(Published in the Business Standard, March 8, 2010)
Most readers hoard the memories of books that were turning points in their lives—the brief, fleeting crushes that left little lasting imprint, the ones that dented your heart, and the ones that rampaged like tsunamis through your tidily ordered universe.
China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station was one of these. It was light years away from sword-and-sorcery, wizards-and-orcs fantasy. His imaginary metropolis, New Crobuzon, is corrupt and filled with wonders; his monsters draw from mythology but also from the stuff of urban nightmare. Like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Perdido Street Station changed the rules of epic fantasy, sealing Mieville’s reputation as one of the great modern mythmakers.
For the fanboys—and fanwomen—who showed up for each leg of Mieville’s India tour, it’s not just his fiction that’s a draw, impressive as his oeuvre of genre-bending novels from King Rat to The City & The City have been. Mieville teaches writing, and has some of the sharpest and most acute views on craft, genre and the changing shape of fantasy and SF today—and is outspoken about his Leftist political views.
The epigraph to The City & The City cites, among the “countless writers” he’s indebted to, Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Alfred Kubin, Jan Morris, and Bruno Schulz. One of the greats of crime noir, a master of existentialist literary writing, a surrealist illustrator, a travel maven and a Polish critic and writer—there are no literary ghettos in Mieville’s mind. Here’s a look at some of the literary debates of the day, via Mieville.
On the war between genre fiction and “literary” fiction: “There was a war. We won. But almost nobody noticed,” Mieville commented at one reading. He’s right on both counts. Fantasy and SF are too easily—and too often—dismissed by lazy readers, though both genres have a heritage stretching back to the earliest forms of mythology and myth-making in human literature.
Last year, veteran SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson sparked a debate when he argued that present-day SF was increasingly sophisticated and far more “about now” than most literary novels. Robinson’s take on the blindness of a literary prize like the Booker attracted frankly ignorant reactions, as when critic and Booker judge John Mullan said he “was not aware of science fiction”. Mullan continued with the classic, offensive stereotype of SF readers and writers, “It is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.”
This, as writers like Mieville and on the fantasy side, George RR Martin, know, has never prevented SF and fantasy from having a vast, engaged and often fiercely bright readership—but as Mieville points out, nobody on the “literary” side noticed.
On the difference between genre and literary writing: “We lost the war when they stole the adjective ‘literary’,” Mieville commented at another reading. This is true: “literary” has become shorthand either as a kind of stamp of approval and a seal of lasting worth, or, in the last decade, as a kind of putdown of pretentiousness, in much the same way “academic” briefly became shorthand for “jargonized”. But the underlying assumption is that a work classified as SF or fantasy cannot possibly be literary, despite the presence of stylists like Gaiman, Martin and Mieville himself.
On literary fiction usurping genre territory: In a now-classic interview in The Believer, Mieville spoke of the Atwood manouevre, referring to writers who “write things that are clearly weird or in the fantastic tradition and then bend over backwards to try to distance themselves from genre”.
For a literary reader who has no exposure to genre writing, the post-apocalypse world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Margaret Atwood’s excursions into dystopias, or Ian McEwan’s referencing of neurology and physics, are startlingly new. For many genre readers, these writers are rehashing old tropes—sometimes, as in McCarthy’s case, very well, but often, as in Atwood’s case, reinventing the wheel. But as Mieville and others have also commented, it’s an uneven playing field—the best of literary fiction is almost always compared to the worst of genre fiction. Perhaps one way out would be to have a no-holds barred Best of the Best competition—and I suspect literary fiction would lose.
On the many rules of writing: Mieville’s basic point is that most of the “rules”, barring the grammar tips, don’t work. Lush, rich writing is different from overwrought prose; and terse, laconic prose is not necessarily better than either. I’ll leave you with his comment on the often-repeated commandment to keep your prose spare and precise: “Spare. Is the English language running out of words? Do we have a word shortage?” As long as he’s around, not a chance.