Originally written in response to the SF Signal Mind-meld question: What non-genre books have influenced you in some way?
I’m fascinated to see this issue discussed at the moment. If I was to place one major criticism at the door of Speculative Fiction, it would be the way it continues to segregate itself from the rest of literature. And this is caused in great part by the misapprehension of SF as ‘genre’. Genre is part of Speculative Fiction, just as it is part of all literature, and just as all literature draws in some way from one genre or another. Some SF is overtly ‘generic’ (which generally makes it uninteresting to me), much other SF uses genre creatively (much more interesting) and the best Speculative Fiction is no more attached to genre than any good writing. Genre is something that good writers make use of, but don’t let themselves be trapped by. Similarly, SF presents writers with a set of tools. Like any specialised toolkit it fulfills certain functions. Skillful writers pick up the right tools for the right job, rather than limiting themselves to only the tools they are familiar with.
My own reading has always mixed SF with all other kinds of literature from as early as I can remember, so these books that have influenced me are drawn from across the whole history of my reading:
Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto – as a teenager this short story collection was one of my first glimpses of how fiction can deliver insight in to very normal, everyday existence. I read it at least a dozen times in the space of a year or so. Yoshimoto claims it was written whilst listening to Nirvana, which was pretty much the soundtrack of my teenage years.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck wants you to know that the events of ordinary life are the very stuff of drama. And that it is filled with both pain and unexpected kinds of healing. His theme is how the archetypal patterns of our oldest stories, in this case the biblical Caine and Abel, repeat through the generations in the lives of us all. Read simply as fiction it is a powerful story, but it becomes something more when you start to look at how these dramatic archetypes repeat in your own life.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare – The British state education system has ruined the greatest English language writer for most of his latter day countrymen. I studied Hamlet three times at school, but it was only when I started reading Shakespeare myself as a young writer that I really began to see why his work has endured. Hamlet is about the worst of human existence, the structures of power and control, ego and ambition, that make it impossible for people to love or trust one another. There is no hero in Hamlet, all the characters are equally corrupt, and in the end everyone dies. The perfect tragedy, that plays out day in and day out in the places of power around the world.
Underworld by Don Delilo – most of this generation of Great White Male novelists, British and American, are to my mind chronically overrated. Amis, McEwan, Roth, Updike. The only way I can rationalise the acclaim these authors and their peers receive is to believe that at some point literary readers fell in to a kind of self-hate, and like abused spouses are unable to escape the bilious behaviour poured on them by these writers. Delilo is this generation of writers saving grace. Underworld is his masterpiece. I’m not going to bother describing it…go and read it and White Noise and a few others by DeLilo, and put McEwan et. al. in the rubbish and forget about them.
Runaway by Alice Munro – I discovered Munro this year, and read this entire collection in two days. By the end I felt like the top of my head had been taken off and my brain rewired by someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Munro’s writing is extremely cruel, because it continually returns to the ways people fail themselves, and act as the unconscious villains in their own lives. It’s very difficult to read her without noticing the hundreds of ways, large and small, we do these things to ourselves.