Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Do Critics Still Sneer at SF?

A friend sent me a link to a thread on the Guardian blog kicking off from a post entitled Why Do Critics Still Sneer at SF? I thought about posting, and then thought better of it.

Then the funny thing is I noticed a blink on the Locus web site to an article in the Times Online which gives their 50 greatest British writers since 1945. It struck me as kind of interesting cause you have a handful of poets:

1. Philip Larkin

4. Ted Hughes

23. Penelope Fitzgerald

31. Derek Walcott

36. Geoffrey Hill

39. George Mackay Brown

47. Alice Oswald

48. Benjamin Zephaniah

You also have a couple of non-fiction writers:

40. A. J. P. Taylor

41. Isaiah Berlin

You have a grand total of ten writers who have worked solely within the idiom of contemporary (or near contemporary) realism:

7. V. S. Naipaul

12. Iris Murdoch

20. Anthony Powell

21. Alan Sillitoe

25. Barbara Pym

30. John Fowles

33. Anita Brookner

37. Hanif Kureishi

45. Colin Thubron

46. Bruce Chatwin

You have two writers who've worked in the populist genre of the spy novel:

14. Ian Fleming

22. John Le Carré

Of the rest, well, we'll separate out the writers who've played around with historical and prehistorical fiction, because while these could be seen as artificially constructed elsewhens, comparable to those of Fantasy or Alternative History they're more exotic than fantastic, strictly speaking, and we wouldn't want to push a point:

3. William Golding

26. Beryl Bainbridge

49. Rosemary Sutcliff

Then, however, you have a whole bunch of fiction writers, the majority of whom have, at some point in their career, written works which I think it's entirely fair to describe as strange fiction. Some writers have done that sort of slipstreamy blend of naturalism and the unreal, some have only had one or two works utilising a speculative conceit of some description, and some are best described as magical realists. But more than a few have written straight-up SF, Fantasy or Horror:

2. George Orwell

5. Doris Lessing

6. J. R. R. Tolkien

8. Muriel Spark

9. Kingsley Amis

10. Angela Carter

11. C. S. Lewis

13. Salman Rushdie

15. Jan Morris

16. Roald Dahl

17. Anthony Burgess

18. Mervyn Peake

19. Martin Amis

24. Philippa Pearce

27. J. G. Ballard

28. Alan Garner

29. Alasdair Gray

32. Kazuo Ishiguro

34. A. S. Byatt

35. Ian McEwan

38. Iain Banks

42. J. K. Rowling

43. Philip Pullman

44. Julian Barnes

50. Michael Moorcock

By my count that's twenty-five of the Times Online's fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Which is to say fifty percent. As opposed to ten dyed-in-the-wool realists. Which is to say twenty percent.

So, yeah, that damned mainstream with its literary establishment, always pissing on our genre cause they're, like, mundanes and boring and banal, and they can't deal with anything that's too weird, like SF or Fantasy, so all they'll ever take seriously is that dreary, dull, depressing realism stuff, which gets all the awards and the kudos and respect and the best toys in the sandpit. Or whatever.


Just... hmmmm.


Blogger Swanosaurus said...

Wow, Alan Garner is on that list? I know that I loved his novels when I was younger, even though I didn't get most of it (which is probably one of the reasons why "The Moon of Gomrath" scared the shit out of me). Now I'll have to check out some of his stuff again, if I can find the books ...

To me, it feels like most critics are actually over the sneering (probably because a lot of them really love Tolkien, or Rowling, or Pullman, or Moorcock, or Garner themselves). However, a lot of readers are not. Most of my friends simply can't imagine to take up a fantasy novel (besides Harry Potter) and find anything of interest in there.

By the way, what kind of straight-up SF, fantasy or horror has Ian McEwan been found guilty of?


12:00 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Jakob: From what I understand, McEwan's THE CHILD IN TIME has the protagonist going back in time at one point in the narrative and watching his parents have a drink in a pub. His mother later confirms that what he saw actually took place, indicating that it's all meant to be read as bona fide time travel rather than, say, hallucination.

12:19 pm  
Blogger Swanosaurus said...

Thanks! Interesting ... I've been trying to get into McEwan, but I never managed to. Maybe I'll try CHILD IN TIME. It might be easier for me If I can tell myself that it's SF (Which probably says more about some of my preconceptions about "mainstream literature" than I'd like to admit ...).

1:08 pm  
Blogger Phree said...

As a bookseller I've found the general public very rarely listens to the critics.

The best selling genres are:
In that order.

I read, and deeply enjoy, a broad range and genres but have found there are usually only a wonderful few I can recommend my favorite authors to. Authors such as:
Hal Duncan (sorry, man, but the average Joe Blow brain-candy imbiber would be either frightened by or totally lost by your books. I'm a discerning book pusher so the people whom I do recommend your books to ALWAYS come back asking for another recommendation)
Mark Z. Danielewki
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Elizabeth Kostova
Gordon Dahlquist
Thomas Pynchon

The list goes on with the same common theme: If there is too much meat or deliciously dark weirdness the average reader will turn away with a shudder.

I'm not pointing this out as a snide commentary on the average reader. The truth is most people who come into a Waldenbooks live very hectic lives and are often a bit (or a lot) overwhelmed. They are looking for nothing more or less than a well deserved and much needed vacation from the brain strain.

The literary establishment would do well to talk to an actual book-buying human. They would learn most people get enough of the "dreary, dull, depressing realism stuff" in their everyday life and every time they turn on the news.

They also might learn it's not their snub-nosed elitist opinions which sell books; it's the needs and desires of the populous which get the credit cards swiped and the checks written.

But mind, my observations and opinions may be naught but crap because I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books. *big grin*

6:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hit sir, a palpable hit. Nice one Hal.

6:40 pm  
Blogger Tim Pratt said...

Ah, you forget Fleming also wrote a children's fantasy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

9:52 pm  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

McEwan also has the short story Solid Geometry, which has to count as fantasy or science fiction or something

12:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


try "The Cement Garden". Great and awful.


As concerns the sneering, most of my non-weird-fiction-addicted friends seem to draw a clear line between "good" or "literary" fantasy (for some reason I don´t entirely get, Tolkien is mentioned as a forerunner in this category, probably because he was, like, a professor and knew a lot about old languages and smoked a pipe and...) and "pulp" or "cheap" fantasy on the other hand. Anything that is exciting and fun and clearly tries to be so (with cool aliens and spaceships and nekkid barbarians with big penis replacements) is "bad", while everything that "just uses fanatsy as a disguise" to be, oh, educational and , bleargh, make you think, is "good". I should maybe hit some of my friends over the head. With a stick or other big penis replacement.

- Jasper

11:07 am  

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