars novels (some of which are written by favorite authors of mine such as Karen Traviss and Sean Williams). So it is, I think, ridiculous to argue that SF would come to any further harm by being associated with the Booker.

What that association would do, however, is improve the sales prospects of some of the best writers in our field. Because while the Booker judges might think that their prize is only for that small subset of books that they identify as “literary”, the media and the book trade treat it as a prize for the best book of the year. Books that make the long list can expect a huge bump in sales, and the winner is guaranteed a print run in the millions.

That is why the Booker matters. If Motion and his pals want to have an award just for the sort of books that they like, that’s fine by me, but they have no right to claim that their little genre is any better than anyone else’s genre, and the media and book trade should not treat them as if it is.

The funny thing is, of course, that last year the Booker went to an historical novel, Wolf Hall, which is most definitely not a work in the literary fiction genre. Furthermore, this year there’s at least one other apparent historical fiction book on the long list. Except that, as I noted a few days ago, it is actually the first book in a trilogy of novels about immortality, with at least one immortal character in it. So despite Mr. Motion’s protestations, the Booker judges do have an SF novel on the list. It must have been the lack of talking squid that confused them.

24 thoughts on “A Genre Like Any Other

  1. Ah, but if David Mitchell wins the Booker, talking squid or no talking squid, whatever he’s written won’t be genre fiction, because god forbid that genre fiction should win the Booker, and if it does, it’s no longer genre fiction. Catch 22 *rolls eyes* In the same way that 1984 or The Time Travellers Wife, in being embraced by the mainstream, somehow don’t count as SF.

    I can think of a lit of literary fiction that would be vastly improved by the presence of a talking squid.

    1. Yeah, but the more people who have mainstream success who admit to writing SF (as Chabon, Mitchell and Litt, for example, do) the more ridiculous the whole “not SF” thing becomes.

  2. There are a bunch of historical fiction novels there – Parrot and Olivier is another one which I bought on (US) release though lost interest about 150 pages in so far since one of the main characters (Olivier) is so annoying and the other (Parrot) so bland, but I plan to finish it.

    The Long Song is another one which I mostly read though not end to end yet, C seems to be another one which i plan to read, the Leningrad 1952 one is another one though as a sequel I plan to try the Leningrad 1941 first…

    And of course De Zoet while only marginally sff – reincarnation, immortality – is as immersive in its world building as any sff and I have read it 3 times so far and i could read it 2-3 more…

  3. I didn’t mean our art would be polluted so much as that our art would be superficially commodified while the genuinely inventive stuff stayed marginal, but your point is well taken.

    I don’t want to keep anyone in the ghetto who doesn’t want to stay here, but I think the ghetto metaphor falls over at this point; getting genre onto the Booker longlist isn’t about genre leaving the ghetto, it’s about aggressively marketing the ghetto as a tourist location to those whose current idea of a good holiday is something safe and predictable. If they come, and if they like it, the ghetto will change, become more open and amenable to casual visiting… but there will always be another ghetto created by the refugees fleeing that change. Indeed, such are necessary for mainstream culture to source new ideas from (as the music industry has shown time and time again), and will (at least in my opinion) always be populated by some of the genre’s brightest and best creators. I’d love to see those creators selling more books, but I really don’t believe the plaudits of the Booker panel will achieve that, given the trouble that old-school publishing is in at the moment; their elitism has doomed them to irrelevance, as you point out yourself. I’m all for promoting genre to readers; it’s promoting it to stuffed shirts with dated yardsticks that I think is a waste of time. 🙂

    But thanks for taking my point seriously enough to give it a rebuttal… after all, as a confirmed ghettoist, I’d feel most aggrieved if everyone had agreed with me. 😉

    1. I see the commodification/revitalization thing as a natural process. It will happen regardless. There’s no point in railing against it either way.

      But, as I tried to explain, the Booker is very much about promoting books to readers. It is the best promotion channel by far in the UK. Allowing one small genre to control what books are promoted through that channel is a Bad Thing. I don’t care whether Motion likes SF or not, but I do care about what appears on the Booker lists.

  4. Thank you for this post. I found it very thoughtful. I hope a few of TPTB in the media and book trade see it.

  5. I still say that de Zoet is NOT genre SF/F. A few mentions of the supernatural are not enough to make a fantasy, and one character saying he’s immortal…nope, not enough. You can get as much fantasy as that sitting around a dinner table right here and now and asking everyone if they believe in ghosts…

    The sequels may well be more fantastical, and I look forward to them!

    It’s still a good book, and deserved to be on the list…

    1. Genre isn’t a binary thing, it is a tendency. Some books, like de Zoet and The City & The City are only marginally genre (though I’d argue that the Mitchell is more genre than the Mieville, which has won genre awards). Other books are typically genre, and yet others are so genre they are fossilized (some franchises, for example). Whether you see a book as genre or not depends on where and how your filters are set.

  6. As I wrote on my blog on this subject, I am more inclined (because of the culture in which I live) to regard Mitchell’s portrayal of the supernatural in this particular book as an accurate capturing of the way in which the people of the time and culture regard it – i.e. so integral to their culture that they don’t see it as any different from everyday life. It is PART of everyday life – to their eyes.

    Which is different to a fantasy novel where the fantastic is woven into the fabric of the created world, provable by the rules of that world, not just a perception of the characters.

    Dunno whether I am making sense. Past midnight here and I have been dealing with tax stuff all day…

    I should have said that your post is brilliant and spot on.

    1. But if the immortal character is really immortal, and will turn up in later books hundreds of years later…

      This reminds me of Jonathan & Gary wondering whether William Gibson is SF because all of the science in the Bigend trilogy sounds fantastical but is possible now.

      Tricky stuff, this subjectivity.

  7. “as I noted a few days ago, it is actually the first book in a trilogy of novels about immortality, with at least one immortal character in it.” I would say the title is a not-very-subtle giveaway.

    Maintaining the ghetto walls: In written fiction, science fiction tropes are already common in dystopian fiction, fiction, survivalist fiction, and near-future thrillers. They can also be found in mysteries.

    Fantasy tropes: paranormal romance, paranormal mysteries, magical realism (which is usually classed as a type of literary fiction), supernatural horror, pagan fiction.

    Science fiction and fantasy movies, comics, and television have long been outside the ghetto.

  8. “SF’s no good!” they bellow till we’re deaf.
    “But this looks good.” — “Well, then, it’s not SF.”
    — Robert Conquest, Spectrum 2, 1962

  9. Dan, I believe the “Thousand Autumns” has no direct bearing on immortality – it’s a Japanese idiom. And Jacob is not the immortal.

    I am wondering if we are doing Mitchell a disservice – if the judges think some people see the book as – horrors! – genre, with an immortal what’s more, it is doomed as a prize winner…

    I still don’t think there is enough in it to say it is a fantasy or even magic realism – but it does delight me to think of it winning and being followed by a couple of genre sequels!

  10. «There’s a certain type of person who likes living in a ghetto, who likes having exclusive interests that few other people share. Often such people feel better if the outside world despises them, because it makes them feel even more special. And if that’s what they want to do, fine, but they shouldn’t expect everyone else with similar interests to want to stay in the ghetto with them.»

    The problem is they trully expect that all science fiction fan go to the ghetto and stay there with them. Here we have the same problem.

  11. I think I’d disagree with your notion of ‘genre’, in so far as it affects sf, in two ways.
    The first, and probably more substantial, relates to different conditionalities placed on suspension of disbelief.
    The second, and more relevant one in terms of discussing non-inclusive, more sf than thou, fannish mindsets, relates to the degree of mutual reference betwixt individual works. Even with sceptical viewing of the attitude that sf attempts to be more of a literature of ideas than other literary forms, it seems undeniable that texts often constitute themselves as part of an ongoing set of debates. One of the reasons why, for me, ‘the handmaids tale’, is such a poor work is the sheer ignorance demonstrated about feminist explorations within sf. Clearly to adopt a ‘that isn’t sf’ attitude to works that fall outside the commensality of those debates and proto-traditions is unproductive, but not wholly unjustifiable.

    1. It is kind of you to give me the credit, but it isn’t my idea of genre. The definition I gave above is fairly widely accepted in literary criticism circles.

      Of course within the SF&F community there is a tendency to use “genre” or “the genre” to mean “SF&F literature”, but that’s no more significant that us calling ourselves “the community”. There are plenty of other genres, and they probably all think of themselves as “the genre”.

      Equally sloppy mainstream critics use “genre” to mean “books I don’t like”, which often boils down to “books with any speculative elements”, but there’s no need for us to copy their sloppiness.

      As to your definition of what constitutes SF, it seems to be rather subjective. Of course that’s entirely in line with Damon Knight’s famous know-it-when-I-see-it theory, but equally it means that anyone else’s idea of what constitutes SF, including mine, is potentially just as valid as yours.

      As for The Conversation, it is an idea that is increasingly worrying me. The notion that one can only write good SF unless one is steeped in and familiar with traditions stretching back for decades becomes increasingly elitist and snobbish as time goes on and the number of writers exploring SF themes expands. Without giving too much away, there will be more discussion about this in Salon Futura #1.

  12. Look forward to more on ‘the conversation’. I tend to agree its dubious in a grand monolithic sense, but equally I’m reluctant to totally give it up since its so useful in, for example, viewing texts within specific sf schools and periods. But it’s particularly sad when used to exclude.
    I’m tempted to say ‘masters tools’ in regard to definitions of genre that descend from a profession of literary criticism based on canonical forms. One thing I do is have a bookshop, a third of which is sf&f. I enjoy trying to help customers try new things across genres and particularly towards sf&f so ‘genre’ for me is as much a consideration of sociology and psychology.
    I do rather hope, though, that I was putting out a fairly objective mode of considering genre definitions instead of attempting the vastly more difficult task of defining sf. It’s just to say that genre equates to the conditionality of suspension of disbelief between reader and text via genre defined types of contract. So the mainstream novel of character lies within a genre where the reader expects an ‘and’ relation to exist between the world of her experience and the text’s fictive one, sf and speculative fiction, and perhaps some historical, fall mainly within an ‘if > then’ paradigm, fantasy as an ‘or’ condition, and something like detective fiction a specific if > then condition additional to the ‘and’. Fabulism and magic realism, say, might be equated with specific consistent ‘or’ elements within an ‘and’ paradigm or be better non-binary logic classified.
    Whatever the theoretical merits of such a system, it’s certainly a good way of understanding reader’s tastes on a practical level, and is satisfyingly subversive of the mainstream default status.

    1. I’m all in favor of subverting default statuses. Indeed, that’s exactly what I was trying to do with this post. And if you can sell SF&F books to people with this idea that’s a very fine thing.

      As to the theoretical merits, I’m wondering how your scheme copes with westerns, romance and historical fiction, and whether it can handle sub-genres. Of course that’s irrelevant unless you planning to write an academic paper.

  13. “Exactly how a ‘literary fiction’ novel is identified is not clear, though I’m sure that Motion will know one when he sees one, just as Damon Knight did for SF.”

    This seems to presume a reading of Damon’s words that follows the more common misquotation, rather than Damon’s actual words and meaning, which Damon personally confirmed for me here.

    As there:

    […] What he wrote was “Science fiction is what we point to when we say ‘science fiction.'”

    Damon was always very irate when people would misquote it as “I” rather than “we” because the point of this small and subtle, but meaningful, distinction, is that it’s not an attempt to say “I, Damon Knight, an authority figure, am defining sf when I point to something,” but rather that there is is, however much we disagree as individuals, and as groups, within something of a group consensus within the sf community.

    And Damon:

    Browsing upstream with DejaNews, I found a couple of references to my definition of science fiction, mentioned as if it were well known to everybody: “Science fiction is whatever I point to when I say science fiction.”

    And indeed it is well known to everybody, but I never said it. What I wrote, on page 1 of In Search of Wonder, was:
    1. That the term “science fiction” is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein’s suggestion, “speculative fiction,” is the best, I think), but that we’re stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like “The Saturday Evening Post,” it means what we point to when we say it.

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