Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Literary Fantasy Or Bread With Your Jam

There has been an increase in the use of the phrase "literary fantasy" of late. Discussion on the topic has ranged from reviewers using the term to praise fantasy novels with a literary style or certain quality of prose, to arguments over whether Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, is too good a.k.a. too literary, to be considered fantasy. Literary it turns out, is an imprecise term, a moveable feast if you will, and so to no one’s surprise, no one seems to be able to agree what it means.
But then the word literary isn’t used to define a genre as much as a quality. Or at least, it is frequently pressed into the service of both. So we have literary fiction on one hand, but we have fiction outside the literary category, being praised as literary. This is understandably confusing and lends itself to misuse that borders on willful. Fantasy by comparison is rarely so unclear. While you might argue over the borders of the genre, and people frequently do, fewer use fantasy as word to describe a novel’s style or even more unlikely, its perceived quality.
Taking the first instance of literary fantasy being used to describe what is clearly a fantasy novel, I draw attention to a recently released debut by author Den Patrick: The Boy With The Porcelain Blade. You can read the first three chapters online and peruse a handful of early reviews provided in cover blurb snipets.
Among them is this to-the-point bit of praise from UPCOMING 4 ME.

The Boy with the Porcelain Blade packs a lot of punch and is extremely well written in an excellent literary style which is sadly often absent in modern fantasy… The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is a rich, literary fantasy thriller which bodes well for the rest of the series (UPCOMING 4 ME)

This mention of the book’s literary credentials is not limited to UPCOMING 4 ME, but echoed elsewhere such as on the Waterstones blog:

The Boy with the Porcelain Blade could be described as literary fantasy steeped in a kind of alternate history Italian Renaissance.

Not to be outdone, over at Forbidden Planet International’s blog, the reviewer adds Mervyn Peake and literary both to the mix:

I mention Gormenghast not as some lazy literary reference or a familiar sound-bite to draw a curious reader in, I genuinely feel its influence at play, but there is much more youthful gusto in the writing.

In fairness both reviews do a good job of suggesting literary may be a bit of stretch when it comes to describing this debut novel, but blithely or unselfconsciously at least, still make use of the term even as they point out its rather non-literary aspects. Likewise with the references to Gormenghast floating about in the ether which feel a bit like a game of Telephone where someone, somewhere said it once but no one is sure why or if that’s exactly what was said.
Outside of a possibly author-made, possibly publisher-made reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and which reads in the actual sample as more of a science fictional origin device than a literary one, I haven’t seen any real reason to use either comparison so freely. Certainly, after reading the sample three chapters of the book itself, I found no strong urge to mix my literary with my fantasy. There is on display all the typical excesses and disappointments of typical fantasy debuts, along with a sea of over descriptive writing - but no sign of any literary magic.
 While the review on is more prosaic about the book, I feel that I’ve seen this pattern before. And expect to see it again: a debut fantasy novel, made the subject of unsupported but heartfelt praise regarding its literary qualities, confusingly intermixed with claims of being easy to read, fast paced, or full to the roof beams with pure accessible entertainment. And I regret to say, very little in the way of actual literary quality on display once the online dust settles.
That is not to suggest literature can't be exuberant, easy to read, or fast paced. But generally, there will be something more alongside all of this. I find Kafka's The Castle to be very easy to read, but it is not a straightforward novel. Conversely I am not a fan of John Updike whose "Rabbit" Angstrom novels have never satisfied me, but I accept there is something powerful there for other readers. Defining literature, and arguing about the existence of a literary genre, is not what I'm interested in here. Not least because I suspect the latter doesn't exist. 
In a way this brings us back to Calvino. One of the products of this tendency to misuse literary as a rather it-means-whatever-you-want-it-to-mean descriptive term when discussing books that may not be considered literary or belong to the fuzzy category sense of the word, is the fierceness with which fans of fantasy or other particular genres will annex writers who territories overlap.

Fantasy is a place where it rains.

Italo Calvino made this quote in reference to Dante. One could argue, that both these complex, important authors, were writers of fantasy and of the fantastical. But you’d be hard pressed to limit them to Fantasy with a capital F because their works are of course, so much more than just that. Complex, allegorical, wrestling with points of both philosophy and theology, these authors are not to be typically found shelved among the work of J.R.R. Tolkien or Brandon Sanderson. And with good reason, though the reason is perhaps not their quality alone, but what they represent in literature and as texts upon which rest, countless other important or less important, works of literary fiction. In this sense I am quite content to find them at Waterstones, filed under plain fiction.
The estimable Gore Vidal, no friend of Updike himself, considered Calvino “a true realist.” The playful Italo would likely have been uncomfortable with being boxed in by fantasy as a genre. His works span everything from fables and stories developed through the random permutations of tarot cards, to literary theory, and the hidden nature of states and cities in the face of their not always happy citizens. This is not to say that these things can’t be fantasy too, but to limit Calvino, to cut him off from his very catholic engagement with deeper themes and very clear literary roots, is to throw out the tree with the baron.
Another quote by Calvino goes more to the heart of his place in and his use of fantasy: 

that only a certain prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can’t make anything.

Which brings us back to fantasy as a genre, again. Because if there is a defining characteristic to a considerable number of fantasy novels, debut or otherwise, it is a great deal of jam and very little bread. Some, I might go as far as to suggest, are entirely jam with nary a crumb in evidence. This is not to say that one is better than the other, though our mothers and fathers and Italo Calvino are probably correct on this point. And we do not come to fantasy in most cases by accident. A writer does not sit down to write a realist novel and suddenly find that elves and dragons have crept in. Unless perhaps, one is writing urban fantasy. But I suspect that Calvino thought very carefully and at length about the fantastical elements he spread on his bread.
With this other sort of fantasy it is always jam today. Which may very well be part of fantasy’s abiding allure, its very popularity lying in its sticky, insubstantial sweetness and its promise of always more from the jar. Certainly as a child, I was intensely attracted to this style of fiction, over more dry and bread like literature. But with time and having found that my tastes have changed, I’ll admit that I now enjoy more adult fibre with my fantasy, more bread with my jam; the savour of Gogol, the bitterness of Camus.
So while I would be one of the last people to suggest that Italo Calvino - like Dante, like Borges, Kubin, Kafka, Gogol, and the wonderful Angela Carter - are writers who have not influenced fantasy as a genre, I’d be loath to say that is what defines Calvino as a writer. Perhaps he is, at heart, the realist and even hyper-realist, that Vidal took him for. Above all, I suspect he’s too clever to be labeled anything but a masterful writer, weaving his fables, his fantastical, alongside both his critical theory and down-to-earth musings on death, literature, and beyond.
But others are not content to let poor Calvino rest quietly. Nor do they generally take any attempt to extricate literary from fantasy, as less than a call to arms. It is snobbery, they cry. It is all a matter of taste, insist others. Fantasy and literature are the same thing after all, it can be argued, stories brought to us through the medium of authors and words.
Of course, to reduce all art to a matter of taste is to reduce all products of art to - products - to cans of Coke or Pepsi or RC Cola lined up on the shelf according to market preference. Author of The Luminaries and Booker Prize winning writer Eleanor Catton has an excellent article debunking the subject here.
However, to hear some fans argue for the trumping of taste over literary qualities is to suspect perhaps Philistinism is alive and well; incorrectly as it turns out. Philistinism, as Malcolm Bull suggests in his book Anti-Nietzsche, is one of those things that abounds in theory but can be found nowhere in practice. A true Philistine does not believe there is value in art, beyond the practical value of things for their thing-ed-ness, and hence no valuation can be made even on the basis of taste. A fantasy fan however who argues for universal subjectivity, is arguing that art’s only value is subjective. Not that art has no value.
Philistine or fan, consumer or reader, passions on this subject run hot. I suspect this is because we tend to equate our perceived taste in things - or brands if you want to keep this grounded in the wisdom of the markets - with our personal valuation in a consumer society. No surprise that we want to elevate our favoured brand to a higher or at least equal position that others hold, regardless of merit.
While there is no question what we read says things about the people we are, such as do perhaps the shoes we wear or the car we drive or the size of the house we live in, it is a mistake to cling to this exact scaling of value with the novels we most enjoy reading. We can read all sorts of things, without one hopes, each moving us up or down the social ladder of perceived self-worth. But perhaps this requires a belief that art means more than our buying habits on Amazon.
A good book might make you a better person, but liking a bad one does not make you the reverse. We can of course, enjoy all sorts of novels, some of them crude, some of them complex. If the vast majority of our intake proves disposable, we persist, I like to think, in the hope of coming across something that may change the way we look at the world, ourselves, or even the act of reading.
I would suggest that great literature is capable of this, in a way that commercial fiction, however popular, rarely achieves. And that, questions of taste aside, is something worth chewing on.


Saturday, 1 February 2014

Shall I Tell You The Problem With Dystopian Novels?

On Such a Full Sea

Noted science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin begins her article by first nailing her colours firmly to the mast. An authority on the genre of science fiction and fantasy, if not the sub-genre of dystopian novels, she is quick to suggest that literary authors* have no place on the ship.

Authors, of literary background such as Chang-rae Lee, who have neither sensitivity or importantly, sufficient respect, for the seriousness of genre, are not up to the task. Le Guin is concerned, about where the coffee comes from, and the petrol. How the details of a fully imaginary world fall into place in all their minutiae is top on her list - or second, after noting his credentials as a literary author.

Lee's story, in her estimation, comes up wanting in this respect - despite, what seems to be praise for his "suave and canny" prose, flowing story, and vivid description. Never mind those "pleasant contemplative moments" what matters here is a seeming betrayal of "literal, rational questions" in a work of fantasy - sorry, "social science fiction." This is, no light matter, because social science fiction, Le Guin reminds us, is granted no such license for frivolity.

A less charitable interpretation of this short review would be of an well established, iconic even, author of genre shouting from what she views as if not her front porch, then a neighboring property, for invaders from the Lit-o-Sphere to get off her patch. All hands to the social science fiction laser turrets!

She begins this broadside by pointing out that the dystopian novel is done and dusted. Wiser and importantly, more genre genuflecting authors who have come before, have Already Done It Better. This may or may not be true, because dystopia is a funny thing. You can hardly separate it from its mirror (literary) image, the utopia which has even more august antecedents. Whether it is Cloud cuckoo land of Aristophanes or the Eldorado of Voltaire or for that matter, the eponymous Utopia of Thomas More, the boundaries between utopia and dystopia are never a certain thing. Defusing the implausibility but also the horror of such fully fictional kingdoms were they to be made actual places, it is not a long road to travel to reach the more classically delineated spaces of Huxley, Orwell, and indeed, McCarthy.

But of these, McCarthy, who had remained in the literary camp despite his waverings, is judged the less serious, more superficial author. A rather weak claim coming from Le Guin who despite her excellent work in fiction, has never written a novel half as brilliant or as uncompromising as Blood Meridian. The latter a book which despite being a "historical" novel, is not a whit less fantastical or dystopian as the best that the SFF genre has to offer.

"But for the last 30 years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction."

Ah, but then writers like McCarthy, are just day trippers then. Le Guin seems to suggest, that the True Blue genre-ist, lives there. Perhaps in a nice cozy caravan if not a castle. But again, there is little support for this if we actually look at the books which have been written on both sides of the supposed lit-genre divide.

There is no note of Margaret Attwood who has in the past been at pains to point out she "doesn't write science fiction." But she certainly writes dystopian novels. Both The Handmaid's Tale, as well as The Flood (and under the same broad tent, its prequel, Oryx and Crake) sit comfortably within the world of the dystopian and social science fiction novel. Of the two, the one with the least respect shown for conscientious world building of the sort that Le Guins suggests real social science fiction demands, is the former: The Handmaid's Tale. And of the two, it is by far the better work for it.

No mention of johnny-come-lately and literary author Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Nor, of that prince-jestor of fantasy and science fiction, M. John Harrison, who with deadly seriousness has taken the piss out of both with his Viriconium series and Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In Harrison's case, both of these are startling bodies of work which inhabit a space that has at best, haphazard social science fiction elements but deliver a one-two punch to genre with more than a touch of dystopian trappings and a refusal to be pinned down by the traditional limitations of either.

To say that any of these authors are less serious than Le Guin or for that matter, EM Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and others, is absolute rubbish.

And what is wrong, even if this charge by Le Guin had any basis in reality, in a lack of seriousness in fiction? Deconstructing, irrelevance, and breaking with tradition, are all fine elements of good writing. Science fiction and to a lesser extent, fantasy, are often resistant to this, however. Over sensitive perhaps to anything which defamiliarizes the unfamiliar as the very smart, very irreverent author Lavie Tidhar points out in his article on science fiction author, Adam Roberts:

Genre fiction doesn't need genuflection, of course, as much as it needs a list of others things. High among them, mischievous renovation. If outsiders to genre wish to make use of the - here Le Guin and I can agree - rather tired tropes of traditional science fiction - good for them. If they can take them more lightly and with less heavy handed pomposity, all the better. Genre, for all its strengths, its use of realism is not actually one of them. For realism comes in many forms, not all of them the micro economics of imaginary places. But emotion, character, plot, and shall we say it? literary authenticity. All of these, Le Guin admits, Lee has.

So why then is she unable to vouchsafe On Such a Full Sea as a true dystopia? Mostly, it seems to come down to the credentials of the author as a less serious (?) non-genre author slumming it in the section of town where she lives, and Lee's "use (of) essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially."

Some commentators have been quick to agree. Where are the edible fungi? asks one, in McCarthy's novel The Road. I can't say this was a stumbling point for me personally in this powerful, moving, emotionally realistic exploration of a son and father's harrowing dystopian road trip through a dying world whose singular strength is perhaps the utter incomprehensible nature of the disaster which has upended the world. What matters is not the DNA sequence of some fictional plague, the specifics of a made up science fictional weapon, the colour of an alien sun, but the interactions of its principals.

The sad fact is genre needs to move on. And genre fans and authors, many of them at least, need to stop trying to stem the fluidity of genre's always porous boundaries. They also are not helped shouting like angry geese whenever a self-identified literary author strays onto the property.

It just reveals the facade like nature and low self esteem of a wide spectrum of literature that need not wall its totally imaginary and invented worlds behind invented social or science fictional realism.

Here's hoping for better literary and science fictional worlds in the future.

*While some may wish to argue that EM Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Aldous Huxley are all literary authors who Le Guin shows to have Gotten It Right, only Forester can be said to be untainted by clear association with Science Fiction. Zamyatin's biography almost always has science fiction before any mention of his role as a satirist, and Huxley has long been canonized by SF. The fact is, not one current literary author who crosses that the divide, is praised by Le Guin in their handling of SF tropes. A point, I think, salient to the discussion at hand.


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