Archive for September, 2009

The Stories of Never Letting Go

‘Kim Stanley Robinson’ really ought to be an anagram of ‘kat among the pigeons’ because he has rustled a few feathers this week with his article entitled Science fiction: The stories of now in The New Statesman

“Oh, I know there is a Booker prize,” he says, “I’ve heard of it even in California – supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year – but […] they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels.”

“…you need the literature of your time. You can’t get the meaning of our life in 2009 from historical fiction, nor from science alone. Novels serve us, and are treasured, because we want meaning, and fiction is where meaning is created.”

Mr. Nail meet Mr. Hammerhead.

More contentiously he suggests that “three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read.”

And he names names: claiming that Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, when the prize went to The Sea by John Banville; Life by Gwyneth Jones rather than The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst the year before, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison instead of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy in 1997.

I haven’t read any of those three science fiction novels, but I have read the three prizewinners and I would be reluctant to go out to bat for any of them. Indeed, I would have given the 1997 prize to Quarantine by Jim Crace and the 2004 prize to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I would be even less inclined to defend The Gathering or The White Tiger as being the best novels of the last two years, and I’m quite surprised he couldn’t find any science fiction novels to prefer for those years as well.

As for this year, he says that the prize “should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.” Although, ironically, Yellow Blue Tibia is set in the Soviet Union in 1946 and 1986, and Adam Roberts is a Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature in the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.

In response, John Mullan, the academic judge on this year’s panel (and a Professor of English at University College, London) said: “Science fiction can go and fuck itself.” No, not really, but – given that the Booker Prize has traditionally thrived on controversy – he might as well have. What he actually said was that he was “not aware of science fiction,” calling it a “self-enclosed world” now kept “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.” I’m surprised he didn’t mention the beep-beep noises. Or capes.

It’s true that science fiction has been ghettoized – as have various other genres (a pain when you are trying to find a transgenre book and have to search several different places in the library or bookshop) but that is just a sign of popularity. Bookshops have no Booker Prize section – indeed some old winners aren’t even stocked at all – because there is no demand; no public interest. On a recent edition of the BBC2 quiz show Pointless, contestants were challenged to name a Man Booker Prize winning author. One of the contestants managed to pull the name Naipaul from the vaguest depths of his memory and thereby won the jackpot because none of the hundred people surveyed had named Naipaul, thus making him one of the winning ‘pointless’ answers. He wasn’t the only one. Other winners who registered nul points in the public memory included: Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, Arundhati Roy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt and (read it and weep) twice-winner, and possibly soon-to-be three-time winner: JM Coetzee. That’s right, none of the hundred people asked connected his, or any of those other illustrious names, with the Booker Prize.

Maybe there should be a Meta-Fiction Prize where the winners of all these best book of the year prizes are pitted against each other: The Booker, The Orange, The Whitbread, The IMPAC plus genre prizes like the Gold Dagger, Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo awards etc. to guarantee some diversity in the mix. Perhaps with Richard & Judy chairing
the judges, although it might have to be over the dead bodies of academics like John Mullan.

Oh, and let’s not forget prizes for literature aimed at young people – like the Carnegie Medal and Booktrust Teenage Prize – because, as Patrick Ness said recently: “Teenage writing is the place to be writing these days … It’s where the exciting writing is going on and there’s no snobbery about genre.

And, having read his 2008 Booktrust Prize winning novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, I wouldn’t want to argue with him – he might be capable of anything.

September 22, 2009 at 11:22 pm Leave a comment

When do they think we are?

The shortlist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize was announced this morning. (Morning?! Did they shit the bed? Or did they already know what the shortlist was going to be?) Anyway, the six books in the running are:
A.S. Byatt – The Children’s Book (Random House – Chatto & Windus)
J.M. Coetzee – Summertime (Random House – Harvill Secker)
Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze (Random House – Jonathan Cape)
Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall (Harper Collins – Fourth Estate)
Simon Mawer – The Glass Room (Little, Brown)
Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger (Little, Brown – Virago)
These judges obviously love historical fiction. I know great contemporary fiction is hard to find, but that’s ridiculous. Sorry, I’m just a bit aghast at the thought of trying to wade through the three books I least wanted to see on the list, the three that are also very difficult to get hold of at any of Nottinghamshire’s public libraries – not because they don’t have any copies but because they are in such demand…from old biddies probably.
Ian Rankin was bemoaning the exclusion of genre fiction from the Booker on last week’s Newsnight Review, and normally I wouldn’t agree – I think the prize should be for non-genre literary fiction – but the prevalence of historical fiction does make a mockery of the neglect of science fiction or crime novels which attempt to tell us something about our world today and tomorrow, instead of remastering the past. I blame Who Do You Think You Are?
The winner will be announced on October 6th.

September 8, 2009 at 12:50 pm 1 comment

Wolf or Chimp to follow Tiger?

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize is announced tomorrow, and we will find out whether Cheeta the Chimpanzee still has a chance of succeeding The White Tiger. Predicting a shortlist of six out of thirteen feels like it should be easy, but it never is – and these judges have already proved that they are not above of a bit of monkey business. However, if I were going to be stupid enough to try and second guess what the judges will select for their shortlist, my wrong guess would be something like:
Sarah Hall – How to Paint a Dead Man
Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall
Simon Mawer – The Glass Room
Colm Toibin – Brooklyn
William Trevor – Love and Summer
Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger
Obviously JM Coetzee is also a strong contender but, surprisingly, he has only been shortlisted twice – although he did win both times, so it would be ominous for the others if he does make the cut. Summertime is the third of his pseudoautobiographical novels, the first of which – Boyhood – introduced me to the power of his writing. It had a visceral effect on me – if I had ever seen a psychoanalyst I fear I would have angrily accused him of selling my innermost childhood thoughts to Coetzee, it resonated so loudly with my own feelings as a boy. Youth on the other hand made no impression on me at all.
It is a curious fact that seven of the last ten Booker Prizes have gone to the shortlisted author whose name came first alphabetically, which bodes well for AS Byatt, although I can’t believe The Children’s Book will survive re-reading. A number of people, including myself, have found it very easy to put down – on the basis that life is too short for all that ‘extraneous detail’. Reading The Children’s Book you could be forgiven for thinking that the Twentieth Century never happened. Surely at least one of the judges will refuse point blank to read it twice, let alone three times!
That said, I applaud Lady Byatt (what? not yet?) for her attack on writers of “faction” – “mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention.”
“I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead”, she said, “It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them.”
I agree: it doesn’t seem ethical.
It’s a complaint that could be applied to two of her rivals for the prize: The Quickening Maze, and Wolf Hall – which had the bookies on the run after fans heavily backed Hilary Mantel at double-figure odds. They stand to lose a six-figure sum if it wins. Serves them right for offering stupidly long odds in the first place on a book which has had nothing but praise, by an author who deserves wider recognition. The same applies to Simon Mawer – The Glass Room is far too good to be thought of as an outsider for the prize and could easily win, yet William Hill are offering 16/1!
The two Irishmen on the longlist would also be popular winners, neither having won before despite numerous nominations (Colm Toibin in 1999 and 2004, and 81-year-old William Trevor in 1970, 1976, 1991 and 2002.) Love and Summer is currently being serialized on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime (as was Brooklyn earlier in the year).
Meanwhile, the inclusion of Me Cheeta on the longlist sparked off a raft of puns like ‘Cheeta writer could be top banana‘ and ‘Heavyweights crash chimp’s Booker tea-party‘ – but surely the cheeky monkeys won’t dare shortlist it, will they?

September 7, 2009 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment


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