Friday, March 11, 2011

Yet another British rant about how SF is ignored...

Better than most, actually. Stephen Hunt is a writer of big fantasy books who was infuriated when a BBC show about genre fiction, part of its coverage of something called "World Book Week", didn't mention SF even though it pretty much sneered at all the other genres. As he put it:

I am a genre author, and I live in that world. In my world there is only one genre permitted access to the oxygen of publicity in the mainstream media, and that genre is contemporary fiction. It is also called literary fiction by its supporters, just to underscore the point that anything that isn’t written in their genre can never be classed as literature or improving or worthy. It’s a neat little semantic trick, isn’t it? Reduce the denotata to its root and you end up with Fiction-Fiction. So good they named it twice. Before I even begin writing my tawdry fantasy novels I’m only ever half as good as them by definition.
He starts off with an unfortunate reductio, though. I think you know how I'd answer:
Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that polo, show jumping and grouse shooting are the only sports considered decent to be aired on TV and radio. You open the sports pages of newspapers to find page-after-page of coverage of how many birds a group of investment bankers have blasted into feathers over the glorious twelfth. No football. No cricket. No car racing. No rugby.

Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that popular music is no more, only chamber ensembles and other improving music forms are to be permitted. No more Kylie. No more U2. And Take That? Okay, stop laughing. Just the likes of Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, or Beethoven’s Septet for Wind and Strings are to be found on the radio. You turn to the music recommendations in your weekend newspaper and all you discover there are interviews with two hundred hopeful Tuvan throat singers short-listed for the new X-Factor.

Imagine a world where you turn up to the cinema hoping to watch Tom Cruise’s latest Mission Impossible feature, maybe switch on the goggle-box to catch up with a little Coronation Street, and all you find playing are twelve screens and seventy channels of Freeview showing François Truffaut’s L'Histoire d'Adèle H. and Ingmar Bergman’s Sommarnattens leende.

How happy would you be?


David Chute said...

Very skeptical of the defensive notion that contemporary fiction is just another genre. In its aims, at least, it's the opposite of or the absence of genre. And I think we all know that this is what the distinction means. The rest is sophistry.

Tulkinghorn said...

Not so sure about that... Your standard Booker Prize contender is the result of as rigid a set of rules and marketed as narrowly as any mystery or SF novel. That's what Brits mean by "literary fiction"....

I used to be a big fan of the genre, so I know whereof I speak. There's not really any equivalent here in the book world but there is in the movie world: Oscar bait.

Adam Roberts and Kim Stanley Robinson actually started this trope about a year and a half ago, when Roberts wrote in the Guardian:

"More, it can be argued that the Booker prize is actually just another genre award, the genre in this case being "historical and contemporary fiction". Perhaps writers of more imaginative scope – authors unconstrained by the worn-smooth tropes of Victorian-Edwardian realism, fictionalised autobiography and general mundanity – should view the annual Booker shortlisting with polite disinterest. But I'm not convinced.

In the UK this prize has the highest profile of any bookish gong apart, perhaps, from the Nobel. For many people. it's their annual window into what is good in novels. It does the general reading public a disservice to imply, as is the case this year, that good fiction today is pretty much confined to the historical novel."

Tulkinghorn said...

I just saw an interesting half-reversal twist on this in the NYT Book Review... A writer who believes that the elevation of genre to art is a British fetish:

"The English vice, in a literary sense, has lately been to mistake perfectly standard genre fiction for art. Thus the adequate police procedural “Child 44,” deriving gravitas from its setting in Stalin’s Soviet Union, was in the running for two of Britain’s most important literary awards. Now England has seen the rise of “Mr. Chartwell,” a humorous and amiable novel about which such extravagant claims have been made — for its prose, psychological insight and emotional depth — that one might imagine a work to rival Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” instead of what is, in fact, well-packaged chick lit."

He's probably right, in hindsight about "Child 44", and also right in the implication that the book would not have gotten all that much attention if it had not been nominated for the Booker.

Which is what Roberts and Hunt are complaining about.

David Chute said...

When you begin using terms like "Oscar bait" you run the risk of confusing the motivations of the artist with the need to fit a work into a marketing niche after the fact. I'm sure Harvey Weinstein embraced The Kings' Speech is archetypal Oscar bait, for example, but the feelings of the screenwriter who initiated the project seem to have been personal and sincere.

The motive that I'd ascribe to "literary fiction" is the desire to tell the truth about something real. Of course it's possible to be truthful with the conventions of a genre. If you have a tragic view of life you might even think that the conventions of noir embody truths already that you can build upon. But I think what people mean by literary fiction is a pursuit of truthfulness without the ulterior motive of trying to adhere to the set conventions of a genre.

Tulkinghorn said...

Let's call fortunate those whose 'pursuit of truthfullness' follows the paths of literary fiction, and let's call foolish those, like China Mieville or Scarlett Thomas, whose path takes them elsewhere...

And let's call assholes those, like Margaret Atwood, who write genre fiction and deny it, knowing that the denial will win them points with those who control the apparatus of reputation.

David Chute said...

Or call fortunate anyone who can make a living writing fiction, and advise them to stop whining.

David Chute said...

Daniel Woodrell (after a few tries at precedurals) settled into writing generic post-Cain noir novels. At their most satisfying, those stories are tragedies: the protagonist brings disaster upon him- or herself. But as he was finishing "Winter's Bone," Woodrell says, he realized that Ree Dolly had not done anything to deserve such a fate, and declined to impose it upon her. In so doing he departed from the conventions of his chosen genre -- and I'd suggest that the blurring of genre lines that allows writers to find an audience for departures of that sort is a good thing. Making room for literary impulses when writing within a genre.

Christian Lindke said...

Michael Chabon often writes of the modern contemporary novel -- or short story -- as pure genre, and one that is enforced ruthlessly by editors and critics. The same can be said of films. "Black Swan" is a perfect example of a film that meets all of the "tropes" that a film should have if it wants Oscar consideration.

I believe the film makers wanted to make a good story, but I believe that the "critical industry" liked this retelling of "Single White Female" more than they would have if it were pure genre -- even with the same cast.

I ask you one thing. How would a film like "Pillow Talk" or "That Touch of Mink" be received by the critical community today? If you are being honest, you would answer "not very well." Every year there are well made, and entertaining films/tv, that are overlooked purely because they are genre and thus "predictable."

When I read a review that uses the words "predictable plot" my eyes glaze over and I begin to ignore the critic. Most stories are predictable. How does "The Scottish Play" end? The same as every other Shakespearean tragedy? How does "Much Ado" end? The same as every other Shakespearean comedy.

They are highly predictable, and they are wonderful because they are well done. They are also genre pieces -- one tragedy and one romantic comedy.

Christian Lindke said...

I don't think "genre" should be ranked in importance at all. That is what the critical community does that is so offensive. They rank the genre, then rank the content.

The best SF/F I have read are among the best things I have ever read. I have read some excellent "contemporary literary fiction," but I have also read staid, pretentious, and inane contemporary fiction that was well reviewed. A book should be evaluated on its own quality. One can use the genre as a lens to see if it meets the appropriate beats -- but only if necessary to explain the book.

I don't like the shunting off of particular genres to genre ghettos, and I don't like authors who lie when they are writing genre.

If some talented modern authors would admit they were writing genre, then some overlooked craftsmen of the past might become less overlooked by the literary community.

Chabon's "Gentlemen of the Road" is rightly praised, sadly it hasn't increased the sales of Leiber's Lankhmar tales one iota.

To be fair, neither have Pratchett's "Discworld" books, though Ankh-Morpork and his Death are obvious humorous parallels.

David Chute said...

Books of any type can lapse into formula, and just piling up negative examples doesn't add a lot to the discussion. The realistic, literary novel I'm reading now, Rohinton Mistry's "Family Matters" (two lower-middle-class households in Bombay caring for an aged relative) is suspenseful and surprising despite its microcosmic scale.

Shouldn't we be more concerned with any given "genre" at its best rather than its predictable worst? And put aside the b.s. spouted by self-serving writers and critics.