Ahem! Ahum! Ahhhrrrllllccchhhh! Hm-hmm Hcccchhhhm!

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If you can't get enough science fiction-related excogitation today, and you're not yet ready to join the Cult of Admiral Piett (the ruthless but strangely likeable Imperial Fleet officer played in a record-setting two Star Wars films by Ken Russell regular Kenneth Colley), you will certainly be encouraged by this snippet from a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go by highly regarded (or is that mildly retarded?) book critic James Wood:

Works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find, and are rightly to be treasured — Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark" comes to mind, and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and some of Karel Capek's stories. And just as one is triumphantly sizing up this thin elite, one thinks correctively of that great fantasist Kafka, or even of Beckett, two writers whose impress can be felt, perhaps surprisingly, on Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. And how about Borges, who so admired Wells? Or Gogol's "The Nose"? Or The Double? Or Lord of the Flies? A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself…

Given that Ishiguro's new novel is explicitly about cloning, that it is, in effect, a science fiction set in the present day, and that the odds against success in this mode are bullyingly stacked, his success in writing a novel that is at once speculative, experimental, and humanly moving is almost miraculous.

Indeed, one wonders what's really on the embarrassingly fawned-upon critic's mind with that line about "bullyingly stacked."

Why is this encouraging? Because in an era of universal hipness and widely distributed self-awareness, it's heartening to see somebody who still thinks he's impressing people when he does this kind of pompous throat-clearing. You could, of course, take him to task for a view of literature in which the works of Philip K. Dick, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and maybe a few other books by H.G. Wells (I hear he has a few good ones) all fail to measure up as literature. You might also savor that precious "some of" that modifies "Karel Capek's stories." (Even in praise, Wood is never less than judiciously measured.)

But why bother? The real question is, on what fucking planet does this kind of dismissal of a literary genre still impress anybody? And why are there so few people who recognize James Wood for the utter and obvious fake he is? At any rate, it's good to know this kind of flimflammery is still possible.

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  1. On the other hand, he was great in Videodrome.

  2. Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” Trilogy.

    Edgar Allan Poe.

    E.T.A. Hoffman.

    James Branch Cabell’s “Jurgen”.

    Homer and Virgil

    Shakespeare (“Midsummer Night’s Dream”)

    Italo Calvino and Marquez.

    Kurt Vonnegut.

  3. Tim, you only linked to Admiral Piett’s fanclub so you could get more people to join, hence giving you promotions, didn’t you?

    Here’s another great SF writer: Stanislaw Lem

  4. If you’re tallying up a list of great sf novels, don’t forget Philip K. Dick’s lost collaboration with Anne McCaffrey.

  5. Jesse – is that for real, or are you joshin’ us?

  6. You’re a funny man, Walker. Genuinely.

  7. Tim, you only linked to Admiral Piett’s fanclub so you could get more people to join, hence giving you promotions, didn’t you?

    Hey, instead of questioning my motives, why aren’t you exploring some of the many ways you can do good work with the Piett fan club, increase your annual income, and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it! If you’re ready for a brighter future, the Piett fan club is for you! You’ll have to get ten members to join the network, and it may be up to 18 months before you see results, but once the profits start rolling in, you won’t believe it! Before I joined Piett, my self-esteem was in the dumps. I was a typical “fat boy,” shy around women and uncomfortable with who I was. Since joining Piett, I’ve lost 50 pounds and become financially independent! I’ve made some amazing new friends among the club members. In the fall, I met the girl of my dreams, and we’re going to be married this year! But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself! Bet on Piett!

  8. Lowdog: Joshing, though the wags at Revolution SF originally posted that in their “news” section, rather than “humor,” just to see how many people they could fool.

  9. I just finished ‘the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’ by Philip K Dick, and have to say anyone who denies the brilliance of this author is off base. I hadn’t dipped my toes in the intimidating ‘sci-fi/fantasy’ section in many years, now I need more! MORE!

  10. Tim Cavanaugh,

    Thanks, I’ll just keep humping the floor.

  11. I don’t know anything about this James Wood character, but I suspect that entertaining the notion that he’s going to leave behind his old-school critical ideas about any kind of genre fiction is about the same as expecting Fred Mertz is going to light up a joint next time you watch I Love Lucy.

    Down that road lies madness.

  12. De gustibus non est disputandum, dear Tim. Wood is a bit more than mildly retarded but so is every other poor schmuck who bothers their head about literature.

  13. Note how Wood slags off Tom Wolfe for writing books “with a lot of plot.” SF and Fantasy, along with detective/crime fiction, and even the western, tend to be plot-heavy. My decades-old reflex about contemporary “literary” fiction, that any given volume chosen at random will be written by an English professor about the inner life of an English professor, struggling with a bad marriage and boinking a grad student, may be its own kind of prejudice, but sterotypes often have a basis in fact.

    There’s also that curious phenomenon in publishing, that if a genre writer is popular enough he “breaks out” into the mainstream, and of a sudden his books are reshelved in the bookstores, and switched from the genre imprint to the house’s main catalog. (Examples: Stephen King , Neal Stephenson, even Ray Bradbury.) If everytime someone from the ghetto succeeds you redraw the boundaries, or find them a nice house in the best part of town, by definition the genres won’t produce work of worth.

    I’m going to steal somebody else’s sig:

    The head of the English department asked me, “Do you read any crap?”
    And I said, no, in that insufferable high school manner, no doubt.
    And he said, “You need to read more crap.”
    The point was to read more for entertainment and for fun.
    – Gail Simone

    Kevin

  14. I recently read ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ and I really liked it, I’m not really sure if that adds to the discussion, just thought I’d throw that out there

  15. The smartest discussion of this topic is in the writings of Samuel R. Delany (Silent Interviews is a good place to start). He points to the folly of making the comparison in the first place.

  16. So, has Ishiguro been influenced by Niven’s Gil Hamilton stories?

    carabinieri linked to a blog where someone thinks that a book dealing with organlegging, set in an alternate past, is somehow not science fiction. I guess one can always try to call a table a chair, if it makes one feel better.

    Kevin

  17. Haruki Murakami?

    Spider Robinson?

    Philip K. Dick?

    And what’s that guy’s name…oh, yeah…

    Robert Fucking Heinlein?

  18. I’m still trying to figure out what “succeed in literary terms” means.

  19. coupla items here. first, this blog consistently sports the best discussion post subtitles around.

    second, Canticle for Leibowitz was an outlandish novel. highly enjoyable. the notion of that monk carrying the shopping list off to rome only to be slaughtered needlessly by some mutants…well, gee.

    believe my man (walter miller? can’t remember) killed hisself after writing that one

  20. “I’m still trying to figure out what “succeed in literary terms” means.”

    My guess – anything that is not “escapist”, but deals with contemporary human problems in some way. Thus, Orwell and Huxley would be considered successful in “literary terms” because their works comment on modern society via a science fictional plot. Same with Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”, where the devil and his retinue come to Moscow. Same with “A Handmaid’s Tale” (I remember the resistance I encountred when I tried to convince someone that was science fiction).

    This is why H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine” would count as having “literary merit”, because it comments on problems of class.

  21. “I’m still trying to figure out what “succeed in literary terms” means.”

    I like Mr. Borok’s take on the phrase, but I think there’s another definition.

    A book succeeds in literary terms when the reader is able to appreciate the quality of the writing itself. If you’ve ever watched a master craftsman at work – a wood carver or stonemason for example – there’s a certain aesthetic pleasure in watching the labor itself. Even if the lump of wood still just looks like a lump of wood, the grace and expertise with which a true expert can work it is enjoyable. So it’s not just that the ultimate shape of the sculpture is pleasing, but the process of watching the wood become that shape.

    The same is true of quality works of literature – you can appreciate not just the characters, plot, tone, and whatnot, but also the quality of the author’s use of the written word to bring these things into being.

  22. Canticle for Lebowitz is a damn fine book. Very, very good and remarkably enough, recommended to me by a Benedictine monk.

    For those interested in academic examinations of science fiction as literature (screw those snobby lit critics) check these out:

    http://www.tulane.edu/~jhouston/scifi/spring2004syllabus.htm

    http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/agordon/IDH98.HTM

    http://caxton.stockton.edu/files/ScienceFiction/syllabus.htm

    http://academics.vmi.edu/gen_ed/SYLLABUS_FOR_HN_368.htm

    http://helios.hampshire.edu/lspector/courses/cogscifi-syllabus.html

    And so on. Crazy P. Dick seems a regular staple in all of these courses. And deservedly so.

  23. I’m still trying to figure out what “succeed in literary terms” means.

    Mark and Joe suggest a worthy pair of standards, but honestly, you don’t have to invoke Shakespeare – there are metric tons of plain old SF novels published over the mere last century that meet either or both standard. I’d even add a third, “That address the human and moral meanings and implications of ideas and beliefs,” which is related but orthogonal to Mark’s.

    But I don’t think any of those three standards are what James Wood is talking about. I think his standard is simply, “can mention to other literary critics without him/her sniffing too loudly”.

  24. I’m an English major and I always figured – I did my time, and I’m now excused from reading “serious” literature ever again. I mostly stick to the genres – SF, fantasy, mystery – and for some reason, I guess because I’m a literature major and a librarian, people are always surprised at that.

    I like good old fashioned space opera – Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is probably my favorite SF of all, at least so far.

    But Terry Pratchett is the master. Of everything.

  25. Vernon Vinge for the best aliens races ever, and Brion for a rollicking good time during the novels of his first two decades of writing.

  26. whoops, I mean Brin

  27. Indeed, one wonders what’s really on the embarrassingly fawned-upon critic’s mind with that line about “bullyingly stacked.”

    The net profit for the Star Wars films and “novels”, maybe?

    And why are there so few people who recognize James Wood for the utter and obvious fake he is?

    A fake what? A fake reviewer of mostly Anglo-American fiction? A fake reviewer? A fake human being? James Wood, sock puppet? Say it ain’t so!

    Note that the reviewer did indeed cite The Time Machine as an example of successful science fiction, and even helpfully summarized his criteria for sucessful science fiction and fantasy in the very first paragraph:

    A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.

    You could have explained how this was vague or incorrect, but, nooooooo…you trotted out the f-word as if would impress anyone outside of Holden Caufield. You might as well have written, “Oh, poopie! How dare that nasty old fart make general judgments of taste on a literary genre! We’ll show him, won’t we, Mr. Fiddlesticks?”

    “Arf, arf!”

    (I also note that your link to someone “recognize(s) James Wood for the utter and obvious fake he is” is actually a general critique of Wood’s ideas about comedy, and the author even agrees with Wood about Tom Wolfe! You fake!)

  28. A fake what? A fake reviewer of mostly Anglo-American fiction? A fake reviewer? A fake human being? James Wood, sock puppet? Say it ain’t so!

    A literary fake who trots out hoary prejudices in an attempt to corner the market for a young-fogey book reviewer. A young fogey is a perfectly legitimate thing to be. Wood’s problem is that he thinks a gesture as broad as dismissing a popular genre will make him sound like T.S. Eliot, when in fact it just makes him sound like Paxton Whitehead. It’s snobbery by somebody who hasn’t earned the right to be a snob.

    Note that the reviewer did indeed cite The Time Machine as an example of successful science fiction, and even helpfully summarized his criteria for sucessful science fiction and fantasy in the very first paragraph:

    If a reviewer can only cite the handful of works Wood does as successful examples of the fantasy/science fiction genre, the problem is with the reviewer, not the genre. I provided a very small number of additional examples. Other commenters have provided many more. If Wood can’t consider any of these works successful literature, he’s the one who has to make the case against them.

    “Oh, poopie! How dare that nasty old fart make general judgments of taste on a literary genre! We’ll show him, won’t we, Mr. Fiddlesticks?”

    Yes, that’s exactly right. Making “general judgments of taste on a literary genre” shows only that Wood has a closed mind (and hasn’t read as much as he wants us to think he has).

    (I also note that your link to someone “recognize(s) James Wood for the utter and obvious fake he is” is actually a general critique of Wood’s ideas about comedy, and the author even agrees with Wood about Tom Wolfe! You fake!)

    Maybe that particular blogger doesn’t consider Wood to be as empty a vessel as I do (though that post was one of several where he takes a swipe at him), but since this is one of the few examples of any kind that I can find of somebody giving anything less than fulsome, genuflecting praise to Wood, I think it demonstrates the point that few people are willing to say anything critical about Wood-I guess it’s too much to hope that somebody else might acknowledge that he is a total fraud.

    And what’s wrong with using the F word? I thought we were all at ease around here.

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