My brain is still melting from seeing China Mieville and John Mullan battle it out on stage at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
If you don’t remember their opposing sides, though stalls might be a better analogy, basically it was the fact that a genre (that doesn’t hide itself) novel is never going to win the Booker as the Booker is a genre (litfic) prize all of its own and not a prize for the best novel of the year as it claims. This particular conversation was started after last years Booker didn’t include Kim Stanley Robinson Adam Roberts as pointed out by Kim Stanley Robertson in the guardian. And Mullan and Mieville both had their own reasons why they don’t think a genre book could at the minute win.
It would be an injustice to both to give a blow by blow account as both are far more eloquent in their arguments than I’ll be able to recapture here. I’m hoping that Niall Harrison will post his thoughts as he might be able to transcribe their arguments better than could anyway. I should have taken notes.
Instead what I wanted to do was look a few interesting points that bubbled up. Some are John’s, some are China’s, some mine and some are probably somewhere else’s.
We’d better start with looking at the Man Booker and what it stands for:
The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, first awarded in 1969, promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year.
So what can be entered?
What is eligible for the prize?
Any full-length novel, written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published in the United Kingdom for the first time in the year of the prize. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published.
But that isn’t really the whole story as there some interesting rules of entry:
a) United Kingdom publishers may enter up to two full-length novels, with scheduled publication dates between 1 October 2009 and 30 September 2010. In addition, any title by an author who has previously won the Booker or Man Booker prize, and any title by an author who has been shortlisted in the last ten years (ie since and including 2000) may be submitted.
d) Each publisher may also submit, by 31 March 2010, a list of up to five further titles. These should each be accompanied by a justification for the submission of not more than 250 words written and signed by the author’s editor. The judges will be required to call in no less than eight and no more than 12 of these titles.
I’m 99% sure they talking about imprints rather than publishing houses as that would limit it down lot. But it’s interesting that it is self-selective and self-limiting on both sides.
And then are the judges:
How are the judges chosen?
Following recommendations from the Advisory Committee, which includes an author (Maggie Fergusson, also Secretary of the Royal Society of Literature), two publishers (Richard Cable, Random House, and Nigel Newton, Bloomsbury), an agent (Derek Johns of A. P. Watt), two booksellers (Dominic Myers of Waterstones and Robert Topping of Topping and Co), a librarian (Jonathan Douglas), a literary editor (Peter Kemp, fiction editor of the Sunday Times), Fiammetta Rocco (the administrator of the Man Booker International Prize, who is also literary editor of The Economist), as well as representatives of the Man Group and Booker plc
The Advisory Committee is chaired by Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prizes, who is appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation. Every effort is made to achieve a balance between the judges of gender, articulacy and role. A judge is rarely enrolled a second time.
One way of looking at the set up it that is designed to filter and purify the process so everyone is considering the cream so they don’t waste their valuable time on books that are non-starters in the first place.
The problem is that the aim of the ‘finest fiction’ doesn’t sit with reality. They are the finest fiction of the books that the publishers think that the judges will likely to consider of ‘literary quality’ and it could be argued that books that self-define as genre are automatically excluded from being the finest anything.
Genre novels are rarely sold on their ‘literary’ credentials. They are sold on the ideas they explore, the characters, the setting, the plot but rarely on the qualities of the writing and those that do often refuse to self-define as genre no matter how much we try to embrace them (I think Attwood is wavering).
And I’m sure a list of genre writers could be created quite easily to prove the the quality writing can be found within the SFF and Crime rooms in Waterstones. But my issue is that do we want to have the amount of hot air that is often blown around the Man Booker in our field? And are the majority of genre books around able withstand the scrutiny they’ll get?
Now China Mieville is one of those rare genre writers (who his publisher puts out on an imprint that isn’t self-defining as a genre one) that could withstand the hot air and that’s why he can be safely held up to the litfic fires.
I’m not sure I care if a Science Fiction or Fantasy or Crime genred novel is longlisted for a prize that is designed in such a way to proactively exclude some of the best novels out there as Not the Booker proves regardless of genre.
The shame is that the Booker stamp is seen as an announcement that these are not only the types of novels that people should be reading but the novels that aren’t mentioned are somehow inferior.
This would be why China is leading the charge that genre books are no more inherently inferior than those that fall into some ‘non-genre’ litfic category. And if you were to put the best of ours against the best of theirs then it would be a fair and interesting fight. But the bias inherent in the system itself is unlikely to bring them together for anyone to find out.
It can be argued that genre readers and writers are much better read than those than are above the childish things that most genre novels concern themselves with. My inner child loves spaceships and monsters and is not complaining one bit. But when it comes to seriousness (as in subject matter as well as prose) it’s not the first thing that springs to mind when I hear a genre book mentioned. More often it’s what type of murder is it, what is the magic going to be like, I wonder what aliens we’ll see…
Those surface details are the elements that catch in minds of those people that see them as childish pursuits and it’s their own limitations that they can’t see them as vital elements in the exploration of how humanity could cope if some of these fixed things we live with everyday are allowed to be imaged as something else. But the depths of genre books varies hugely from puddles to deep oceans (as does every other category of novel).
I guess I’ve got couple of questions.
If China’s next book can get into the Man Booker shortlist who can we place today to stand behind him so if he falls we can present another with those literary qualities (in terms of finess of prose and ideas) that will withstand the hot-air inflation that goes on around Booker works?
And why are we geeks not filtering away those writers and promoting our finest to those who won’t be seen reading anything that isn’t adult or ‘serious’?
Oh and does it matter really if SF (or other genres) gets a place at the table?
Or have I used wasted 1300 words?