Tag Archives: Literature

Eleanor Catton debunks the idea that literature is elitist

Eleanor Catton is a very powerful writer. What do I mean by powerful? Writers don’t command armies, head governments or lead major corporations. No writer I know can leap a tall building in a single bound. Many, in fact, struggle to get up from awkwardly low seating. And yet writers do have very great power, when they choose to wield it.

Writers tell the truth.

Having put that there, on its own line, as a baldly contentious statement, let me take a few sentences to unpick it. Which is a good word. Writers unpick the truth. They take a bundle of contradictory and confusing ideas – like a ball of yarn that has got all tangled up – and untangle the threads so we can see them clearly.

Elitism is a tangled mess of ideas if ever there was one. Literature is another mess of often contradictory things. Jumble the two together and you end up with such a dense conceptual mass that very people will be able to make sense of it. Eleanor Catton is one of those very few people. And writing for Metro NZ, in a bare few hundred words, she unpicks the yarn ball of literary elitism so that we can all look at it clearly.

These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.

Catton begins her short essay by talking about elitism. And the way that complex writing, using “difficult” words like “crepuscular”, attracts accusations of elitism. But it’s when Catton tugs on the thread of consumerism that the issue of literary elitism begins to unravel. We think of writing that we don’t understand as being elitist. But this is only because we have been trained to think of literature as a product of consumerism.

Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.

Books are not chocolate bars. Books are not fashion clothing. Books are not motor cars. Or blockbuster movies. Literature is not a consumer good. It is, in Catton’s words, an encounter. The most crude and ridiculous sign of treating literature like a consumer good are the 5 star rating systems employed on Amazon and elsewhere.

All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.

Here Catton hands the reader / consumer a chance to think about literature in a quite different way. A book is like a relationsip. You encounter a book in the same way you encounter any person who becomes important in your life : parents, friends, lovers, even enemies. And of course this can only be true. Books come bubbling up from the deep imagination of other humans, they are about the deep emotional experience of being human, of being alive. How can you treat this like a can of coke?

The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”

Here is Catton’s trump card. She may be tempted to say it, I often find myself actually saying it. Literature isn’t there to entertain you. Any more than your friends, parents, lovers or anyone else in the world exists to serve your needs. These are all things that you relate to. And you are responsible for the health of all you relationships.

I highly recommend reading Catton’s essay in full. Then take some time to unpick the complex problem of literary elitism for yourself. Stop thinking about literature as a consumer good, and start thinking about it as an encounter. And then see if what once seemed like elitism, starts to look like something quite different.

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Does God have a place in science fiction?

If SF is grounded in hard scientific fact, and science is killing God, then what place does that leave for divine intervention in the pages of SF literature? When I tweeted this question, @MirabilisDave gave Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum a twist, quipping that “Any sufficiently advanced technocrat will be indistinguishable from God.”

Read more @ Guardian books

What critics really mean when they say…

Nothing in publishing means what it says. Especially book reviews and the stuff they put in blurbs.

Renowned – unknown

Bestselling – crap

New York Times bestseller – utter crap

Seminal – almost dead

Legendary – actually dead

Cult – only readable by drug addicts

A powerful debut – you will never hear from this author again

Winner of… – went to uni / slept with a judge

A tale of love, hate and [INSERT IRONIC SUBJECT IE ironing, cats, bee keeping] – the book is essentially just the unremarkable life of the author who erroneously believes they are quite interesting

Volume 7 in the Chronicles of Tel’neth – sales started tappering off after Volume 2 and have never recovered, we’re hoping the author will die before we have to tell him he’s no longer in contract

One of our greatest living novelists – everyone is saying nice things about this but I really don’t know why

Hypnotic, spellbinding - didn’t get it

Brilliantly conceived, bold and exuberant – didn’t read it

Impossible to put down - only read the beginning

The long-awaited return of – written by the author after a minor nervous breakdown in a desperate attempt to pay their medical bills

The literary sensation of the year – author got to all the right parties

Astounding – competent

Astonishing – incoherent

Amazing – predictable

The list could go on forever. And why shouldn’t it? Tell me the ones I missed @damiengwalter

My Kitschy Predictions 2012

The Kitschies are among my favourite speculative fiction awards for the simple reason that they give awards to very good books. Last year I nailed A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness as the winner. So this year I’m going to take a wild stab at predicting the whole shortlist (!) How will I do?

  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  • Railsea by China Mieville
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (An outlier as one of the judges keeps saying how much they hate it…)
  • The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
  • Channel SK1N by Jeff Noon
If I get 3 right I will be quite happy. 5 and I will start to wonder if there is something up!

All hail the New Pulp

Imagine a scale of literary productivity. At one end, place current darling of the American literary scene Jeffrey Eugenides, bating a steady average of one book per decade. At the other, put Jack Vance – at 95, perhaps the last of the great pulp fictioneers – who has produced 60 novels across the SF, fantasy and mystery genres, as well as hundreds of stories for pulp magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories. Label one end of the scale great literature, the other pulp fiction.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Secondary World Problems

You know, those things which are only an issue if you happen to be the denizen of a world created in the imagination of a jobbing fantasy author. Or an ageing English academic. Or a frustrated fan trying to turn pro author. A secondary world always tells you more about the inside of the authors head than it does about the world itself.

The secondary world is a problematic construct. The term has become an accepted part of the dialogue around Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and it’s also been taken on by video gamers and game designers, perhaps because SF&F are so hardwired in to that new and still evolving media. But they really haven’t been examined seriously either by literary criticism or contemporary philosophy. They are in fact rejected out of hand, perhaps because, quite rightly, it is awakening humans from fantasy that is the goal of both literature and philosophy.  The cultural phenomenon of secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

I think what might be fairly said about secondary worlds is that they have a tendency to generate terrible, terrible writing. The attempt to build a secondary world through the medium of prose fiction is doomed from the outset. Every step towards world-building is a step away from story telling, which is the heart of M. John Harrison’s now iconic complaint against the clomping foot of nerdism. Arguing about secondary worlds is more interesting than the secondary worlds themselves.

The primary world called reality is a kind of fantasy. We float through reality in the semi-dream state of day to day consciousness, absorbed in our thoughts and in the digital realities constructed on our computer screens. The real problem of secondary worlds, whether on the page or the screen, is that far from being an escape they are another layer to the trap you are already caught it. The sensation you feel when immersed in a secondary world isn’t the thrill of freedom, but the relaxation that comes with a capitulation. Escaping from secondary worlds is more interesting than escaping in to secondary worlds.

Fantastika can do more than that. By drawing you in deeper to the immersive experience of a secondary world fantasy, a great writer can also tempt you along the path to a kind of awakening. These fantasies are few and far between, but once you have experienced them you become suspicious of all those that want to lull you back to sleep.

Are we living in a corporate society?

The corporate society has been an enduring wellspring of stories over the last century. Inspired by the factory production line, Aldous Huxley predicted a future where humans were born and bred only to fulfil a corporate function in Brave New World. The cyberpunk vision of William Gibson’s Neuromancer charted a future where government had collapsed entirely, and society was ruled by a few super-powerful corporations.

Read more @ The Guardian

We need a unified spec-fic award in the UK

The United Kingdom has one credible award for speculative fiction. It’s called the Clarke Award, and it is decided by a panel of experts each year.

In addition we have a splintered field of popular voted awards including those organised by the British Fantasy Society and British Science Fiction Association. These awards carry little weight even within the British SF community, little or none internationally, and absolutely none at all in the big wide world of literature and culture more generally.

Worse yet, the scandalous outcome of this years British Fantasy Awards shows how, at their worst, these awards have become a positive embarrassment to British speculative fiction.

The UK awards began as fan awards. However, as those fan communities have matured, and the internet has mad it much easier to publish and promote new work, those fan communities have become communities of amateur writers and publishers. It’s no surprise then that the awards are now dominated by amateur writers and publishers voting for their own work.

Speculative fiction writing is incredibly rich in the UK, but a splintered field of amateur awards is failing to reflect this richness to the outside world. We need a unified award for spec-fic in the UK, that many fan groups contribute to, which is taken seriously by the SF profession, and the larger world of publishing and culture. British SF is fantastic and creative, and we deserve an award that truly reflects that.

Can this be achieved? What are the barriers and challenges? How can they be overcome? Please let me know your thoughts.

Reality is for people who can’t handle Science Fiction

It’s all too easy to dismiss science fiction and fantasy stories as escapist nonsense. But there’s ultimately something despairing about the charge of running away most readers of these genres encounter at some point. It tends to come from an authority figure of some kind – a teacher, a boss, a parent. It is often well intended. But even as they make the accusation, you can hear a part of them whispering quietly, “I want to escape! I want to imagine! I want to dream!” Unfortunately they’ve forgotten how, and reality is too important to escape from – even for a moment.

Read more on The Guardian website