Monthly Archives: July 2014

On reflection

Writer and arts project manager Irenosen Okojie had this to say in today’s Observer about the Booker Prize longlist:

“If the panel was more diverse, then perhaps the list would be more inclusive. Here’s a radical idea – next time, perhaps the panel could be made up of an equal number of men and women as well as a few non-white people.”

Reading her piece, which is forthright, well argued and above all passionate, it seems to me that she is right on just about every level. Because although many of the individual titles on the Booker longlist may have strong literary merit and a reason for being, there is without a doubt something irredeemably safe about the list as a whole. What is it saying, exactly, this list? Is it saying that literature is ring-fenced, the property and prerogative of a narrow, self-replicating caste not so much of reader but of judge?

More than careful consideration, literature needs passion. Literature should not be in a vitrine, it should be out there. We need books to be authentic, raw, interrogative, questing, angry.

I was brought up short by what Sergio de la Pava said in a recent interview about the process of submitting his manuscript (A Naked Singularity) to agents and publishers:

“Replies varied. Some said ‘not interested’, others said ‘sounds great, send it to me’. I think what I found most dispiriting was that quite a few people were into the concept of a book about criminal justice, but when confronted with something that was complicated and not easily quantifiable, that interest disappeared. It was humiliating. It was horrifying.”

I felt so angry on de la Pava’s behalf, that a writer of such obvious passion and fierce originality faced with such hidebound attitudes should almost have been put off writing altogether. A book is allowed to be entertainment. A book might even be allowed to be an elegant intellectual bagatelle – provided of course that you’re reasonably well established as a writer – but complex and difficult? Hell no.  Eimar McBride came up against almost identical obstacles here in the UK:

“I really don’t think they have tied everything up neatly. I’m not interested in irony and I’m not interested in clever. I’m interested in trying to dig out parts of human life that cannot be expressed in a straightforward way, that don’t fit neatly into the vocabulary and grammar that are available. To do that you have to make language do something else. I didn’t really know how to do it, I just tried and that’s what happened… I didn’t want to crush what I liked about the book, which was the rawness of it. The one idea that I brought the whole way through was that I wanted to try to give the reader a very different type of reading experience.”

Should this – a very different type of reading experience – not be precisely what the judges of the Booker Prize are looking for?

My initial enthusiasm for the 2014 Booker longlist stemmed mainly (as with this year’s Clarke) from relief, that at least there was some good stuff on it. The good stuff is still good stuff, but on reflection, I think that in terms of literary discomfort, this year’s Booker longlist is falling short. As a writer, I have always found my greatest strength in looking to those writers who have gone before me, who have marked out some of the ground I nurture the ambition to encroach upon. As Okojie suggests, it would be wonderful indeed to think of new writers from any and every background being able to look at the Booker longlist and see their own personal champion in amongst it, marking out the territory, providing that secret kick up the arse to get them moving. That can’t happen with this list, or at least not nearly as much or as widely as it should.

The only discomfort the 2014 list provides lies in its seeming exclusivity. What are we doing?? Things need to change. Let’s hope at the very least that next year’s judging panel comes closer to the ideal that Okojie suggests above.

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.

Women in SF #4

Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan

I love hearing about other people’s trades. We were in a cabinet maker’s workshop yesterday, hearing a young craftsman tell us about how his father, a former train mechanic, turned to working with wood when he was made redundant from the railways. I still remember an evening spent in a car park in Bedford, waiting for the AA to turn up after we inadvertently drove over a nail. The guy who dealt with our call-out changed the tyre in a matter of minutes, all the while recounting hair-raising stories of performing similar tasks on the hard shoulder of the M1 while huge juggernauts rushed past every ten seconds. I find specialism of any kind urgently compelling, and I could have listened to that AA mechanic all evening.

Knowing this, it won’t come as a surprise that I love books that feature work as a strong component. And the first section of Tricia Sullivan’s new YA novel Shadowboxer is all about work – the work of being a fighter. Jade Barrera is seventeen years old. She is a troubled teenager with a heavy baggage of personal and family problems. She is also a talented practitioner of mixed martial arts, just beginning to make her mark on the sport. When she lets her temper get the better of her (again), her trainer gives her an ultimatum: get smart or get out. He also offers her the chance to spend some time training in an authentic MMA gym in Thailand. Jade is given to understand that saying no to this opportunity is not an option.

I found the whole first third of the book spellbinding. A favourite novel of mine is Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit, large portions of which consist of little more than move-by-move descriptions of chess games, and I loved this initial section of Shadowboxer for much the same reason. Tricia Sullivan knows her MMA and her passion shows to wonderful effect. Jade herself is so well drawn that we enter her world with ease. Shadowboxer is being marketed as a YA novel but rich in detail and sophisticated in psychology as it is, I think this is a book that readers of any age would relate to.

The fantastical component is also strong. While she is in Thailand, Jade stumbles into a supernatural world of treachery and child trafficking, populated by human monsters and Buddhist deities. Her guide and confidante is Mya, a young Burmese girl who has been forcibly separated from her family and enslaved by Richard Fuller, a vile and corrupt individual who wishes to utilize Mya’s special talents for his own evil gain.

Mya’s sections are rich in imagic detail, chilling and beautiful and intensely felt. I actually wanted more of Mya, her story and background, more about what happened to her family and what brought her into contact with Richard Fuller. Of Fuller himself we learn less still, and if I have a criticism of Shadowboxer it is that the interleaving of the two stories – Mya’s and Jade’s – feels overly hurried. I think there is enough material here for Mya to have a book all to herself – and I suspect that readers (this one included) would have welcomed a measure of background information on the Himmapan Forest and its mythical beasts.

That being said, Shadowboxer is a very special book, partly because it feels so personal and so deeply felt, partly because of the very lovely quality of the writing. There is nothing artificial or cynical or manufactured about the art of Tricia Sullivan. What you find when you read her is originality, spontaneity, a deal of beauty and above all a spirit of enquiry that – truly – is what speculative fiction is all about.

Shadowboxer is published by Ravenstone/Solaris in October 2014.

We’re here!

The relocation has happened. The final few days leading up to it were pretty hectic, and the day of the move itself became fraught with problems when the guy choreographing our removals became convinced his truck wouldn’t fit down our road. Our stuff was so late arriving we had to settle the cats in the house and spend the night in a hotel. But unloading was successfully initiated early the following morning and we now have our hundred boxes of books safely awaiting shelving.

We are also online. We have spent our first days here painting our offices and the living room. We are eager to get the house into a functioning and comfortable state so that we can return to our various projects as soon as possible.

Our new house is an old schoolmaster’s cottage in a small village in North Devon. The surrounding landscape is unbelievably beautiful and I know it is going to take some time to assimilate it, to learn to be inside it. Both Chris and I have lived in Devon before – I studied and worked in Exeter for almost twenty years, and Chris lived at the western edge of Dartmoor for a couple of years in the 1980s – but this is a whole new place, unlike any in our previous experience.

So a lot of things are happening at the moment. One of those things is that as of the September issue (254) I’m going to be writing a column for Interzone. I’m extrememly excited about this, and hope the column will develop into a kind of ongoing enquiry into what SF is and where it is going.

Another piece of news to shout about is that The Race is now up for pre-order at the NewCon Press site. I have an ARC and it is beautiful. I have seen images of the limited hardback edition and that looks even nicer!

Hopefully we’ll be back to business as usual in the very near future.