This year I graduated with an MA in Writing and Literature. Throughout, the emphasis in the writing components was upon ‘literature’. We could only use aspects of genre or sneak them sideways into our short stories or essays.
However, I’m over artificially constructed barriers. Surely there is nothing unliterary with the works of China Mieville or Ursula Le Guin, for example? They explore big ideas in rich vivid language and both care about plot, meaning and character. They say as much about our current world as Kafka did or Etgar Keret does. And it is timely, given Le Guin’s recent speech:
Back in the Day
In high school, the town library was also the school library. It stocked every Isaac Asimov novel, which I read. And I read the Riftwar Saga, some of the endless Dragonlance series, and every Tolkien publication (current at the time) in beautiful, but unloved hard bound tomes. It featured Mrs Smith, who every year lent me the new award-winning children’s books as they came in for me to appreciate. Thanks Mrs Smith! I still do. The library also hosted author visits and held art exhibitions – I particularly recall a calligraphy one. My point is during my youth I read widely: from Joan Aiken to Edgar Allan Poe. Some books were full of ideas, other works were description heavy, and others were just poetic reveries. I barely remember any of the Asimov, for instance, but Castle of Dark by Tanith Lee I recall very well (and have a copy in a box under the stairs).
The point is there are some fabulous writers who turn out lovely stories that are also science fiction or fantasy, and/or also for the YA market, but are also very definitely literary. Lee is in this category. Then there is Asimov. Interesting ideas (something, something robots and their rules about not killing), but nothing stands out particularly about his prose.
It’s time for academics to end their war on genre, based on assumptions that these authors don’t care about language as much as they do for ideas. A recent Guardian article about science fiction novels vs video games prompted me to think that it’s time for academics to accept that most of our contemporary entertainment revolves around high concept, immersive worlds. Why should I devote so much time understanding Kafka, when the likes of Cory Doctorow and Mieville and JK Rowling or Traci Harding earn a living and contribute to the world of ideas in a way Kafka never actually achieved or even imagined?
It’s not that I’m all about the money, but a literary best seller is about 5,000 plus copies. Some authors in genre fiction have sales in the millions.
It would be great if literary prose sold millions and authors like Drusilla Modjeska were heralded in parades like footballers on grand final day. It would be interesting to debate whether a divide between popular and high culture still exists (if it ever did), or if it’s all just culture, floating in a fractured soup of info-entertainment humans partake in or ignore on a global scale.
Very little time during my course was spent on the new world order in publishing. Students each researched a topic and delivered a class, but it would have been more valuable to hear from a range of industry experts. I’m catching this up now in a short course I won through entering a flash fiction competition through if:book Australia at the Qld Writers Centre. This group focus on experimental prose and digital literature. Go them for achieving some of what I imagined our universities to be attempting.
Perhaps, the fact that my course was not so interested in digital literature, despite being located in a university that prides itself for its technology, is more to do with the staff. Either they are heading for retirement, or casual with no power to introduce change, or early or mid-career academics with too much at stake trying to publish or perish to have the time to look at their students, necks craned over their smartphones and tablets.
(singing) what about me…
When I attended the 68th World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne in 2010 I was struck by the enthusiasm and friendliness of readers. They respected the authors and artists, and equally the authors and artists were glad to be there. It was joyous and serious. I learned a lot. And it’s not even that I write much SF, or even read much current SF. I have a pile of Mieville to attempt and have only just started reading a John Scalzi novel, mainly because of that event. And I want to go back and find more Ursula Le Guin (because what I recall most are her essays on writing), or finish the Harding Ancient Future series, . But 2010 started me thinking that there are possibilities in such a community, because I see the ‘literary’ world as smaller and bleaker and more insular, at least in Australia. I keep sending stories and entering competitions, but so far nada.
If all this means anything, it’s that perhaps I should focus more on SF and leave behind the high art ambitions for ‘literariness’. Or somehow combine them to be equally ignored by genre and literary publishers:) Or maybe I will change my name Ian (M) Banks style and attempt both. We’ll see.