Tuesday, July 28, 2009

different kinds of books

So, my friend, the lovely Damien Walter, has written some strong words about the Booker Prize longlist. And, while I can see his point, I can't say that I agree with them. I think the demarcations between genres (literary fiction, mysteries, speculative fiction... and the broader ones that run throughout: quest, romance, swashbuckling adventure, creeping psychological horror, and etc.) are crumbling and porous. They always have been, and lately they seem to be so faint and so fine that you wouldn't know where to place them.

There is a spectrum, of course, and I have to admit to a certain prejudice that usually keeps me from picking up any book with a spaceship on the cover, or the words "fantasy epic" on the back, or anything that mentions Fifth Avenue in close proximity to an illustration of a woman with heels and shopping bags. I don't think I'm unusual though in having literary crushes on Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan and Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link and Patrick Ness and Angela Carter and Peter Carey and P. D. James all at the same time. I like to read different kinds of things (Because who wants to read the same thing all the time? How boring is that?), and what I like best of all is a story that explodes into your head with the need to exist, full of everything that matters and an irreverence for the things it uses to get there.

I haven't read A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book. I read Possession and was bored by it, but thought that most of her Little Black Book of Stories was creepily effective. Her work is permeated with fairy tales, ghosts, magic, monsters, and a streak of sly cruelty that I find unsettling. In my head, I think of her as a fantasist (along with Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin).

I'm reading Sarah's Waters's The Little Stranger right now, and it's a story about a haunted house. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (shortlisted for the Booker in 2005) can definitely be called science fiction (it made me cry and I thought it was good, though I am really still in love with The Remains of the Day).

At my bookstore, we have tables of new fiction, much of it the kind that comes out in classy trade paperback form, with matte covers and decent paper and elegant cover design. Many of them have little round seals that indicate their award-winning credentials. Granta Best Young American Novelist. National Book Award. Pulitzer Prize. Booker Prize. More and more of them sound truly weird and wonderful, and when you turn them over to peruse the backs, words like "surreal" and "genre-bending" and "imaginative" pepper their descriptions.

I have met people who say the "Science Fiction" section makes them nervous, but they clutch armfuls of Borges and Calvino and Saramago. "Where can I get more of this?" they say, and I'm more than happy to take their hand and introduce them to M. John Harrison and Ms. Link and Jonathan Carroll. I might also lead them over to the display we'll no doubt put up for the Booker Prize books, both past and present, and help them pick out a ghost story, or a story about clones in love, or a story about a boy and tiger lost at sea who discover a magical island.


Lauren said...

I really can't imagine what Hilary Mantel's reaction would be if she discovered she was "an upper-middle class writer."

And, yes, Sarah Waters is all (1) lesbian historical romances (2) ghost stories and (3) lesbian historical romances involving ghosts. And she listed The Specialist's Hat as one of her favorite ghost stories in a Guardian interview.

And, yes, willful ignorance REALLY gets under my skin. You hadn't noticed. I hide it very well.

Megan Kurashige said...

For some reason, I admire The Specialist's Hat, but just can't get into it. Maybe it freaks me out too much.

David said...

I came here from a discussion elsewhere about Damien's post. I would agree with both you and him, to an extent: there is and isn't bias against speculative fiction in the Booker.

Yes, works are nominated for the Booker that could be identifed as fantastic fiction -- but they're not written by authors generally associated with the field. And there are more 'liteary' works nominated for the Clarke Award than there are books from the SF shelves on the Booker shortlists.

However... I read all sorts of fiction, and I don't the best of one kind is inherently better or worse than the best of any other. So I think you're far from unusual in having a similar attitude.

Is it a generational thing, I wonder? Or is that too crude a distinction?

Megan Kurashige said...

Hullo, David.

I'm actually not sure what the distinction is. I just met someone who was probably in his 30s who used to adore huge, doorstop fantasy novels when he was younger, but now says he "has better things to do with his time than read that sort of stuff" (anything in the spec fic section). Then again, I've also met a very old woman who quite gleefully described to me how THE ROAD is essentially science fiction, and how she didn't care what a story was, as long as it was good.

David said...

I think if there is a distinction, it's between good books and bad -- which, after all, is the only distinction worth making.