A Game of Pride and Prejudice

An interesting piece by Amanda Craig has appeared on the Telegraph website. The article, centered around the HBO television series of George R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones novels, joins the vast pile of opinion pieces addressing the debate ‘can fantasy fiction ever be any good’. Which is to say, should authors use their imagination or confine themselves to looking out the window and typing?

A Game of Thrones TV poster

These opinion pieces begin by stating the default premise, that fantasy fiction is beneath the consideration of the likely reader of the article. There is an implicit flattery – we’re too smart for this and we know it. Craig, however, is playing devil’s advocate, ‘How can yet another fantasy involving men with swords and bad hair, soft-porn style sex scenes and dragons possibly be acceptable to anyone over 14?’ (yet another? – the TV channels aren’t exactly flooded).

Such articles go on to laud a new (or new to the writer) example of fantasy, or horror, or science fiction that isn’t terrible. The author always writes as if finding a good example of genre fiction is an astonishing surprise, even though these articles are themselves part of a prolific chattering class subgenre – a continually required corrective to years of pride and prejudice.

As Craig says, having outlined a few plot elements of A Game of Thrones, ‘It may sound like Jacobean drama – and in fact, the scheming brother is played by Harry Lloyd, currently starring as the brother of the Duchess of Malfi in the Old Vic – but this is not what is generally understood as high culture.’

But…she continues… ‘over the past six months, HBO’s serialisation of Game of Thrones has become the literary world’s guilty secret.’

Describing A Game of Thrones as the literary world’s guilty secret is very revealing. The implication is, it’s good, but how can we admit it? We no longer discriminate by sex or race or religion. Today we keep our prejudices to the type of fiction we read and watch.

Craig continues, ‘I got onto it after John Lanchester, the distinguished novelist, told me he’d just finished watching it for the second time, and was feeling “bereft”, adding, “I think George R Martin is a seriously good writer who doesn’t get his literary due, entirely because he writes fantasy, which is somehow, to people who don’t read it, inherently ridiculous.”’

Here is the heart of the matter, ‘It takes real intellectual confidence to admit that fantasy at its best can be an art, because for much of the past century, it has been associated with escapist drivel. Hostility to The Lord of the Rings has been the default setting for generations of Oxford English graduates, still obliged to this day to study Beowulf thanks to Professor Tolkien.’

Does it take real intellectual confidence to stand up to a the pride and prejudices of a gang of intellectual bullies? Or does it take honesty; the honesty not to deny that which one knows is good? To ignore the bullies (default settings are meant to be changed) who run the literary establishment, the out-of-touch clique who have decided what is fit and proper to read, what should be scorned. The same bullies who sometimes laud writers for standing up to tyranny, for satirising and exposing the cruelties of power, then abuse their own power by attacking other writers for penning the wrong type of fiction. Bullies, bluff called, roll over and leave their victims alone. Sometimes, frightened children at heart, they overcome their fears and grow-up.

All fiction is ‘made up’. It is ‘imagined’. All fiction is fantasy. Once that is accepted then all forms of fiction have to be considered as sub-genres of fantasy. Literary fiction, the only sort of fiction allowed recognition by Craig’s Oxford English graduate Mafia, becomes one subgenre among many. It is the subgenre the rule of which is that fiction should strive to produce a facsimile of the real world. That’s all. Literary fiction doesn’t have a preordained, God-given right to consider itself superior to other genres which follow different precepts. There is not one genre to rule them all.

The prejudice against genre fiction makes it easy for academics and critics to dismiss whole swathes of writing without ever having to consider it. A useful escape in a world filled with far more fiction than anyone could read. It meanwhile permits acceptance of anything literary taste-makers may like  – it’s not really fantasy (or science fiction, or horror, or crime or romance), it can’t be, it’s good. This intellectual bigotry makes it possible to have it both ways. It justifies remaining lazily ignorant of vast areas of literature and art, while cherry-picking individual titles and boasting of discovering a pearls crafted for swine.

Craig, who is not one of these bigots, writes, ‘I myself enjoy good fantasy literature and film, but my husband and daughter find it intellectually repulsive: yet over the Easter Bank Holiday, we all became equally desperate to find out what happens next.’

As her husband and daughter may have learnt, the truth is not; ‘literary fiction good, genre fiction bad’, but that all fiction is fantasy, some good, some bad, some great, some execrable.

And that is a challenge to cast aside literary pride and prejudice and read a wider range of fiction. Great fiction. Whatever the genre.


something for the weekend

Editorial vigilance has taken the weekend off at my local paper – The Bournemouth Daily Echo. Page five has an advert for this book:
The Third Testicle cover

The same page has a small feature, as it were, headed Ball held to raise funds. Of course it might be down to a sub-editor with a sense of humour, but it certainly raised a smile.

Here is a promotional image for the same title. Doctor Who fans and haters alike may be particularly amused.

The Third Testicle promo

vampire century award

Dracula cover, 1902Twilight fans probably need not bother trying to lobby for their favourite, as The Horror Writers Association (HWA) is proud to announce it will present the Bram Stoker Vampire Novel of the Century Award at the Bram Stoker Awards Banquet in 2012. The Banquet will be held at the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City on 31 March 2012.

A jury chaired by Leslie S. Klinger and comprised of writers and editors James Dorr, Linda Addison, Ron Breznay and Jo Fletcher will endeavour to select the finest vampire novel published since Bram Stoker’s passing in the century 1912. Stoker, of course, wrote Dracula. Full details at the link above.

Meanwhile on a related note the Horror Writers Association blog has moved here.

Some notes on Christopher Priest’s The Islanders

Yesterday morning I received a signed copy of Christopher Priest’s latest book, The Islanders, direct from the author. This is Priest’s first book length fiction since the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning The Separation, and since the release of the film The Prestige, based on the author’s James Tait Black Memorial Prize winning novel of the same name. What follows are some spoiler-free notes towards a later review.

The Islanders, Christopher PriestIn the first 22 pages of The Islanders Christopher Priest uses the word ‘adjacent’ three times.

By some counts The Islanders is Christopher Priest’s ** book, if one includes works of non-fiction, chapbooks and works written under a pseudonym. Do we count chapbooks, small publications such as The Song of the Book? Does The Book on The Edge of Forever count? – an account of the non-publication of another book (Last Dangerous Visions) by another author which if it did exist would be an anthology of stories many other writers.

But even if we consider only Priest’s fiction it is still difficult to reach an agreed number. What of the two slightly different versions of the story collection Real Time World? Do we count one, or both? Or the different revised texts of the novel The Glamour – for which Priest also wrote another version as a BBC Radio play? Itself which exists in two versions, one running approximately 100 minutes, the other, containing exactly the same material but time compressed to fill a 90 minute broadcast slot.

The Islanders is Priest’s ** novel, if we count works written under a pseudonym. But which pseudonyms? It’s well known that Priest wrote the ‘book of the film’ of eXistenZ as John Luther Novak, but what about certain other books which have long been rumoured to have been the author’s work, but which Priest has always denied?

As Chaster Kammeston writes in his introduction to The Islanders, ‘I did not write this book, although there have already been rumours that I did.’ Christopher Priest, The Islanders back cover

Just as no one can be sure exactly how many islands there are in the world  – ‘There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.’ – no one can be sure how many books Christopher Priest has written. All we can affirm is that The Islanders is one of them.

The Islanders documents certain aspects of The Dream Archipelago, the central setting for Priest’s story collection The Dream Archipelago. The Dream Archipelago was of course location for half of what is perhaps Priest’s greatest novel, The Affirmation. The Islanders is not a sequel, it is perhaps not a novel in the conventional sense, but a geographical, historical, biographical gazetteer of a place which seemed an ‘alien’ world in The Affirmation, half of which was located in a world parallel with our own (in that it contained a country called England with a capital city called London), while the other half introduced us to a country called Faiandland with a capital city called Jethra and a previously unknown chain of islands spanning the entire girth of the planet.

In The Islanders Priest writes about the world which is home to The Dream Archipelago as if it were exactly as real as the world in which we live, of which so far he has made no mention.

In a year or two, if shelved in order of publication The Islanders will separate Priest’s previous novel, The Separation, from his next, to which it will be adjacent. That novel already has a title. It is called The Adjacent.


You can read my interview with Christopher Priest here.

Imaginings Anthology Series

This just in from Ian Whates at NewCon Press…

 NewCon Press is proud to announce an exciting new venture, Imaginings.  A series of short story collections (approximately 50,000 words); each volume will feature the work of a single selected author, bringing together the very best of that author’s previously published but uncollected short fiction, as chosen by the author themselves, plus original stories. Imaginings will be published at three or four month intervals. The first volume will appear January 2012. There will be a signed and numbered hardback edition limited to 100 or 125 copies, plus an e-book & kindle version.  No paperback edition. Each volume of Imaginings will feature generically similar cover design and layout (though with individual cover art), so that the books build into a credible series. The signed hardback editions of Imaginings will be available to buy via the NewCon Press website, priced at £19.99 (plus shipping, currently £2.50 per book within the UK). Or… Imaginings can be purchased via subscriptionThe advantages? Reduced price.  Two volumes: £38.00, three volumes: £55.00, four volumes: £72.00.

  • Shipping within the UK will be free (and discounted for overseas subscribers).
  • Subscribers will ‘buy’ a number within the limited edition run.  Every volume you receive will feature that number, which remains yours exclusively until the subscription lapses, at which point it will become available to others.
  • In addition to the hardback volume, subscribers will receive a free copy of the e-book.
  • Subscribers are guaranteed a copy of a high quality, very limited book which is likely to sell out rapidly and become highly collectable.

The first six authors to feature in Imaginings have already been selected.  The precise order of publication has yet to be determined, depending on a number of factors; not least the authors’ individual schedules and commitments.  Alphabetically, then, the first six authors to grace Imaginings with their finest work will be: Nina Allan Stephen Baxter Pat Cadigan Jon Courtenay Grimwood Tanith Lee Adam Roberts To subscribe and ensure you don’t miss out, contact Ian Whates at: finiang@aol.com

Fantasy Fiction Is Good For You

The Guardian reports that new research suggests reading fiction – even, shock, horror, fantasy fiction! – is good for you and society.

Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young conducted a study involving reactions to reading extracts from the Harry Potter and Twilight novels. In Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis they write: “The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment.” (Full article published in the journal Psychological Studies).

Or as Keith Oatley, professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto comments, “I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world.” He adds, “reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education. In an era when high-school and university subjects are evaluated economically, our results do have economic implications.”

Coming soon, Harry Potter and the Psychopathy of Bankers.