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Strange domains

M. John Harrison has a new Kindle Single out! It’s called ‘The 4th Domain’ and it’s fantastic. For me, it has a real feel of Course of the Heart about it – characters mired in their own disjuncture, deeply wrong goings on, a city on the slide towards inexorable decline.  This is a dark story of frayed edges and indeterminate conclusions. I loved it – it goes straight on to my ‘best of’ list for 2014 – and at only £1.53 on Kindle it would be ridiculous not to read it. You can buy it here.

And talking of sensible ways to spend your money this week, do please consider donating to the annual Strange Horizons fund drive. Strange Horizons continues to be one of the very best online SFF short fiction and review venues out there, and with its active commitment to increased diversity this magazine deserves every ounce of support you can give it. You can make your donation here. Every little helps!

Necessary drudgery

“Ninety years on from Virginia Woolf’s essay [Character in Fiction], the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.”

So writes Charles Boyle, founder and director of CB Editions (and publisher of Will Eaves’s Goldsmith’s-shortlisted novel The Absent Therapist). in an elegant and necessary blog post that speaks of the need some novelists feel to break away from traditional forms and assumptions about what a novel should be and to turn instead to a mode of expression that actually interests them.

I’ve found much to inspire me here, and at Charles’s blog generally. I’ve been making new reading lists, setting myself new goals in reading for the months ahead. As always when I’m making new discoveries, I find it profoundly exciting to realise how many good writers are out there, doing the kind of work that interests me.

All this feels very timely, because I’ve just started work on a new novel. Strikingly different from anything I’ve attempted before, it incorporates ideas and formal approaches I’ve felt increasingly drawn to but never quite dared try. It seems that’s about to change. I’m 12,000 words in already, just trying to get down a working first draft so I can get the basic drift of where it’s going.

The process feels very different from how it felt when I was drafting The Race. I can see this book’s outlines more clearly, and I know (more or less) how it ends. But that’s a long way ahead. For now it’s all about stretching my abilities to match the potential of the idea, which is daunting, but exciting. Mostly exciting.

Digging for gold

The shortlist for the Goldsmith’s Prize – inaugurated last year specifically for ‘fiction at its most novel’ – has just been announced:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin)

Interesting perhaps that one-third of the Goldsmith’s shortlist happens to overlap with the Booker’s – does this mean that the Booker is actively striving to include more innovative fictions in its choices, or simply that the shortlist reflects, as all jury-selected shortlists must, the individual proclivities of a set of judges? The latter, probably. I’m beginning to think that the only way of getting around this problem lies in greater clarification of what any given prize is actually for. The Goldsmith’s jury is actively looking for novels that are interested in some kind of innovation, whether it be in the language, the form, the approach, the subject matter or all the above – an advancement in the novel project, in other words. Or to put it more simply, the Goldsmith’s Prize is interested in writers who are ‘genuinely inventive’, who are engaged to some degree in literary experiment. The Booker, on the other hand, is vaguely in pursuit of ‘the best’. ‘Best’ is notoriously difficult to define – indeed it is a word that can only be defined subjectively. Hence the more muddled, rag-bag kind of shortlists we have come to expect from it.

It’s the same with the Clarke versus the Kitschies, incidentally. The Clarke shambles off in pursuit of ‘the best’ science fiction novel of the year, whilst the Kitschies encourages its judges – and its wider readership – to think about speculative novels that are ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining’. A more definitive brief gives the judges something concrete to focus on, and in the years since the award’s inception has given the readership an increasingly purposeful-looking set of shortlists to investigate.

I love the idea of the Goldsmith’s Prize, and I hope it will garner increasing critical and media attention in the coming years. So far as I’m concerned at least, this prize is already way ahead of the Booker in its attitudes and goals. And the one thing I notice immediately about this year’s Goldsmith’s shortlist is that all the books on it are of interest to me. Not just one or two, as with most prize shortlists, but all of them.

I note with interest that Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, passed over by both the Booker and the Bailey’s, is here, which is pleasing to see. Cusk is a writer who has aroused hostility, frequently of the most appallingly sexist kind, and I was fascinated earlier this summer by an interview in which Cusk attempted to analyse the source of this:

“I think it is because I’m not interested in the group, only in the individual. What happens is my message enters the conflicted person reading it who is half self, half society but does not know where one begins and the other ends. I light up that conflict and it makes people angry.”

I have not always been a fan of Cusk’s work, but what I have always admired, unstintingly, is her bravery: her refusal to compromise, her commitment to absolute honesty as a writer. Personally I think it’s this – her honesty, which is not so much confessional as forensic – that makes people uncomfortable. Especially men. And here we are, back to it: when we think of the kinds of words often used to describe Cusk’s writing and even Cusk herself – excoriating, ruthless, furious, lacerating, brutal, self-obsessed – we inevitably rub up against the dictum that female writers aren’t really supposed to be like this.  And nor are their books. It’s interesting to wonder if Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novelistic memoirs would have been half so popular with both critics and (male) readers had their author been not Karl, but Kari. Are men allowed to be more daring, more progressive, more outspoken as writers (think Hemingway, Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, Frey, Knausgaard, the list could go on forever) while those women who venture into similar territory (Plath, Sexton, Kavan, Frame, Zelda Fitzgerald) are only acceptable when there is a tragic and self-dooming aspect to their endeavour?

While male writers are encouraged to be innovative, outspoken, avant garde, are women writers still being told, either directly (through not having their books published) or indirectly (through an underhum of hostility in the press and in society at large) that they should stick to ‘women’s issues’ or shut the f**k up?

Is it harder to be a woman in the avant garde?

I overheard a fascinating conversation on Twitter the other day about women writers and the avant garde and how experimental or ‘cult’ writing is still largely seen by the industry as a male preserve. This led me in turn to a brilliant two-part essay by the writer Sam Mills (please do read this), examining the ways in which “cult female novelists are usually forgotten or ignored, whilst male cult authors, from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson, remain literary icons that are cherished by the public imagination.” Mills picks out the Women’s Prize for Fiction for particular censure, pointing out how although the prize has done plenty to promote ‘big themes’ in writing by women, it has still tended to shy away from writers who take a more experimental approach, whose work is not so readily assimilable by a mainstream audience:

“In recent years, whenever I have picked up a Women Fiction’s Prize winner, I have to come to expect a novel that will be brilliant but traditional. It seemed that the Women’s Fiction prize had settled into a pattern of celebrating our more conservative female writers and ignoring the avant-garde ones. This year, though, the revolution happened. Eimear McBride’s experimental A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, published by the very small press Galley Beggar after all the main publishing houses had turned it down, took the crown. That said, whilst the win is wonderful, I still fear it will be the exception rather than the norm, given the number of cult and avant-garde authors the prize has ignored over the years.”

Mills consolidates her argument in the second part of the essay, which shows (as mentioned above) how experimentalism in women’s writing has often been equated with madness. After reading Mills’s essay I took a look at the list of previous shortlistees for the Women’s Prize and was dismayed to see how right she is. It is a source of perennial disappointment to me that Nicola Barker is almost invariably passed over not only for the Booker, but for the Orange/Baileys Prize too. It’s not just Barker though. What about Helen Oyeyemi (how could Mr Fox not even have been longlisted)?  Janice Galloway? Scarlett Thomas? A. L. Kennedy? Even Jeanette Winterson, for goodness’ sake? And given that the Women’s Prize has allowed Americans in right from the start, it is inconceivable to me that neither Jennifer Egan nor Helen DeWitt has thus far made it on to the shortlist.

Even the Women’s Prize, it would seem, prefers to promote women as great storytellers rather than great thinkers. Whilst I would never argue that this problem is exclusive to women – persuading the industry that readers are open to fiction that does things other than ‘just’ telling a story is a devil’s bargain, whatever your gender – I think it is almost certainly harder for women writers who are perceived as ‘difficult’ in some way to get their work taken up and discussed in a manner befitting their literary and intellectual achievement. You only have to look back on the coverage of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries last year to see how quickly discussion of Catton’s masterpiece descended into remarks about her age, dress or appearance, barbed comments on the suitability of the zodiac as a formal template for a serious novel, or whether The Luminaries was in fact serious at all, as opposed to some sort of elaborate hoax, a tedious piece of nineteenth-century pastiche. Some of the press Catton received would have been laughable if it weren’t so shameful. “Male writers get asked what they think, women what they feel,” Catton affirmed in an interview for The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with writing a negative review (in fact literature would probably benefit from more of them) – it is the tone of derision that leaves one reeling. I don’t think there’s any mileage in pretending that any of this would have happened had Catton been a 27-year-old man.

2013 saw Canadian novelist and professor David Gilmour totally unapologetic about his exclusion of stories written by women from his university teaching schedule, the inference being that fiction by women could not possibly stand up to the kind of rigorous scrutiny Gilmour goes in for. This arrogant, almost cursory kind of sexism is a world away from the more hesitant, intricate soul-searching demonstrated by the British writer Jonathan Gibbs in a blog post he made this February, wondering why it is that he doesn’t read more women:

“Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.”

Gibbs is a writer of huge talent (please read him). It would appear that he is also a writer who genuinely wants to understand his attitudes, and is taking active steps to change his perceptions. Both Gilmour’s stance and Gibbs’s though share a tone of mistrust, the sense that whilst novels written by women might be all right for some people to read – other women, probably – they are by definition never going to be able to compete – philosophically, intellectually – with work created by men. Gilmour’s grudging admiration for Virginia Woolf carries with it the hidden subtext that Woolf is a fluke, a quantity of one. Gibbs’s grappling towards an understanding of his ‘instinctive’ preference for male writers for the thing that it is – cultural brainwashing – still cannot quite bring itself to fully acknowledge how bizarre it is that he is still tending towards a view of women writers that lumps us all together as one group, with specific ‘concerns’ and ways of writing that inevitably reveal themselves as female and therefore less durable, less serious.

How peculiar it would seem to these men, how blinkered, if I were to write a blog post explaining how my favourite writers – the writers I most looked up to – all happened to be female (Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Ali Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan) and that although I had read Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell and David Foster Wallace, I still found they didn’t really speak to my concerns.

As if the spectrum of ‘concerns’ and range of styles and approaches among male writers were not as diverse as exists among writers who happen to be female. Talking about ‘women writers’ in this way is as bizarre as automatically equating Dan Brown with Umberto Eco.

I would have thought that men who pride themselves on their intelligence and cultural refinement would feel a bit more uncomfortable in letting themselves be so readily prompted, guided and defined by a set of societal directives they would hotly deny allegiance to if presented to them in the abstract. “I don’t have a racist, sexist or homophobic bone in my body,” David Gilmour asserts, whilst still insisting the only writers he finds worthy of teaching are “guys – serious, heterosexual guys.”

It serves only to demonstrate the thoroughness of Gilmour’s brainwashing that he seems genuinely not to understand that he has a problem.

cover stories

I’ve just received previews of the cover art for the upcoming Spanish edition of Tejedora/Spin, the French edition of Stardust/Legendes de Ruby Castle, and the mass market French edition of Complications/The Silver Wind. I think they’re all simply stunning – all three briefs have been interpreted in beautifully original and striking ways, and I’m thrilled to have such wonderful artists working on my behalf – and I couldn’t resist sharing them with you here.

 

 

 

Who’s Bookered?

The 2014 Man Booker shortlist has just been announced:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

J – Howard Jacobson

The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee

How to Be Both – Ali Smith

At first sight, I would say a lot of horse-trading has been going on here. There seems no overall form to this shortlist, no statement, no ideology, no plan. It’s a mixed bag of the judges’ personal favourites. What it says more than anything else is: ‘Here are some books we liked – please take one.’ A bit like this year’s Clarke shortlist, in fact. Disappointing.

The only book I’m unequivocally delighted to see on this list is Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, and I hope it goes on to win. Ali Smith is one of the most important and interesting writers working today. She’s never afraid to experiment, but she’s never afraid to be readable, either. She’s interested in story, in delivering words that people want to read – but she’s also deeply immersed in literature, as a project, as a vocation, as an ongoing and evolving commitment. Go, Ali!

I’m disappointed but not entirely surprised to see David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks miss out on a shortlist place. I think it’s a book that would have split the jury down the middle, and thus it fell through the gap. I very much wanted to see it on the shortlist, for all kinds of reasons – but I didn’t think it should win. I intend to write more about why in the near future.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been one of my favourite books of the year so far – but I think Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World goes further and deeper and would have made more of an impact on this shortlist. The Blazing World is the kind of book you would find yourself wanting to read again and again and getting more from it each time, and I’m not sure that We Are All Completely… is. So Fowler’s inclusion is a win one, lose one situation for me.

I’ve not read Howard Jacobson’s J yet, but Chris has. He finished it just the other night and did not like it at all. I told him I’d read it to keep him company if it made the shortlist, and so that’s the book I’ll be tackling next. My guess is that I’m going to find it far more interesting to compare Mitchell’s approach to SFF with Jacobson’s than to bother with trying to pick the eventual winner from the actual Man Booker goodie bag. So it goes.

The Race is in the Box!

Exciting news! The guys over at Upcoming4me have just announced the first selection of titles to be included in their new annual ‘Book Box’ prize, a personal Year’s Best chosen from the books they’ve been reviewing over the past twelve months. It’s a fascinating list, and I’m delighted to see The Race in amongst it.  The winner will be announced this Friday.

Upcoming4me’s review of The Race is here, and the Story Behind The Race, a short piece I wrote detailing some of the inspirations behind the novel, is here.

Loncon and after

Well, we went to Loncon 3 and it was magnificent. The stats are now in, confirming the 2014 Worldcon as the biggest ever, but this in no way prevented it from being a friendly and spirited gathering with a surprisingly intimate feel. After the initial shock to the system (because it’s huge) the ExCel centre proved easy to navigate – much more so in fact than many of the smaller venues we have attended – and fun to explore. The facilities were excellent, the staff unfailingly helpful, the environment clean and tidy. The biggest shout-out though must go to the programme organisers, whose efforts in compiling a roster of events that genuinely did provide something for everyone must have been nothing short of Herculean. I would have needed a week or more to get to see and do everything I wanted to, but those panels I was able to attend, both as participant and spectator, were sure proof, if any were needed, of SF’s rude health as a genre. and the continuing and passionate sense of involvement felt by SF fans.

I would like to extend a massive personal thank you to everyone involved in making Loncon such a success and such an inspiring showcase for science fiction. I would also like to thank everyone who came to my book launch and my reading, who stopped me in the corridor to say hi, who shared time with us during those special few days. We had a fantastic time.

I came back to find this in my Inbox – the stunning artwork by Tara Bush that will be used to illustrate my story ‘Marielena’ in Interzone #254:

To say I’m pleased with this would be a rash understatement. The magazine will also feature the first in my new series of columns for Interzone. This is a whole new venture for me, and I’m excited to see how it pans out. I’m hoping to develop some arguments, talk about some books, and hopefully introduce some writers people may not have encountered before. So plenty to think about. At the moment and what with everything that’s been happening this summer I’m just relieved to have delivered the first column on time!

And another thing…

The Race is now available to order as a Kindle eBook! At just £2.59, I think that’s quite a bargain. There’s a generously sized free sample, too, so you can try before you buy.

The paperback edition is also up and available for pre-order at £12.99. There’ll be a link to the limited edition signed hardback very soon.

Over at Strange Horizons, Dan Hartland offers his thoughts on The Race in a review that is both articulate and deeply insightful:

“Allan is trying something rather unusual with The Race: a distancing novel about drawing in, a science fiction novel aware of its own artifice, a literary fiction impatient with mimesis.”

It is fascinating, discomfiting and rather wonderful to have one’s work subjected to such careful scrutiny. For anyone wanting to know what The Race is ‘about’, I would urge them to go and read Dan Hartland’s review – he explains things so much better than I do…

Launching The Race

Just to let everyone know that The Race will be launched at LonCon on Friday August 15th at 16.30 as part of the NewCon Press launch event. We will also be celebrating the release of Adam Roberts’s collection of essays and non-fiction Sibilant Fricative, the completely revised and expanded new edition of Chris Beckett’s first novel Marcher, and the brand new NewCon anthology Paradox.

I’ll also be reading an extract from The Race earlier the same day at 11.30, so if you can’t make the launch, do come along to the reading and say hello.

Meanwhile, the very first review of The Race has just gone live at Rising Shadow:

“The Race is a beautifully written, complex and absorbing debut novel that deserves to be read and praised. It’s an exceptionally compelling and original speculative fiction novel that will resonate among readers who enjoy reading literary speculative fiction and quality novels.”

Which is good to hear.

Booker’s Dozen

The longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

 

My initial impressions are that I am liking it quite a lot. I feel a little disappointed that there are not more women on the list – but the women that are there are fantastic. I never got around to blogging about how much I loved Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a book that succeeds in being original, moving and fiercely important all at once. I’m delighted also to see Booker recognition for Siri Hustvedt, compellingly drawn to this her most recent novel, and indeed The Blazing World is already on my Kindle, demanding to be read. (For those who want to find out more about it – and you should – do please read this very special review by Amal El-Mohtar here.) And as for Ali Smith, what can one say except that she’s one of the most inventive and original writers working in Britain today.

How could I not be excited about seeing David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks on the list? It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to all year in any case, and as Mitchell’s most SFnal work to date, this can only be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker. Richard Powers is another writer I admire hugely – for the bold reach of his intellectual ambition as a novelist, for his fascination with music (unlike so many, Powers can actually write about music in a way that feels real), his wholehearted willingness to adopt speculative ideas into his personal lexicon.

Howard Jacobson? Science fiction? Two concepts I would never previously have included in the same paragraph in a million years. Jacobson is a relentlessly clever writer – the fact that he clearly knows it is the piece of evidence that counts most heavily in the case against him. Still, it’s interesting that the Booker judges have selected another science fiction work and I’ll be eager to see what Jacobson has come up with.

I’ve not read Joshua Ferris at all yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has received especially favourable press. Again we see a nominally mainstream writer fencing around speculative ideas, with issues of identity theft and the double coming to prominence. I want to read this.

Paul Kingworth’s The Wake is notable for having been crowd-funded (it’s the only indie press title on this year’s longlist – as with the paucity of women writers, this seems a bit of a shame) and sounds like a Riddley Walker/Harvest mash-up. Fascinating.

Of the remaining longlistees, it’s nice to see Aussie Richard Flanagan up there – and he’s a Tasmanian to boot. Flanagan’s writing is always exemplary and I can’t see this being anything other than excellent.

The only novel I feel irrationally prejudiced against is David Nicholl’s Us. This is probably very wrong of me, but I can’t get my head past the warehouse-sized supermarket piles of One Day, or the gruesomely mawkish film adaptation of same, which qualified as my most finger-down-the-throat awful cinema-going experience of its given year. (It’s worse even than Richard Curtis’s About Time, and that’s saying something.) The brief plot summary in The Guardian’s longlist rundown describes Us thus: “Douglas Peterson faces life alone, as his son is about to leave for college, and his wife for good. But Douglas is devising a plan to use a family holiday around Europe to win back their love.” Heaven help us. I can’t help feeling there must be fifty titles more worthy of a place on the Booker longlist.

Still, every jury should be entitled to its moment of madness. Going by past performance, it’s in the nature of the game.

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