Margaret Atwood / China Miéville

I went to the launch of Margaret Atwood’s new book Year of the Flood primarily because my partner was singing at it. It was held at a church in the centre of Edinburgh and was very well attended – so well that I had to queue for returns – and only got in because a kind American woman gave me her ticket.

What followed was a rather uninspiring affair. Atwood read passages from her book, the choir sang the ‘hymns’ she had invented for it and some other volunteers acted out parts – again, from the book. What struck me was that the whole thing sounded like an episode of Survivors – to be fair, I want to make it clear that I’m saying all these things without actually having read the book though, on the basis of what I experienced in that hour, I’m not likely to.

I have read two of Atwood’s books – Alias Grace – that I can remember nothing about – and The Handmaid’s Tale that I thought was brilliant… So I’m not saying the woman can’t write… but what get’s my goat are the claims that she persistently makes about her more recent writing ie. that “it’s not science fiction”… I listened to her being interviewed by Mark Lawson on Front Row where she said – several times – that the reason this new book of hers was not science fiction was because science fiction had things like “talking squid” in it. With that term, I feel she betrays herself. To dismiss all of science fiction as being the kind of writing that might have a talking squid in it (not that I have anything against squid, talking or otherwise!) is either profoundly ignorant, or disingenuous. Of course I understand why she struggles so hard to distance herself from the genre – more often than not, writing in the genre leads to work being ignored both by critics and reviewers and thus by many readers who might well enjoy it. (The success of Atwood’s ‘speculative fiction’ would seem to suggest this might be true.) Of course it is because my own work has suffered this fate that this issue makes me angry. So, I understand that Atwood is behaving like this to protect her own interests, but what I don’t feel is acceptable is that she should do so by dissing science fiction and those who work in that genre… Being dramatic for a moment: history is littered with examples of the persecuted joining the ranks of the persecutors so as to save themselves.

Ursula Le Guin, a writer of the first rank whose many brilliant books are dismissed because they are classified as science fiction, puts this better and with more grace in her recent review in the Guardian. Perhaps it would be wise for me to defer to her (qualified) praise for The Year of the Flood though I wonder if it wouldn’t sink without a trace were it sold as science fiction, if only for the reason that the post apocalypse novel is already a venerable tradition and has been done brilliantly by many authors – however surprising such a concept might be to Atwood’s ‘literary’ readers.

Imagine then my relief when I went off to listen to China Miéville being interviewed (by Stuart Kelly). Here was someone who is happy to tell anyone who wants to listen about his fascination with creatures with tentacles. He is also someone who writes fresh and literate books on the cutting edge of genre fiction. In fact, his books have had the tendency to cut through the edges of the various genres that attempt to contain them. His latest book The City and The City punches its way out of fantasy/science fiction into another genre, crime. Miéville read passages from various books – including one of startling invention from a work in progress. All of it was far more engaging, both linguistically and in its ideas, than anything I had heard from Atwood. Kelly wondered out loud when Miéville might win the Booker Prize – but we all know this is unlikely because such awards are not for genre writers.

9 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood / China Miéville

  1. If CM punches his way out of the ghetto into crime, how can he then still be regarded as a genre writer?… At least he’s managed to get a wider audience for his work (justifiable so), what with him being on the Edinburgh Festival. I assume that writing a children’s book also didn’t hurt him. Overall, he seems to be following Neil Gaiman’s lead, career-wise.

    I would say that his Perdido Street Station was already firmly rooted in Film Noir, with many other social awareness issues thrown in. I believe the ‘fantasy’ element was mainly varnish. It was published in Holland, but did as poorly as your books did (*grin*). Dutch genre-fans don’t want to be confused by things that don’t have either space ships or elfs’n’dwarfs.

    1. well… I’m not sure that escaping from one ghetto into another constitutes a proper escape… A reading taken from his children’s book suggests that it could well be brilliant… I’m rather disappointed in your description of Dutch genre-fans… could this really be so!?

  2. Is it just me, or are there no stories on the planet that couldn’t be improved by the inclusion of talking squid? Just think how much more interesting Hamlet could have been if, instead of some grief-inspired spectre at the start, it had been a giant alien space squid?

    Ah. Just me then! I’ll get me coat.

  3. Going from one ghetto to the other would indeed not be a Good Thing…

    I’ve read some accounts of writers who find the ‘young adult’ market very liberating, and void of many limiting pre-conceptions that you seem to struggle against. I have no doubt that China won’t be dumbing down for the kiddies.

    I think that, generalizing, genre-fans in Holland are no different than elsewhere in the world (except perhaps Finland, but that’s a whole different story). Whenever I read Fantasy books which touch me on an emotional level, teach me something about myself and manage to stay with me, I feel like marking it in my diary, while with young adult books this seems par of the course (even when they’ve got supernatural stuff).

    Perhaps it’s because younglings still want to grow, and are expected to grow, while adults of a certain proclivity are so settled in their existence that they don’t like to be challenged?…

    Whenever I see a ‘fantastic’ writer or a book jump out of the genre into the mainstream, it has more to offer than escapism alone. Random list – China M’s work does that, Neil Gaiman (with American Gods as best example, I think), Atwood did it with Handmaiden’s Tale (though, is it fantasy? Doesn’t that sort of society exist somewhere?), Let The Right One In… I feel that Stone Dance also belongs ‘out there’.

  4. Unfortunately I don’t knpw the other writers well and despite being Canadian (and therefore bombarded with Atwood in bookstores), I think I’ve only read one unmemorable shortstory. Apparently she lived a block away from me (and the UofT campus) and delivers amazing lectures…much more phenomenal than the books. 😛

  5. It is an unfortunate tendency of Scifi writers / Fantasy writers to see the ghetto not as a prison but as a fortress. I remember sneering when, on a convention, someone in a panel uttered: “I like Fantasy because it has imagination. I don’t like literature because it’s boring”.

    I just finished a ‘post apocalyptic’ book which has been sold as ‘literature’, and which I frankly find more inventive, better written and having more imagination than the lot of ‘post apocalyptic’ Mad Max rip-offs I find on the Fantasy shelf, under garish air brushed covers with badly constructed characters.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/mar/17/featuresreviews.guardianreview19

    The format of this book, ‘general fiction / literature’ allows this book to snugly fit besides Crace’s other books, such as Being Dead (thriller), Quarantine (historical, set in Judea of 2000 years ago)
    Gift of Stone (historical, neolithic)

    They are, as I read the synopses, all books about people and the larger questions of life & death – whether they’re thriller, scifi or historical. Going back to Atwood’s dilemma, I see the problem of a group of books on the Scifi shelf having ‘the fantastic’ as common denominator, while what she would want (and I am increasingly angling towards this myself) is to have as common denominator ‘good writing’ or ‘stories about people’.
    This is of course not only a matter of which label is put on the spine, and on which shelf it is to be found, but also of the general look and feel of the book, the imprint, the reputation of the publisher, etc.
    Personally, the cover of the Pest House gives me more hope for a good, sophisticated, read than this: http://www.comicsreporter.com/images/uploads/fanasynovelcovers_thumb.jpg
    or even this http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/n62/n314454.jpg

    This is the core of the problem, I think: “Fantasy”, “Science Fiction” etc as labels say very little about the quality, and the good books are tarnished by the reputation of the many infantile books in these genres. Just as, for example, I will not as a rule pick up anything sold as ‘occult thriller’ out of fear of landing myself with something akin to Dan Brown.

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