Thursday, 5 March 2015

Literary Slumming for Fun and Profit

Ursula Le Guin is not at all happy about Mr. Ishiguro's disdain for genre fiction.
A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t. A toneless, inexact language is incapable of creating landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event. And the vitality of characters in a semi-historical, semi-fanciful setting depends on lively, plausible representation of what they do and how they speak. The impairment of the characters’ memory in this book may justify the aimlessness of their behavior and the flat, dull quality of the dialogue, but then how is it that Axl never, ever, not once, forgets to address his wife as “princess”? I came to wish very much that he would.
Oh dear. Still, I don't suppose Kazuo's agent will be that bothered.

This is part of an ongoing debate about whether those literary chaps who win awards like the Booker are massive, humourless snobs. Some of them certainly aren't. The late Iain M. Banks wrote science fiction as seriously and as intelligently as he wrote mainstream novels about modern British life. Banks was someone who loved the genre, had extensive knowledge of it, and was often nominated for its various awards. He was not a literary snob, though many of his reviewers and interviewers were.

At the opposite end of the spectrum we find Michel Faber, whose Under the Skin (recently filmed to general bafflement) is a well-written but nonetheless bad book. It has nothing new, interesting, or amusing to say about its 'aliens among us' theme. All the science fiction ingredients in Faber's book are as old as the hills and have been done better. But his literary reputation allows him to deliver stale tropes up to an audience who know nothing of sf and can be tricked into believing he is being daring and profound in abandoning all that silly Star Wars paraphernalia in favour of (supposedly) gritty social comment. It's a rather shabby trick, for my money.

Both these examples are outside the scope of this blog, but I had to mention them because I'm a bit annoyed. Mainstream authors also dabble in ghost stories, of course, and do the Paver-Ishiguro trick there. 'Oh, look, I'm bringing my profound literary sensibility to trashy genre fiction to adorn it. I know, I know, but I'm a generous soul.' The result tends to be forgettable because the author is not a lover of the ghost story and knows little about how it works. They're just visiting to get a bit of local colour from their inferiors without becoming involved or, you know, knowledgeable. They are, in fact, slumming.

History buffs may recall that slumming was fashionable in the Jazz Age. It involved Bright Young Things in the Evelyn Waugh mould going to poor areas and partying with the plebs. 'Oh, what thin children! And such darling rickets!' It's never died out, not really, but has arguably become a global trend. The central premise of slumming is that one does not seek to live like these people. One seeks to enjoy one's privilege by visiting them, sampling their frightfully colourful lifestyle, then going home with a few trinkets and a nasty rash. In literature, as in life, it is not an especially nice thing to do.

This is in marked contrast to the work of the late Kingsley Amis, a great anti-slummer who didn't dabble in genre fiction so much as make a systematic contribution to it in his middle years. Having established himself as a comic novelist in the Fifties he found himself losing traction when the late Sixties began to swing. So he wrote entertaining novels that took him outside his 'comfort zone'. He wrote a traditional detective story, a James Bond novel, a science fiction tale of alternate history (which contains a respectful nod to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle), a futuristic tale of England invaded, and a ghost story - The Green Man.

Amis respected genre for what it is - a different way of writing about the world and our place in it. His knowledge of ghost stories, science fiction, thrillers etc meant that he was well aware of the achievements of very good genre writers of his day - M.R. James, John Dickson Carr, Frederick Pohl etc. He took his lead from them, and as a result his genre books are still eminently readable. Well, the ones I've read are. I admit some of them continue to elude me, even after all these years. But I keep looking, because I'm sure the game is worth the candle. In forty or fifty years time, will people be seeking out the literary slummers?


Aonghus Fallon said...

I haven't read many horror books by authors who normally write literary fiction, but it's quite common in SF. Often the author seems to think his literary skills will compensate for lazy world-building and plotting, and an unoriginal premise. The result is a book that falls squarely between two stools - it isn't original enough to constitute a worthy addition to the genre, and it's considered too pulpy to be proper literature.

I read 'Lucky Jim' years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it!

valdemar said...

Indeed, I think horror fiction is considered too trashy for any of the Booker mob to touch it with a stick.

I'd recommend The Alteration if you like science fiction with a historical twist. Great fun but also some pithy observations about the way Western society's evolved.

James Everington said...

Under The Skin is by Michel Faber not "Paver"... (I've not read it).

valdemar said...

Thanks, James, I'll correct that. Well spotted!