Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Some random thoughts

There has been some discussion in various blogs lately about reviewers who mainly discuss a book’s plot versus those who discuss the book’s other aspects. Include me in the group with Cheryl Morgan and Matt Cheney who prefer the latter. I consider plot-talk boring, and it actually tells me very little about whether I will enjoy reading a book or not. I prefer knowing about the characterization and theme. Is the book thought-provoking? How well does it illustrate its world-setting? Describe the actual writing style. What is the author’s intent in the book (assuming there is any intent besides pure entertainment)? There are so many more important aspects to a good novel than merely a plot which can be dismissed in a few terse lines. For me, endless paragraphs summarizing the plot serve no purpose in a review.

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There are people on both sides of the genre/literature border who try to erect walls separating the two areas. Without going into a long discussion which I have published elsewhere, I will state briefly that in my mind there is considerable overlap between genre and literature, and that overlap is subject to Sturgeon’s Law as much as pure genre and pure literature are. No matter how many literati look down their noses at sf, or how many genre fanatics turn their heads away from literature, it is impossible and foolish to stick a quality label on any work of fiction merely because of which area it falls into.

That being said, I read an interview this morning with Kazuo Ishiguro, award-winning literary author, whose newest novel Never Let Me Go falls squarely into the genre/lit overlap area. The interviewer annoyed me for two reasons, but Ishiguro himself delighted me. The interviewer started with a spoiler about the novel’s ending, then spent most of the interview discussing that spoiler. I was not sure whether the interviewer–whose name was not even on the interview–disdains “surprises” in fiction, or else got his/her own pleasures from the book and saw no need to protect those same pleasures for other readers. I would not mind if this interview took place in a literary journal, or a blog where the reader expects spoilers, but not blasted across the "Books" section of a major newspaper where it is likely to be encountered by many potential readers of the book who do not want their pleasure in it spoiled.

And then, halfway through the interview, the interviewer popped the big question: “Some reviews have called this book science fiction. What do you think of that label?” I gritted my teeth and plowed into Ishiguro’s response:

I don’t really know what you’d call this book, but I have nothing against science fiction. There is a pulp version of science fiction, but there are also many distinguished versions. Some of the greatest movies have been science fiction, like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” or Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Ironically, right beside the interview was a review of the new collection of essays and reviews by Margaret Atwood, who has previously hinted that science fiction is beneath her. In the middle of that article the reviewer mentions that her reviews in the book “include appreciations of the more interesting thriller writers, both contemporary and in the past, such as H. Rider Haggard and Elmore Leonard; a biographical musing on Dashiell Hammett, the prince of the mystery story; and reviews of some science fiction, notably that of Ursula K Le Guin.”

Does this mean that Atwood’s attitude is mellowing as her works increasingly cross the great divide? Ishiguro probably would approve of that. So do I.

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