Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Book 'em, Damo

I've only just spotted the contentious post blogger extraordinaire Damien G Walter made a few weeks back concerning the Man Booker prize. Leaving aside definitions of genre and literary fiction (see Nathan Bransford's considered opinion on this, by way of Vulpes Libris' recent analysis of Makine's Human Love if you were looking for a good starting place for a definition)--would Damien feel it was fair for, for instance, if Yann Martel walked off with the Hugo as well as the Booker for Life of Pi? I feel the urge to stand up for Booker a bit. American Gods (which did take the Hugo that year) is a great book, but in no way is it a Booker winner. Likewise The Graveyard Book, which won this year. (Stardust, however, maybe, and Sandman, probably.) The prizes, like the books, serve different purposes and stand for different things.

I agree to a good degree with Damien's assertion that the world of literary fiction is fairly closed to those of plebian origin. From Granta's Best Young British Authors 2003 I seem to remember all were graduates, and only two were not from Oxbridge, but this isn't the main point that Damien makes, and the Booker has a long history of casting an international net, even if it tends to fall on works produced by more academic writers. I’ve actually heard an editor at one of Britain’s foremost publisher’s for SF state he or she was sick of all the (I quote from memory) ‘wide-boy Cockney gangster wannabes’ being published in the SF field, so I suspect the problems lie more with attitudes among certain members of the publishing fraternity, rather than sitting squarely on the shoulders of a foundation based, let’s face it, on the promotion of reading and the enjoyment of good literature. And it's not as though there isn't elitism in the speculative fiction world. Damien himself is an alumni of Clarion. Horses for courses, comes to mind (or perhaps courses for horses.)

In the comment trail on Damien’s post, Stewart of Booklit is right to point out that it's unlikely there were very many genre entries made to the prize, and Damien is na├»ve to think that the Booker has a responsibility to invite such entries. Surely it’s the job of a publishing house to promote its books. They at least went far enough to publish my article on how overlooked SFF&H is by the prize a couple of years back. Maybe Damien should request the full list of submitted titles from Man Booker. I would be interested to see how many—if any—genre titles were entered.


David said...

Question: do you think that no work of speculative fiction could ever win the Booker; or is it a question of whether one recognises a book as SF?

I mean, Animal's People was nominated for the Booker a few years ago; and to me, that's SF by any sensible definition of the term -- but I imagine there would be people (within both genre and literary circles) who may not see it that way.

And Cloud Atlas was nominated for the Booker and the Clarke; so clearly there is some overlap. But it's not (currently) an overlap of obviously 'genre' names.

Another question: is there a book that you think could win both the Booker and the Hugo?

(Apologies for rambling nature of comment -- am thinking out loud.)

Neil said...

Hi, David.

I'd love to see a work of speculative fiction win the Booker. Cloud Atlas is a great example. (Actually, Mitchell was the 2003 Granta Best Young British Writer not graduated from Cambridge, Oxford or the East Anglia MA course). And as I mentioned in the post, I think Sandman could have been a contender (although obviously it was published in a series of comic books and collection, rather than as a complete work).

I think a book like China Mieville's The Scar, not that I think it's his best work, but I feel it was appropriate to the Booker prize, would warrant a nomination, though I doubt it got one.

Philip K Dick also springs to mind, but I'm sure he's writing would be considered too pulp by any Booker judging panel. I also don't see what should have disqualified Life of Pi from picking up a Best Fantasy from somewhere. But my all time--and predictable nomination for those who know me--would go to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker.

And why are genre supporters so snotty in general about books like Atwood's (regardless of her flippant comments about science fiction) Oryx and Crake (I haven't read it, but I doubt many of them have either) and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go?

Anonymous said...

I would have been happy for Life of Pi to win a Hugo, if it had been good enough...which it was not. The Yiddish Police Man's Union was. As was Ishiguro's Clarke award winner. I think the speculative fiction world has done itself a lot of credit by being open to broader ideas of what speculative fiction is.

I think literary fiction needs to learn the same lesson. American Gods was clearly better than that years Booker list. Was it a 'Booker novel'? Perhaps not. But that only reveals how pitifully narrow the range of contemporary literary fiction is. Thematically narrow. Stylistically narrow. And hence of less and less interest to more and more people. I like a great deal of literary fiction, hence why I would like to see it more widely read. But its never going to happen if the lit.fic genre keeps walling itself into its tiny, narrow ghetto.

Interesting discussion anyway. I think this artificial divide between the literary and specualtive traditions is already tumbling down. I'm most interested by work emerging from the interface between the two like Mitchell and Mieville. I'm sure there is much more of the like to come.

Neil said...

Hi, Damien.

I notice Megan Kurashige beat me to the response:

And we can hope that as your response to this year's list was a little less vitriolic than that of a couple of year's ago ( maybe the Booker is mellowing in its approach to what constitutes literary fiction too. ;)

David said...

Well, if Never Let Me Go is anything like the Ishiguro collection I read recently, then I'd be snotty about it -- but not for any reasons of genre! And I would say Atwood is a special case here precisely because her comments about SF are ridiculous to anyone who knows about the genre.

But your real question is, why can SF fans be snotty about 'literary' authors muscling in on their territory? My best guess is: a perception (not entirely unfounded) that 'mainstream' writers who use the tools of SF may do so badly, and then may try to distance themselves from the genre.

This sort of perception is no good to anyone; we need more places like Serendipity, that are willing to embrace the good in everything, regardless of what it's labelled as.

I'm been trying to think of an SF work I've read recently that could be Booker material...

I would imagine (and this is pure speculation on my part) that the judges look for something elegant, which is why I hesitate to suggest Mieville, because I think his best work is more raggedy.

Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger is a ghost story, and that's on the Booker longlist; can't say how good it is as I haven't read it. One of the two best books I read last year was also a ghost story: Ramsey Campbell's The Grin of the Dark. Yet my mind struggles to wrap itself around the concept of 'Ramsey Campbell on the Booker shortlist'. I wish it didn't.

The best work of out-and-out science fiction I have read so far this year is The Accord by Keith Brooke. As far as I'm concerned, it's the equal, in all respects, of a couple of 'mainstream' titles I've read this year, both of which are certainly Booker material. And yet... 'Keith Brooke on the Booker shortlist' still feels like a strange concept. I wish it didn't.

Which all suggests to me that the only barriers are in people's minds; and I'd agree with Damien that there is change in the air -- Chris Beckett winning the Edge Hill prize is the clearest evidence of that. It's a slow change, but things are moving.

PS. Damien - Ishiguro didn't win the Clarke: Geoff Ryman did. There's a thought: is Air Booker material?