Another damned label

General fiction, mainstream fiction, literary fiction … some of the more interesting writers around me (Mike Harrison, China Miéville) have hit on the idea of categorizing literary fiction as just another genre, intended as a kind of answer to a critic called John Mullan.

Mullan is Professor of English at University College, London. He specializes in 18th century fiction and in recent months has started turning up almost everywhere books are mentioned so that he can air his opinions. This busy man, who reminds us at every opportunity he is a Professor, gains his authority by sheer persistence. He shows a dullard’s disdain towards genre fiction, as he sees it, without betraying any apparent familiarity with the best work or the best writers in the categories he dismisses. Miéville has argued in public with Mullan about this, and today goes a stage further with the argument: he calls literary fiction “litfic” and is quoted in a profile in the Guardian Books section as saying things like this: “My issue with litfic is not that it is a genre but that (a) it doesn’t think it is and (b) it thinks it’s ipso facto better than all the ones that are genres.”

As his dislike immediately zones in on a mediocre novel by Ian McEwan called Saturday, you can’t help briefly nodding in agreement. He describes Saturday as “a paradigmatic moment in the social crisis of litfic”. That’s not exactly what I thought of McEwan’s dismal effort, but Miéville’s feelings are clear enough.

Hang on, though — what’s all this anthropomorphism?

“… it doesn’t think it is“. Who or what is this thinking entity called it? How can “litfic” have any thought at all? How can it have a social crisis?

If it is anything, litfic is a number of novels and short stories by a number of writers.

A similar number of novels and short stories makes up the genre known as science fiction. The usual objection to the term “science fiction” is about the label and the assumptions many people make when they hear the label applied. The alternatives, “sf” and “sci-fi”, are just as bad, and in the case of the latter worse and more extreme.

The objection is not to the type of fiction it allegedly describes, because the use of the fantastic as a metaphor goes back to the very beginnings of fiction, and distinguished, influential and entertaining examples of fantastic literature abound, past and present. I believe it is one of the most interesting, difficult and rewarding areas in which a contemporary writer can work. The real objection to the term is that any label induces first of all an orthodoxy (“this is or is not science fiction”) followed by laziness. Lazy writers fall back too easily and too often on genre tropes, lazy readers accept anything at all with the label in place because they assume special conditions apply, and lazy critics like John Mullan depend on a general concept based on TV series their children watch and a few poor books they happen to have read, and don’t have the energy or will to investigate further.

For China Miéville to cite or create or claim a new genre, an alleged balance against another, an argument for one genre being an argument against the other, etc., only muddies the water. It adds a new wrong to an existing wrong, and fails to make a right. It’s all very well mounting a case against an under-achieving and over-praised writer like Ian McEwan, but how would that case stand up against (e.g.) Roberto Bolaño, Graham Greene, Jerzy Kosinski, John Fowles, Chuck Palahniuk, Ivan Bunin, Anna Kavan, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Dickens, Richard Powers …? It’s obvious nonsense even to try.

In the same way, does a generalization about Isaac Asimov apply also to the work of J. G. Ballard, Mike Harrison, myself, China Miéville, Alastair Reynolds, Lauren Beukes, Brian Aldiss, Ian McDonald …?

There are only individual books written by individual writers.

China Miéville is a young writer of great potential, with an attractive and adventurous use of language and a willingness to take intriguing risks with his work. In person, he has a pleasant manner and speaks well. He’s on the up and up. But I think he should be deeply wary of genre arguments. Genre is a trap for those who wish to be individual or bold, and in a telling way what I’ve read of China’s work is at its weakest when it strays into genre territory. He was quick to endorse the sub-genre “new weird”, and the great wall of orthodoxy is already looming around that. Other partitions are being erected around him: he should reflect on the fact that the profile I’ve quoted from appeared as a centrefold in a Guardian “Science Fiction Special”. Leave great walls to the other China, I say.