man booker

The Booker and the Bistro de Critique – Notes from New Sodom

Those Rocket Age Rhapsodies, Those Information Era Operas

“No SF novel ever won the Booker.”
Somebody, Somewhere, Somewhen

If’ you hang out long enough down in the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café, eventually you’ll hear this axiom, or an axiom like it, muttered with a certain tone of harumph, a petulance in proportion to the wounded pride. Maybe you’ll say it yourself, sullen in your sense of injustice, disregard; I know I have.

man booker award

And whenever it’s spoken, that truism will likely spark a little to-and-fro on the exclusion of SF from the modern canon. There is, after all, an absenting in the absence, an active excision; the ghetto of Genre is a territory of the abject, an enclosure for the refused, that paraliterary pulp exiled from Literature — despite the fact that literature means only that which has been written — delimited as Genre — despite the fact that every work of literature sits within some genre or other.

But the question is: What are we going to point to as the stuff that should have won the Booker, the works of SF that prove to the outside world how good SF can be? Looking at our heritage of Asimov, Bester, Clarke and so on, would any of it actually rate that laurel if the prize had existed back in the day? Of the writers working since 1969, the year the Booker was born, how many of them can we imagine on the shortlist? Dick? Ellison? Farmer? Gibson? Heinlein? I love the work of Philip K Dick — great ideas — but maybe the pills and booze had an impact on his prose because it just ain’t that sparkly. Ellison’s power was always as a short story writer. Farmer, Gibson, Heinlein… we can go through the alphabet, and here and there a few names might jump out, but even with my own nomination, as a disciple at the altar of Delany, I’d actually be pointing at works like DHALGREN or the Nevèrÿon books — works which will only invite the old, “Yes, but that’s not really SF,” from insiders and outsiders alike.

The questions is: Once we scrap the crap of badly-written adventure stories, techno-thrillers, thought-experiments — the sensationalist or intellectualist lettuce for the genre bunnies, all too often potboiled to pulp — just what novels do we have that deserve the Booker, what writers of the required level of literary merit that inarguably classify as SF?

The responses range from the blinkered to the blind, from the faith of those who’d argue Heinlein was as good as Hemingway to the heresy of those who’d argue William Burroughs was as much SF as Edgar Rice Burroughs. So the boundary debates begin. When we say SF do we mean Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Sci-Fi or what? Do we mean any weird-ass, experimentalist, non-mimetic mind-fuck novel which was sold as SF? If that mind-fuck novel wasn’t sold as SF but might have been, does it prove SF can cut it with the big boys if it wants to, or is it just proof that the label damns us to the literati, that SF won’t get the kudos if it doesn’t disclaim its nature, cough a phrase like speculative fiction up its sleeve? These are the questions that genre bunnies obsess over. (Clearly I’m included in that category.)

And from the boundary disputes come the land-grabs, the fingers pointed to claim everything from Orwell back to Wells and beyond, through Shelley and Swift to Shakespeare. From Huxley to Homer. It’s quite understandable when SF fans feel they’re expected to provide examples of SF with literary chops, works up to the quality of the “classics from the history of literature,” an over-riding taxonomic level that includes everything from THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH onwards. When you’re working on that scale, putting the David of a few decades of SF up against the Goliath of all acknowledged literary masterworks, well, David’s going to reach for a big-ass stone, even if he has to stretch pretty far. But this strategy only brings the argument down at the first hurdle, if one is facing some straw literati to whom these embryonic SF works are, at best, precursors to or influences upon the Genre of Science Fiction. Such fingerpointing says nothing for the works born in the modern era’s genre ghetto, those Rocket Age rhapsodies, those Information Era operas of futurology and fantasia.

And it’s all about them and a very contemporary action of canonisation by award. It’s all about the Booker and the Bistro de Critique where that’s something of a big deal.

From Huxley to Homer

We need to focus in then. What we forget in these debates driven by defensiveness is that the period from Huxley back to Homer is out of bounds anyway: if it’s a valid comparison we want, and precursors and influences are to be excluded for SF, since SF didn’t exist before Day Zero, we have to scratch all the classics from before Day Zero also; these are inadmissible as non-SF by the same logic; the taxonomic distinction didn’t exist. Where “literary fiction” is set against “genre fiction” both have burned their bridges to the past, set themselves as things of that so 20th Century dichotomy. Like the genre bunnies of Contemporary Realism have any more claim to Shelley, Swift or Shakespeare than us? Get real, realistas.

It is as if a Genre of Fantasy Drama had come into existence over the last decade or so — with ANGELS IN AMERICA, say, as its precursor, its prime influence. It would be absurd to ask fans of this idiom to provide examples measuring up to a millennia-long heritage of “literary drama” classics like PROMETHEUS BOUND. To expect them not to simply point at PROMETHEUS BOUND… or ANGELS IN AMERICA indeed. Still, in ten years of that commercial Genre maybe nothing would have won the Pulitzer. The bright lights, big bucks, Broadway productions might have garnered Tonys as they sold shitloads of tickets to punters looking for a little extra sparkle in their spectacle, but of course we’re talking largely commercial drama here, more CATS than THE CRUCIBLE. So no FD play ever won the Pulitzer, genre bunnies might mutter. No shit, the straw literati might say in return.

In the SF Café, as we kvetch about the latest longlist or laurel-winner, at some point, eventually, the underlying assumption that empowers our sense of grievance will surface: the certainty of SF’s unwarranted marginalisation. This lack of respect has nothing to do with merit, we’re sure, and everything to do with the prejudices of the prize-givers, the elitism of the literary establishment, those to whom “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” are entirely different entities… and never the twain shall meet. The ones who’d say, in that elsewhen, that neither ANGELS IN AMERICA nor PROMETHEUS BOUND should really be considered works of Fantasy Drama.

Weirdly, we buy into the idea that it’s all about the realism and unrealism; we buy into the divide that sets Contemporary Realism as the paragon of the literary, imagining that the non-mimetic is what the straw literati hate. We bemoan the dearth of imagination in this dreary stuff, the way the dreaded literary establishment reviles our strange fictions for the strangeness. Pah! Those mundanes think only kitchen-sink realism deserves respect! If an SF novel ever did win the Booker, we’re sure, those bastards at the Bistro de Critique would just say, well, that’s not SF. Poor us. Poor little genre bunnies.

Ah, but wait, someone might say. That was then and this is now. If from Huxley back to Homer is of no consequence here, the mere fifty or so years since then is hardly more than… a parochial school prize-giving. An end of term assembly at which — oh noes — the emo kid never gets to give a speech as dux. So fuck?

A paltry half-century of realism being the bees’ knees? All that proves is that the chic clique kids of the Bistro de Critique do actually change their tastes over time. So a certain label is out this season. That only makes it more likely that the flightiness of fashion will return us to that vast heritage stretching back from Huxley to Homer — to homunculi, to Hamlet’s spectral sire, to Yahoos and Houyhnhnm.

A Bastion of Intellectualism

Let’s take a step outside the ghetto of Genre entirely, take the underground a few dozen streets uptown and a score or so years into the future.

The Bistro de Critique sits in the uptown district of Literature, just round the corner from the Temple of Academia with its ivory towers and quiet cloisters. It’s been there for a long time, centuries rather than decades, a bastion of intellectualism. The arguments and affectations of its patrons down the years have formed the discourse through which the notion of a canon has been defined — this pantheon of recognised classics — amid the cocktail party chatter of book launches and literary festivals, the bluster and bile of reviews and scuttlebutt.

Fashions have come and gone in the Bistro de Critique. Rationalist and romanticist aesthetics have been adopted and abandoned, replaced by (post)modernist flavours of the month. In the 20th Century the Bistro de Critique was the stomping ground where philosophers of fiction formulated the systematic approaches of New Criticism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, et al., these Genres of thought constituting the literary establishment that’s always been the bugbear of the SF Café genre bunnies.

There is no conspiracy of malice, of course, and never has been, most of the slights and injustices we suffer born of ignorance more than intention. In our talk of literary elites we fabricate coteries of sophisticates, sneering and scheming, working magics over the middle-brow to sustain their power; but this is not how establishments work. The privilege and prejudice permeates the systems of articulation, the ideologies and the institutions, the Genres of thought. There are no individual enemies to point to as the templars of this literary establishment, no secret sect of scornful powermongers, but there is nonetheless an organisation in the system itself, an emergent enterprise with principles, strategies and tactics that include the negation and marginalisation of a certain class of fiction, the proletariat of pulp.

Or at least that used to be the case. This is the future, after all.

This is twenty years into tomorrow, and the Bistro de Critique has changed. A new critique has swept aside the Old Guard, declared an end to the Culture Wars, a critique we’ll call, in the spirit of futurological fancy, Dynamism. To sum it up in the crudest way possible, Dynamism is a critique focused on the suspension-of-disbelief as a base-line of balance in the reading experience, and on the disruption of that equilibrium as the fundamental and formative force within narrative. When we read, our suspension-of-disbelief is a pretense that the events recounted did happen, but what makes that reading an experience of narrative is when an event is introduced that fucks with this base-line modality, an event that should not, would not, maybe even could not happen. Taking its lead from Todorov’s theory of narrative equilibrium, expanding the notion of subjunctivity advanced by Delany in his essay, “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words”, Dynamism roots the very essence of fiction in the onward impetus born of the tensions such modalities constitute.

Comedy and tragedy can be understood as playing with — no, driven by — the modalities of should and would. The strange fiction genres are all about the could, while the “realist” genres predicate themselves on the absence of that strangeness — a denial that renders the latter inherently flattened in that dimension, incapable of the dynamics generated by such disruptions of credibility. More fool them. For sure, such flat fiction can be affectively engaging, supremely so, but like poetry stripped of metaphor, like a rock band playing unplugged, it has essentially limited itself. All it takes is an understanding of how narrative really works in terms of these modalities, and the straw literati’s scorn of the strange becomes a risible pretension, an intellectualism that is not at all as savvy as it postures.

In later columns I hope to expand on how that hypothetical critique might look, delve into the details of this so-called Dynamism, but for now let’s just take it as an imaginative conceit: that over the next twenty or so years, criticism actually comes to focus on the buttons pushed in narrative, on how a fiction is more than just some thick mimetic weft we trudge through, how it is powered by the warp of should not, would not, could not. Imagine that as this Dynamism repostulates narrative as a visceral rather than cerebral experience, it reinstates the sensational at the heart of reading, rejects the anodyne model of fiction as mere observation regurgitated and recombined. It overthrows the middle-class and middle-brow valuations and valorisations of an obsolete 20th century aesthetic that privileges faux reportage over honest figuration.

When this hypothetical Dynamism hit the Bistro de Critique, we must imagine, it shattered any illusion of a divide between Genre and Literature.

A List of the Most Laudable

It had to happen. For years, the distinctly literary approach of many writers in the ghetto wasn’t just inviting comparisons with their forebears and contemporaries in the uptown district of Literature; it was demanding it. A critic could hardly help but see the influence of Vladimir Nabokov in the work of Jeff VanderMeer, say, or of Franz Kafka in the work of Jeffrey Ford. The walls of the ghetto slowly weakened as writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathon Lethem tunneled under them to pass freely back and forth; and eventually those walls came crashing down, a brave new world emerging from the ruins, a world foreshadowed by the placement of Kelly Link’s MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS at #3 in Time Magazine’s Top Five Books of 2005, alongside Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and E.L. Doctorow. In this new day and age it was inevitable that deserving works of SF would finally catch the eyes of the literary establishment.

As far back as 2008, in fact, an article in the Times Online set out the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. It was the sort of utterly subjective list which says more about the people who put it together than anything else, but I recall it struck me as kind of interesting for that reason. If the Times doesn’t count as literary establishment, after all, what does? Whether we agree or disagree personally with the names on it, this is a list of the most laudable, not in the sense of the most objectively worthy, but in the sense of the most feasibly lauded, of those who the compilers feel secure in placing on their little pedestals.

In the Bistro de Critique that list might have passed without much notice, but I remember laying it out on the counter of the SF Café, and grinning to myself. Looking at this list, you see, you have a handful of poets:

1. Philip Larkin
4. Ted Hughes
23. Penelope Fitzgerald
31. Derek Walcott
36. Geoffrey Hill
39. George Mackay Brown
47. Alice Oswald
48. Benjamin Zephaniah

You also have a couple of non-fiction writers:

40. A. J. P. Taylor
41. Isaiah Berlin

You have a grand total of ten writers who have worked solely within the genre(s) of realism, contemporary or otherwise:

7. V. S. Naipaul
12. Iris Murdoch
20. Anthony Powell
21. Alan Sillitoe
25. Barbara Pym
30. John Fowles
33. Anita Brookner
37. Hanif Kureishi
45. Colin Thubron
46. Bruce Chatwin

You have two writers who’ve worked in the popular genre of the spy novel:

14. Ian Fleming
22. John Le Carré

Of the rest, well, we’ll separate out the writers who’ve played around with historical and prehistorical fiction, because while these could be seen as artificially constructed elsewhens comparable to those of fantasy or alternate history, they’re more exotic than fantastic, strictly speaking, and we wouldn’t want to push a point. So:

3. William Golding
26. Beryl Bainbridge
49. Rosemary Sutcliff

Then, however, you have a whole bunch of fiction writers, all of whom have, at some point in their career, written works which utilise the strange — SFnal or fantastic conceits, disruptions of credibility, the modality of could not happen. Some writers have worked with a sort of slipstream blend of naturalism and the unreal, some have only written one or two works utilising a speculative conceit of some description, and some are best described as magic realists (or even Magic Realists, if we want to consider the approach a closely-defineable, marketable category.) But more than a few have written SF, fantasy or horror — and in the outright Genre usages of those terms):

2. George Orwell
5. Doris Lessing
6. J. R. R. Tolkien
8. Muriel Spark
9. Kingsley Amis
10. Angela Carter
11. C. S. Lewis
13. Salman Rushdie
15. Jan Morris
16. Roald Dahl
17. Anthony Burgess
18. Mervyn Peake
19. Martin Amis
24. Philippa Pearce
27. J. G. Ballard
28. Alan Garner
29. Alasdair Gray
32. Kazuo Ishiguro
34. A. S. Byatt
35. Ian McEwan
38. Iain Banks
42. J. K. Rowling
43. Philip Pullman
44. Julian Barnes
50. Michael Moorcock

That’s twenty-five of the Times Online’s fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Which is to say fifty percent. As opposed to ten dyed-in-the-wool realists. Which is to say twenty percent, over that last half-century and a bit — where of all time periods we should expect to see the mimeticists privileged over purveyors of the strange, of the SFnal and the fantastic.

Ah, yes. I still remember thinking wryly of how this was at odds with the ghetto mentality of us genre bunnies: yeah, that damned mainstream with its literary establishment, always pissing on our genre cause they’re, like, mundanes, so boring, so banal. All they’ll ever take seriously is that dreary, dull, depressing Contemporary Realism stuff… Yeah!

Even as far back as 2008 the writing was on the wall, the names of twenty-five bona fide writers of strange fiction scribbled in black ink graffiti on a stall in the toilets of the Bistro de Critique. This was the shape of things to come.

The Last Realist

Depending on when this is posted, this year’s Booker may be just announced or just about to be. In the SF Café, I’m expecting some more of the same old same old, mutterings about the absence of “genre fiction” from the shortlist. But this is what’s happening right now in the Bistro de Critique:

In the Bistro de Critique, the Last Realist comes staggering out of that toilet stall, disheveled and haggard, eyes wild with visions of the future he’s a fugitive from, visions of geeks and freaks lauded for writing tales of singularities and superheroes, visions of the untermensch pouring out of the ghetto of Genre, storming the Bistro de Critique.

There’s a Reign of Terror coming! he cries. Well, a Reign of Horror, strictly speaking… and Fantasy, and that sodding freaking Science Fiction too. An Unholy Trinity of the Unreal. Oh, they don’t always call it that — they’re fucking sneaky that way — but it’s… it’s… genre fiction!

We just didn’t see it coming, he yammers. I mean, no SF novel ever won the Booker.

He looks down, kicks his heels.

I mean, OK, sure, Rushdie got the Booker of Bookers with MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, and maybe that’s not SF but it’s a work of fantasy, I guess. And, OK, sure, we teach Spenser and Milton, Shakespeare and Blake in the Temple of Academia. And, OK, sure, we always had a lot of time for Kathy Acker, Mikhail Bulgakov, Angela Carter, and… well, too many to mention, really.

He coughs nervously.

But that’s not the point. Thing is, the question was never whether any SF novel deserved to win the Booker, as much as it was whether any novel that deserved the Booker was really SF. Like, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN may be a work of fantasy, but it ain’t Fantasy, see? You and I know that; that’s literary fiction. Hell, even the genre bunnies got that; why else would they talk about “literary fantasy” or “literary SF”? As if those weren’t oxymorons!

He slumps in a chair now, head in hands.

It used to be so simple. We had them in their place with the whole “literary/genre” thing. Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, Blake — when they tried to co-opt the canon to their cause we just laughed, said they were just appropriating ancestors for a spurious validation. And as for Acker, Bulgakov and Carter, they aren’t genre writers, we said. If they aren’t generic, how can they be “genre”?

But everything changes, he tells the gathered literati. In the Bistro de Critique of twenty years into tomorrow, he’s now the only one left still scorning the grand claims of all the genre bunnies, insisting that it was the realism in the magic realism that made these works great, that MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN may be fantastical but it’s not really fantasy; that no SF novel will ever win the Booker, and for good reason; that THE ROAD winning the Pulitzer doesn’t count. Oh, but he should have seen it coming.

Am I too late? he says. What year is it? Have they given the fucking Nobel to Doris Lessing yet?

The Librarian’s Sad Smile

In a corner of the Bistro de Critique sits a spy — one of us. In another timestream just a step to the left, she might be a bookshop assistant arguing the merits of a counterfactual category of Combat Fiction. Here in this elsewhen, she’s a librarian with a taste for good SF, listening to the time traveler’s tale with wry interest, with a sad smile.

Oh, yeah, baby, she thinks. You should have known. Didn’t Moorcock get the Guardian Prize for one of the Cornelius books? And can’t we geeks and freaks happily claim the Cornelius Quartet as bona-fide, honest-to-God SF? Moorcock is ours, a Grand Master of the SFWA, no less. He’s written New Wave SF and Swords & Sorcery, and even Contemporary Realist novels like MOTHER LONDON that put your shit to shame, motherfucker. He’s a one-man goddamn emporium of literary experiments, but one thing we know for sure: he’s one of us, a genre bunny. And while Moorcock and others like him have published straight-up balls-to-the-wall pulp fiction, Moorcock and others like him have also created masterpieces that — to use the fucking tired old fucking phrase — transcend the genre.

To the librarian that phrase is articulated with an irony that inverts the implicit admission of limitations, revealing a deeper truth: that over twenty years ago we realised it wasn’t about rising above the boundaries but about tunneling under them, burrowing down through the bowels of the city, wiring ourselves into its nervous system. In this era of SF defined in negative space, redefined by every act of indefinition that comes when we slap that nominal label on whatever we can sell as SF, to transcend the Genre means to expand the idiom.

Not that you’d know this from the talk in the ghetto, where those deep tunnels under the SF Café have become a haven from the genrephobes, a safe and cosy Watership Down warren for the genre bunnies. We poke our noses out, sniff the air and the merest scent of fox or farmer in the air sends us scurrying back to safety. We peer out of the rabbit hole, peek between the blades of grass, but we’re blinded by this myxomatosis rife within our warren, spread by our living in such close proximity, a disease of timidity that leaves us sightless and frothing at the mouth, twitching in delirium, whimpering about the lack of respect given to SF, how those howwible elitists at the Bistwo de Cwitique don’t wike us.

The librarian has the same sad smile whenever she sits in the SF Café, listening to that kvetching. Mostly, she’d rather be there than in the Bistro de Critique, but whenever award season comes around, man, the genre bunnies do tend to get agitated. Like they’re out to get us, all those straw literati, the farmers and the foxes of the self-defeating fantasies that keep us cosily in our little burrow. It’s a cold, hard world out there. And we don’t deserve it, you see. We’ve shown them how good SF can be, how cute and fluffy and eminently likeable we are, and they still don’t wike widdle us. They must be nasty, cruel, vicious. Oh, yes. Foxes and farmers bad, rabbits good. SF community good, literary establishment BAD.

Lemme just load up my flamethrower here, and put it in the hands of our librarian. Don’t worry; we’re torching the Bistro de Critique as well. Let the whole sorry shithouse go up in flames, I say.

Of Kudos and Catches

So no SF novel ever won the Booker. So fuck? Screw the Booker; awards don’t mean shit. What we’re really talking about here is kudos, the currency passed back and forth in every conversation at the Bistro de Critique. That’s what we really want, the kudos that we feel our favoured works are due. Bookers and Nobels are only indexes of that literary credit. Strip away the talk of canons. Focus on valid comparisons within the timescale of SF — the last fifty years or so. As a measure of the modern classic, then let’s take a little work of absurdist comedy offering a depth of character and theme that makes most SF books look like the teenage wank-fantasy of a Hollywood schlockbuster charlatan… and that makes most mainstream books look like the mid-life crisis of an under-aspiring MFA tutor. Let’s take Heller’s CATCH-22 as an example.

We don’t want the Booker. We want the due respect that would be given freely to our equivalent of CATCH-22, if our Genre of Science Fiction was as counterfactual as Combat Fiction, our exemplary works of SF published without the damning label. Or at least, that’s what my figurative librarian wants. She happens to think DALGHREN is one of the seminal works of the 20th century, period, that if it wasn’t for the stigma of “genre fiction” that goes with the SF label it would be recognised as such. That if CATCH-22 had been sold as Combat Fiction it might easily have suffered the same disregard.

The comparison is more than apt. The central idea of Heller’s novel is, after all, a sort of speculative fiction, an invention of bureaucracy rather than technology, but a “what if” scenario nonetheless and, like an SF speculation, a structural element of plot and theme. What if there was an absurd regulation that put all soldiers in the double-bind of a no-win situation, a rule that any soldier seeking exemption from combat on the grounds of insanity must be, by definition, sane and therefore not exemptable?

With this crystal concept at its core CATCH-22 throws its main protagonist, Yossarian, into the horrific fantasia of World War II, the dystopia of humanity’s inhumanity extrapolated from that rule. The rule changes throughout the book, becomes more general. Eventually we come face to face with it in its most sinister form, when the US army closes down a brothel, taking the prostitutes away and validating all of this by reference to Catch-22. What law justifies their action? Catch-22. Don’t they have to show this law, to prove it exists? No, the law says they don’t have to. And which law is that? Why, Catch-22, of course. The core concept here is as fantastic as a fair whack of Kafka.

For all its non-linear construction, CATCH-22 is an utterly accessible book, using humour the way SF uses strangeness, to give the reader a pleasure they wouldn’t find in many dreary realist tomes. It dances, it plays, it gives the reader a ludic inroad to its thematic kernel, all the while developing it to intrigue us, horrify us, point us back at the reality being satirised, re-presented in an imaginative transformation. It shows us the unreal so that we see the real within it. Not unlike SF.

A work which is both a commercial and a critical success, garnering as much cash as kudos. A popular work but not a populist one. A book which has achieved some degree of cult status and which should therefore, if we genre bunnies are right in our myopia of incipient myxomatosis, be excluded from the canon because of that cult status. The literary establishment don’t like cult books, we think, because they are their own cult, worshipping at the kitchen sink, allowing no other gods before them but the One True God of Realism. So why does CATCH-22 stand as one of the 20th Century greats when so many of our great works lie neglected at the bottom of the rabbit warren under the SF Café? Because it’s not lumbered with the label Combat Fiction?

The prize-givings and prattle in the Bistro de Critique don’t matter a fuck if that’s the way it is. So some fucktarded phonies there — those straw literati who may or may not be the big dealio we make them out to be — bind our strange fictions in our very own Catch-22: if it’s SF, it can’t be good; if it’s good, it can’t be SF. Feh.

Dude, these motherfuckers can be torched with the flick of a finger.

A Fancified, Fanciful Fancy

The Catch-22 that gives Heller’s novel its name is a conceit. Not in the Petrarchan / John Donne / Metaphysical poet sense, but analogous to such, a suppositional fancy adopted for the sake of its figurative import. What exactly do I mean by conceit? Here’s one definition:

“An extended metaphor. Popular during the Renaissance and typical of John Donne or John Milton. Unlike allegory, which tends to have one-to-one correspondences, a conceit typically takes one subject and explores the metaphoric possibilities in the qualities associated with that subject.”
Silvae Rhetoricae (

But this definition doesn’t quite tell the whole story in its characterisation of the conceit as metaphor-writ-large. Looking at the definition of the word outside the realms of rhetoric, gives us a richer picture of its webwork of associations. So, from we get a wider-ranging set of meanings, in which conceit means: a favorable and especially unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth; an ingenious or witty turn of phrase or thought; a fanciful poetic image, especially an elaborate or exaggerated comparison; a poem or passage consisting of such an image; the result of intellectual activity; a thought or an opinion; a fanciful thought or idea; a fancy article; a knickknack; an extravagant, fanciful, and elaborate construction or structure.

Discarding the primary meaning of pride, paring away the redundancies, and splicing and dicing the attributes into a semblance of order, what we arrive at is the idea of a conceit as: an elaborate (fancy, extravagant, exaggerated) and fanciful (intellectual, ingenious, witty) construction or structure (turn-of-phrase, passage, poem) based on an idea (poetic image, thought, opinion, comparison). It all sounds rather fluffed-up, rather flouncy. Lurking somewhere in the connotations of those terms there’s hints of flippancy, of being too clever for one’s own good, of needless complexity. A conceit is an idea with an inflated ego, whimsy masquerading as the grandiose.

A fancified, fanciful fancy.

The futurological and cosmological suppositions which underpin SF (e.g. Bester’s PyrE) are conceits adopted for the sake of a good story (i.e. as MacGuffins) and/or to make a point by concretising and extending a metaphor or metonym (as Bester’s PyrE concretises what it signifies — power), representing the impact of (the vehicle of) the conceit on characters and worldscapes, rendering it both plot device and locus of theme. For many, the use of a fantastic conceit is sufficient to render a work fantasy. For many, the use of a fantastic conceit based on arguable supposition is sufficient to render a work SF.

If we accept the absurd regulation at the heart of it as an arguable supposition, CATCH-22 is not just a good comparison to SF. It is SF. The conceit may be legal rather than technological, but so fuck? How many dystopias are based more on hypotheticals born of sociology and psychology than anything else? It’s not a question of whether there are SF novels that measure up to CATCH-22. The works of Ballard, Burroughs, Vonnegut — surely there’s a list as long as my arm of books with power and insight and ambition to match Heller’s. Hell, there’s just CATCH-22 itself, if we want to look at it that way. Of course, if you have a problem seeing CATCH-22 as a work of sociological SF, maybe you feel the same with Ballard, Burroughs, Vonnegut. No matter. I’m always happy to point to pulp Modernists like Bester who used their conceits in a more populist way. With only the odd James Joyce reference and typographical experimentalism.

The point? Twenty years from now, I reckon, the Bistro de Critique will have been rebuilt on the charred ruins of a discourse razed by the recognition that conceits are, you know, actually a fucking effective tool for a writer. Twenty years from now, I reckon, what’s been going on in SF for the last fifty years will be blindingly obvious. Forget all those labels we use to obscure the emptiness of that signifier, SF, in an illusion of diverse “sub-genres” — Alternate History, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Steampunk. These are scribbles on sticky labels patched together with Sellotape to cover up the fragmentation of a field of countless forms, a confusion of comedies, tragedies, satires, adventures, parables, allegories.

So over the last half-century and a bit we’ve gathered together the good, the bad and the ugly of this… strange fiction into a cosy warren called SF, into a construction so complicated, so many tunnels burrowing this way and that, the cellar of the SF Café long since collapsed into one big hole in the ground, an empty space where meaning used to be. The ghost of SF howls in that abyss. The golem of speculative fiction stands on the edge, looking down into it, giggling insanely at the senselessness. At this… conglomeration of disparate works lumped together on the spurious basis that, well, there’s something about them all we like. It has these “speculative elements.” Like poetry using metaphors instead of eschewing it. Like a rock band using amps rather than deliberately going acoustic.

So that field is characterised by the use of these fancified, fanciful fancies — these conceits. Twenty years from now, I reckon, scorning it for that will look like cocking a snoot at a rock band for using amps.

The Bistro de Critique

The truth is, there’s already plenty of strange fiction out there getting the kudos — like Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN winning the Booker of Bookers. McCarthy’s THE ROAD winning the Pullitzer. It’s just that the absence of the label means these works aren’t punted down into that rabbit hole of pulp, hidden in the darks of paraliterature. It’s just they don’t languish in our little warren of a marketing niche. It’s just that a writer has to eschew the stigma of category fiction if they want a shot at the dicky-bow ceremony with champagne and hors d’ouvres; they gotta ditch the emo makeup if they want to be made dux. No shit. Does it matter? If that Times Online list is anything to go by, they can just do whatever the fuck they want, and when the dust has settled, likely as not, they’ll be valued for what they are anyway.

In the meantime…?

In the SF Café, the day after the time traveler’s arrival at the Bistro de Critique, our librarian sits with her comrades, playing devil’s advocate, as they bitch about not getting invites to the uptown cocktail parties. What do they expect, after all? There’s a whole lot of dross in the darks of the warren that is Genre.

Hell, she says, we recognise the formulaic product for what it is, every time we segregate it out in an argument with an outsider, every time they dismiss the whole field with a reference to some heinous example of Hollywood wank and we shake our heads. No, we say, that’s not proper science fiction. That’s Sci-Fi. Do you seriously think they’re ever going to get that?

We can’t ignore the gaping disjunction between the formulaic product with its cardboard characters and prefab plots, between the potboiled pulp and the solid SF, the works that take genre by the balls, squeeze hard and say, “We play by my rules.” We talk proudly of “genre fiction,” but where we diss the formula fare as “generic,” we’re tacitly acknowledging that the good stuff is good because it treats Genre as its bitch. It takes a sledgehammer to the formulae, tears pulp into bits, chews it up, spews it out in huge spitballs to be sculpted into extraordinary forms. And we’re acknowledging that the bad stuff doesn’t. Then we’re surprised that shilling shit with our shinola gives us a bad rep.

We live in the ghetto of pulp fiction, but disown it even as we do, playing the same game as our high-brow, high-society nemeses of the Bistro de Critique, with our very own version of their Catch-22, an irrational “We-like-it-so-it-must-be-SF” rule. They say, if it’s SF, it must be bad; if it’s good, it’s not SF. We say the same of Sci-Fi; it’s just that where it meets our standards of quality control we use the phrase “proper science fiction” instead of “proper literary fiction.” Every movie or TV show we dismiss as Sci-Fi — is that really so different from some straw literati insisting that William Burroughs was a Beatnik writing experimental fiction rather than some Science Fiction scribbler? We can bitch about Atwood denying that she writes science fiction, but is this really that different from an SF writer insisting that what they write isn’t “Sci-Fi”?

So no SF novel has ever won the Booker, says the librarian. So innumerable works of SF that stand on a par with CATCH-22 fail to garner the kudos they deserve because they’re tainted by the stigma of Genre. So maybe it’s time for us to reverse the polarities, think the unthinkable, speak the unspeakable, say: They’re right, you know. Genre equals generic equals formulation. So maybe we shouldn’t call it genre. Maybe we shouldn’t call it SF. If the label is empty, do we need it?

If the great works of SF are lumped in with crud that shares, at most, some superficial features with it, in the same way that a John Wayne flick shares shares superficial features with CATCH-22, it’s no surprise it doesn’t get the plaudits. Maybe it’s time we stopped burrowing down to hide the best of SF in the bunny warren of tunnels under the SF Café. Maybe the day’s coming when those strange fictions can just stand upright, walk out across the field and be met with dropped jaws and awed silence. Foxes turn tail and run. Farmers piss their pants in fear: My God, that book walks on its hind legs; that ain’t like no bunny I’ve ever seen!

I mean, we can bitch about the Booker and the Bistro de Critique, but it don’t mean squat if we’re doing it from our hidey-holes, safe and sound in the delusion that we are and will ever be this little paraliterary thing called “genre fiction.” A “genre fiction” marked out by the fact it uses one particular tool — the conceit — marked out by the fact that it doesn’t limit itself by excluding that tool, the way the genre of Contemporary Realism does. I gotta say, I’m not seeing that strange-fictional approach as in the weaker position here, binding itself with injunctions against this technique, that approach, narrowing its scope with every strategy it rejects. Far as I can see, the SF I’m talking about doesn’t essentially reject any strategy. Like a lot of those works in the period stretching back from Huxley to Homer, I reckon, it doesn’t see any fucking reason to.

Which seems a fairly natural approach to me, I gotta say. I mean, how exactly does using every fucking tool in the box not constitute the default condition of fiction? So we’ve had some fifty-odd years in which the realistas kept their shell game going, more or less, doing their best to sell the absence of the strange in their fiction as a marker of their serious chops. Meh. Give it a few decades and we’ll see how the kitchen sink holds up against a fiction as fucked-up as our reality.

Bollocks to the bunny warren, says our librarian. The ghetto is our past, but the whole fucking city is our future.


  1. Why is it the Science Fiction writers hold themselves above all the other writers of pulp fiction, considering themselves on par with writers of literary fiction. What makes the difference is not realism or naturalism, or whatever style of literature you care to demean with the epithet of genre. The difference is not about subject matter, but emphasis on style and artistic expression vs. generally pedestrian prose, character driven vs. plot driven, original plotting vs. formulaic plotting, experimentation with form, etcetera, etc.; none of which a genre writer would dare take chances with, for fear of displeasing his story loving readers. Literary readers expect these things, because literary writers have trained them to do so. One cannot be taken seriously in literary fiction unless one experiments with style, subject matter, and form.

  2. Why is it the Science Fiction writers hold themselves above all the other writers of pulp fiction, considering themselves on par with writers of literary fiction.

    Why is it that such snootcocking snipewankery comes without a question mark? Could that be an inadequacy in your polished prose, precious?

    Sorry to be rude, but you see my point, yes? If your rhetoric is meant to imply the utter folly of the SF writer’s delusions of literary skill, it doesn’t do much for your case if you open with a shoddily-constructed sentence.

    What makes the difference is not realism or naturalism…

    Yes. That would be the point of my reference to Rushdie winning the Booker of Bookers.

    … or whatever style of literature you care to demean with the epithet of genre.

    Nice. Do you also use “coloured” as a demeaning epithet? Because all works of literature have a genre, Tim, just as all human beings have a skin tone. The sonnet, the rondel, the ballade — these are genres of poetry. If nothing else, a work of prose fiction is going to be in the genre of the novel or short story, or some other higher level classification. Just as white people do actually have a colour to their skin, so works lacking the labels of commercial category fiction do actually have genres.

    Again, you’d do better for your case that “literary fiction” deserves its place of privilege over “genre fiction” if you demonstrated an understanding of what these terms mean. As it is, you’re simply exemplifying a discourse of abjection paralleling that by which “coloured” ceases to actually mean “having a colour” and comes to mean “having one of a particular set of colours.” Such shifting of meaning is, in both cases, designed to construct an artificial dichotomy, with the “non-coloured” person, the “non-genre” work of literature, defined by negation; the point is, of course, to abject one set of people or works as being essentially inferior, made so by the presence of this “quality” — colour, genre — while the other is privileged as essentially superior in the absence of any such baseness. Compare the term “coloured music” for a discourse that applies a more blatantly abjecting and objectionable “demeaning epithet” on certain genres of work in a different medium.

  3. “Literary readers expect these things, because literary writers have trained them to do so,” thus setting up a set of shibboleths; a series of conventions and reading protocols without which the story is not accepted as ‘literary’ – a genre by any other name.

    “One cannot be taken seriously in literary fiction unless one experiments with style, subject matter, and form.” Tim, I take it you haven’t read Vellum and Ink, then, by that ranter above? Experiments with form, there; literary cubism. Also let me refer you to The Stars Our Destination by Bester, and Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny for experimentations with style. Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles; character. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land; subject matter, specifically morals. The whole corpus of Philip K Dick, in fact, for subject matter.

    And while we’re on the subject of experiments, and the point of the essay above, how about Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando? A novel about an immortal who also regularly changes gender, what is that if not a fantastic conceit used by a literary writer? Are you going to say, “but that’s good, so it can’t be SF”? And are you going to call Philip Pullman a pulp writer?

    There are writers of SF who happily produce pulp fiction, acknowledge it as pulp and have no problems with classing themselves as equivalent to thriller writers, although they tend to envy Dan Brown’s income. And there are writers of SF and other strange fiction who are continually experimenting with style, subject matter and form. If they are not performing those experiments according to the conventions of the ‘literary’ genre, they nevertheless deserve critical acceptance as writing good work.

  4. The difference is not about subject matter, but emphasis on style and artistic expression vs. generally pedestrian prose, character driven vs. plot driven, original plotting vs. formulaic plotting, experimentation with form, etcetera, etc.; none of which a genre writer would dare take chances with, for fear of displeasing his story loving readers.

    This is really a difference between philosophists and philistines, between a middle-class and middle-brow approach to literature which panders to the intellectualist with chin-strokes, and a less bourgeois, low-brow approach which panders to the sensationalist with eyeball-kicks. Leaving aside the discourse of abjection inherent in the notion of the “genre writer” — as if Doris Lessing, say, were essentially defined by the presence of a certain quality in herself, rather than being simply a writer who works in various genres, sometimes using SFnal or fantastic conceits, sometimes not — the sweeping claim that no writer of fictions sold with a commercial category label would dare to step beyond the limits of formulaic product reveals a stupefying level of ignorance. Have you actually read any Ballard, say? Delany’s DALGHREN? Moorcock’s Cornelius books? Even a single story by Kelly Link?

    You talk as a bourgeois fool, sir, a boor of very little brain.

    Within commercial category fiction, certainly the pressure toward formulation has its detrimental effect, and there are indeed many readers so bound to “story” that they’ll kick up an almighty stink at the merest whiff of anything more complex. This is something I’ve covered at length in previous columns. But the real deciding factor in this dichotomy has been the pressure outside commercial category fiction to avoid any literary shenanigans that might displease a bourgeois audience trained to read for edifying “insight” — that pressure, the equation of realism and relevance, and the backlash against Modernism. The result of the trite suburban mindset born of that privileging of the ponderous was, in the late 20th Century, a largely hostile environment for the most radical and innovative works anywhere outside commercial category fiction — unless such works proffered themselves as mere ludic gameplaying, declawed by their posture of ironic detachment, safe in their postmodern pretence. Meanwhile, as the New Wave amply demonstrates, all the qualities you extol were actively fostered in the ghetto, where the steady market for “more of the same” played carrier to a market with a rapacious appetite for “something different.” Experimentalists were appreciated where, like Bester, they also satisfied that desire for “a good story,” but they were also appreciated where, like Delany, they offered works which piss on Romantic plot-dynamics. Where some readers reviled (and still revile) such ambitious works as DALGHREN, more often than not those innovators were lauded as everything SF could and should be. Crucially, in the ghetto they weren’t hamstrung by petit bourgeois standards of literary propriety. Trust me, as someone who’s published two works of non-linear experimentalism best described with terms like “cubist” and “pataphysical,” I know first-hand the openness within the “genre fiction” you dismiss.

    For sure, that restrictive mindset outside the ghetto is visibly changing. With the popularity of writers like McCarthy, Palahnuik, Roth, Atwood and so on, even when — or especially when — they turn their hands to narrative techniques previously tainted by association with “genre,” it appears middle-brow readers are finally catching up, being taught to appreciate substantial experimentation with style, subject matter and form. But then when you actually read a writer like Kelly Link, it’s hard not to appreciate the scope of this “genre fiction” that’s produced the best short story writer of our generation.

  5. I’ve been listening to this genre-bashing…what’s the term I’m looking for? Oh, yeah: twaddle–for over thirty-five years. Such a bore; one can bite me.

  6. Now now, crime writers are just as likely to dare pretend to be as good as the writers of literary fiction.

  7. @ Tim Chambers

    Is that you, that mild middle-aged gentleman on the photo next to your… opinion? And a click on your name seems to redirect one to a “Writer’s Colony”… Well now, for all that, mister, you’re sho nuff frikkin stupid. Hope your virtual head is sturdy though, if you by any chance decide to write here again, cause you obviously don’t know Hal.

  8. Would it be tiresome and nitpicky of me to point out that Penelope Fitzgerald was not primarily a poet, but a novelist, and a very good one?

    (I’d say, too, that some of John Fowles’s work hints at the fantastical — The Magus, say, and certainly A Maggot, which can be considered science fiction, even.)

    This nitpicking doesn’t detract from your excellent points.

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