Sunday, March 13, 2011

Genre wars

Having watched the offending programme, the BBC's  'The Books We Really Read', I can imagine the author's ire at the absence of any mention of science fiction or fantasy or horror both given their popularity and the distinguished authors and works that have emerged from this space (and the irritating nature of the presenter who dripped condescension).

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/mar/11/science-fiction-war-of-the-books-worlds

But you do regret that the criticism of absence cannot be offered without the denigration of the present. Science fiction is not popular because literary fiction is elitist (or hard reading or pretentious): chose your accusation! It is popular on its own merits and values (many of which it shares with other genres simply as good literature).

I noticed this as I was completing Ursula Le Guin's 'The Other Wind', a novel in her Earthsea series, most definitely fantasy genre - dragons, sorcerers, spells and princesses - and written with children in mind (and like all such good literature readable by adults to great profit).

She does make the point; however, here, by any standards, is a great writer who writes with lyrical grace, accessibility and abiding intelligence. She addresses questions political, social and spiritual through crafted narratives that embody real, complex characters.  She writes both for adults and children mostly, though not exclusively, in genres that can be described as 'science fiction' and 'fantasy'. She writes novels and short stories, and is a gifted essayist.

And yet she is 'parked' in her genre - scan the bookshelves of a Barnes & Noble or a Waterstones and she is confined to a particular set of shelves, separated out from the 'mainstream' fiction.  Imagining her winning an award for her fiction that is not 'confined' to genre is inconceivable. We have made barriers for our minds.

I found myself wondering when these barriers were erected after all another author treated in the same 'Guardian' is H.G. Wells undoubtedly one of the greatest of science fiction writers but clearly not one who inhabited a ghetto and not only because his works straddle many forms. 

In Jonathan Rose's magisterial 'The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class', he demarcates a growing separation, shaped by modernism, that as education advanced, and the working class consciously assimilated the works the elite consumed, serious literature retreated behind experiment and a literary critical canon that made it doubly difficult to assimilate. A brief moment of a commonly assimilated culture (of which Wells would be an exemplar) has broken up and we sit peering out of our genres rather than recognizing common strands of values.

Meanwhile, back on (or in) Earthsea, it is a beautiful novel (and one written for children that has no children with whom to identify. Guin imagines rightly that children can be engaged with a mythical world and its themes - here the meaning of death - without any need to make it 'lighter' or 'more intelligible'). Guin continues fashioning a world (and its attendant myths) with a resolute hand.

Here is a powerful myth built around alternate visions of death - life and death as cyclical and built into the rhythms of nature - a positive vision of reincarnation - and expression of common unity. The other vision is of a life of power in this life (and control) that is compensated for by a spectral habitation in the 'afterlife' where spectral en-souled bodies live separate lives in a fixed and grey landscape, akin to Hades. There is, I think,  here too, an artful mocking of monotheistic images of heaven. Does not a lack of mutual engagement and solitary attending to a vision of God disintegrate into a lack of all shared expression, a peculiar lifelessness? There is undoubtedly a spirited attack on dualistic visions of the world that devalue any part of any possible cycle. Likewise in offering the possibility of different outcomes to answer what follows life, she offers a rich pluralistic universe where competing stories exhibit different value choices.

The world is plastic (as Plato argued): our epistemology (the kind of world we see) is conditioned by what we value. Adam and Eve chose the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and exchanged paradise for a world of sweated work.


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