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?

24 Thoughts on “China Mieville vs The Man Booker: Him and whose army?

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  2. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) on 17 October, 2010 at 8:34 pm said:

    Fascinating post! I am a big fan of the Booker prize, but I would love to see books from all genres of literature have a chance of making the Booker short list. I have to agree that The City and The City should have at least made the Booker long list last year, if not the short list. Its originality and quality of writing should have breezed it onto the list. Was it submitted by its publishers?

    I think that literary qualities can be found in all genres of writing and it is a shame that it is often hard to find these gems once you step out of the area of “literary fiction”.

    If Mieville is capable of writing another book as good as TC&TC then I wish him all the best in his campaign to win the Booker.

  3. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) on 17 October, 2010 at 8:35 pm said:

    Sorry – meant to say that I’d love to see books from all genres of literature have a chance of winning the Booker prize – not just making the short list!

  4. Sarah (bookworm blues) on 17 October, 2010 at 9:31 pm said:

    I really didn’t know much about the Booker prize until this post. Of course I had heard of it before, but not much else. This is a thought provoking post. I appreciate the information you’ve dropped here. I have to agree with Jackie, I think all genres have impressive literary capabilities. If China Mieville can make the short list, more power to him.

  5. marc nash on 17 October, 2010 at 9:41 pm said:

    As a writer of the dread category litfic, I have a good degree of sympathy with your argument. The failing is in any kind of genre labelling, but this seems an imperative of the marketing departments in publishing houses. If we just treated it all as either fiction or non-fiction and left it at that, rather than these ever refined genres and sub-genres as we try and conjure up ways of selling to a declining readership, then the issue of exclusivity of awards would not arise. Genre categorisation diminishes any work. William Burroughs was not a writer of SciFi or even Westerns, yet drew heavily on both for his rich canvases. Faulkner and Joyce weren’t writing literary fiction, though both made radical experiments with the novel form.

    Having said that, in my supposed non-genre of litfic, it always surprises me just how little engagement its writers have with the world of ideas. We are supposedly writing about human beings and emotions, but the canvas always seems to remain portrait-sized rather that landscape. Tom Mccarthy’s Booker novel “C” was dripping with ideas and was resolutely delving into the technological and scientific advances of a period that coincided with modernism.

    I’m looking forward to reading Mieville, I’ve only heard glowing reports of his writing.

    Thanks for an excellent post.

    marc nash

  6. 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?

    Well there’s M. John Harrison and Hal Duncan, if he writes another two books like Ink and Vellum. There’s also Graham Joyce and his new book “The Silent Land” which isn’t exactly fantasy, but probably sits in the middle zone between litfic and fantasy.

    Hmm that’s not a lot really, is it?

    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’?

    Because fandom at large doesn’t actually care or want that.

    The litmus test for if people seriously want genre fiction to be seriously put forward for the Booker prize is if they themselves are willing to read the books currently nominated. If they won’t then the reason they want genre books nominated is because they want their books nominated for yet another prize.

  7. Matt Read on 18 October, 2010 at 11:39 am said:

    It was an interesting hour and made me think about my own snobbery and prejudices when it comes to my views on fiction. I probably read more ‘lit fic’ than anything else but do also dabble in sci fi (Mieville, Dick and Vonnegut mainly) but I did probably suffer from the snobbish notion that if a book is well written it rises above and beyond its genre and becomes literature.

    It was interesting to hear the speakers trying to come up with a definition of what seperates lit fic as a genre from other genres and I think they were beginning to touch on something towards the end, with Mullan’s assertion that writing good characters, should be the aim for all fiction writers and Mieville’s strong disagreement. That probably displayed the differences quite well in that lit fic tends to be far more character driven than plot or ideas driven, although of course there’s all sorts of blurring at the boundaries.

    With regards the Booker, I see it as a bit like the Oscars in that it seems to have quite a fixed idea of what sort of book it’s after, although purports to be all inclusive. With the limits placed on the number of books any publisher can submit, they are of course going to submit only those books they consider to fit the mould. If the whole thing was opened up and every book published that year was considered, we’d definitely get a more diverse long and short list.

  8. Kevmcveigh on 18 October, 2010 at 1:45 pm said:

    OK, first the controversial bit. Mieville’s The City & The City is a marvellous concept that fails because of teh author’s approach. Set up as it is, TC & TC cannot work. Therefore it was not, in my opinion, worthy of any of the awards it won.

    Following on from that, if we in the genre want to overcome the supposed prejudice we need to counter like with like. It was recently asserted that genre fiction outsells lit fic, but a) so what, that would make Meyer or Rowling the best authors around if that was the relevant criteria, and b) which genre fiction are we talking about. Meyer outsells Rushdie, but Amis outsells M J Harrison or John Crowley who appear to me to be better comparisons in terms of quality.
    There have over the years been several authors shortlisted for both Booker and Clarke, though possibly only Ishiguro for the same book. Others who i would consider possibles to follow this would include M John harrison, Chris Priest, Geoff Ryman, Gwyneth jones.

  9. Oh and maybe it’s time we stopped saying that Philip K Dick is the best Sf can offer. Any serious judge is going to laugh at the clumsy prose before ever reaching the ideas inside.

    • Alex C on 18 October, 2010 at 3:14 pm said:

      ‘Clumsy prose’ – it may seem dated and unfashionable to you, but PKD’s prose is otherwise fighting fit. He gets to the point and doesn’t waste time or words and on occasion is truly, breathtakingly moving – in a way that doesn’t suggest any pretension or artifice at all, either.

      Think maybe it’s time Lit Fic stopped championing the execrable works of Ian McEwan by the way, if we’re talking along these lines. I don’t think I can stomach another boring-as-sh*t but critically acclaimed novel about middle-class professionals in London who suffer a lifechanging (usually tragic) experience, sprinkled with a bit of token ‘highbrow’ commentary about history and society.

      • It’s not dated and unfashionable to me, its just clumsy. Parts of Dick’s novels read like they were badly translated into a foreign language then badly translated back again. Even good ones like Flow My Tears suffer from this.

        Indeed McEwan is not always as good as he is acclaimed to be either, but nor is he execrable. And more to the point he is no more typical of Lit Fic than Star Wars is typical of SF.

  10. Alex C on 18 October, 2010 at 2:58 pm said:

    Literature is a really spurious notion, used for divisive rather than inclusive purposes most of the time. One of the only worthwhile things that the enshrining of ‘literature’ promotes is experimentation with form, but apart from that the whole thing seems a flimsy construction at best.

    Most of the things that make a writer like China Mieville great are very genre: the beautifully purple prose, the fusion of SF & F ideas/archetypes/tropes cherrypicked from the very best of the last hundred years’ Weird fiction – he’s a Fantasy geek’s Fantasy author. I’ve no idea how I’d go about selling Perdido Street Station to a LitFic fan. I wouldn’t really suggest him for the Booker simply because he doesn’t play their game: he doesn’t sell out genre for mainstream kudos. He could if he wanted to – he’s a bloody brilliant writer. That’s very laudable really.

  11. Stu j allen on 18 October, 2010 at 3:10 pm said:

    I think booker need to refine there actual defination of fiction to lit ficition then this endless moaning would end you never heard ballard or attwood moan they didn;t win sci fi awards ,mieville has won them ,I think he should just get on and stop gripping about it ,genre fiction won’t ever domanite the booker as the judges tend to be drawn from the lit world unfortunately ,all the best stu

  12. Other eligible SpecFic writers who can write just as well as Booker nominees, besides China: M. John Harrison, Hal Duncan, Chris Priest, Ian McDonald, Gwyneth Jones, Graham Joyce, Geoff Ryman, Nalo Hopkinson, Justina Robson, Guy Gavriel Kay and, of course, Margaret Atwood. I’m not sure what William Gibson’s citizenship status is these days: he was born in the US but has lived in Canada for years. Wikipedia says he has dual citizenship so he’s probably eligible too. I’d add Garth Nix as well, but he suffers the double disadvantage of writing SpecFic for children (though Zafron and Rushdie have written fantasy for kids and no one marks them down because of it). And I have probably forgotten quite a few (sorry folks).

    Why are we not promoting these writers? Well who says we are not? They are all people who have been up for major SpecFic prizes. Lev Grossman is doing a fabulous job pushing good SpecFic writing. Michael Chabon has also done so great PR for us. The Guardian Book Blog has some serious material on SpecFic. My own efforts can be found here: http://www.salonfutura.net/.

    What I suspect you actually mean is, “why are UK publishers not promoting their better SpecFic writers as quality fiction, in particular why are they not submitting them to the Booker.” I can’t answer that one for you.

    • Adam Roberts on 18 October, 2010 at 7:28 pm said:

      Cheryl: my understanding is that publishers did submit SF novels to the Booker this year, after last year’s kerfuffle, including novels by at least some of the names you mention. The judges did not longlist any. Andrew Motion told the Guardian that the judges felt no urge to longlist certain genres because ‘there are plenty of prizes for crime and sci-fi’.

      • Aha! Progress. Nice to see they are getting with the programme.

        Motion’s comments are, of course, a clear indication that Booker people see LitFic as a genre separate from other genres.

        • Anonymous on 18 October, 2010 at 7:48 pm said:

          They just refuse to say it, which is the infuriating thing :D

          • The really ridiculous part is that people act like these ‘Literary Fiction’ authors are heirs to the illustrious literature lineage that includes Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, May Sinclair, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf… Hence you get people like McEwan actually making their way into academic syllabi. Er, sorry. No. We’re a long, long way into the age of mass-culture now. You’re merely buying products like everyone else. Stop convincing yourselves that you’re the only ones reading ‘literature’.

            The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, perhaps?

  13. With regards your closing remark – you’re right of course, we should stop bemoaning the state of Booker bias against SF and start lobbying for a Nobel prize! ;)

  14. By the way, the only ‘Lit Fic’ author that I have much time for is Rushdie, although I’m not sure what he thinks of being tarred with this rather dubious brush. I suppose this is because Rushdie has fun, has a sense of humour, and knows how to tell a compelling story.

    Otherwise, the Lit Fic establishment seem a very insular, stuffy lot. I find it hard to find any connection with these ‘purveyors of chutney and jam’, as Graham Joyce puts it, on any level. Precious little wonder that much of society seems to feel the same way, and would rather turn to Twilight or celeb autobiographies: their way is blocked by these grim, wizened gatekeepers who require obeiscence rather than offering a welcome. Literature remains a caged bird, poked and prodded by smug buffoons.

  15. Anonymous on 19 October, 2010 at 4:14 am said:

    Honestly, I just don’t care. The Booker and the Nobel Prize of Literature are both meaningless prizes in the long run. So you won it. That’s nice, but who cares? I don’t. A lot of people don’t. Most people probably never will. I don’t care if an SF novel wins it.

    But I’m also biased against all awards. I don’t really care about the Hugos or Nebulas either…

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