Lionel says, “Merry Chrismass, Evrywun”

A bad book provides a variety of temptations, prime among them being just to ignore the thing and put it away in the Oxfam box. Bad books are usually written by incompetents, so are bad in uninteresting ways, but occasionally a real corker comes along: a poor or careless or contemptible piece of work by a highly rated author. Then the temptation is otherwise. The recent novel by Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo – State of England, is one such. (Cape, 2012, pp 276, ISBN: 978-0-224-09620, £18.99.)

I’m not interested in Amis or his life (although it does have a direct bearing on this novel), but I am much concerned with his writing ability. I’ve also asked myself why should anyone care about this novel? I can’t imagine the people who read this page would normally be bothered with it, but to me the subject of good and bad writing is always interesting. Lionel Asbo – State of England presents a unique example, because Amis has often declared himself to be in a class above his contemporaries. He once said that he “wrote the kind of sentences the other guys couldn’t write”, and is widely regarded as one of the more innovative and colourful users of the English language, a perception he accepts and enthusiastically reports.

Lionel Asbo – State of England is the story of a dysfunctional family of grown-ups in present-day London, the most prominent member of whom is Lionel, a sixth son. His five older brothers are called John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart. When Lionel’s mother ran out of Beatle names (apparently never having heard of Pete Best) she “christened” him Lionel. (Pete Asbo admittedly doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.) Lionel is now a brainless thug, in and out of prison for minor offences, usually offences of dishonesty or violence. At the age of 18 he changed his name to “Asbo”, the tag being seen as a badge of honour in his circle. Although he despises the lottery he accidentally gets hold of a winning ticket and collects £140 millions. He becomes a sort of celebrity yobbo, tasting the sweet life while staying much the same lovable old Lionel: he imbibes magnums of champagne and vast quantities of artisanal baked beans. (The latter are presumably baked beans made by craftsmen.) The protagonist of the novel is not, however, Lionel himself, but his nephew, one Desmond Pepperdine. Desmond, or Des, spends most of his young life in fear of Lionel uncovering his greatest secret: that as a teenager Des had enjoyed a physical affair with Lionel’s mother, Grace. (Lionel suspected someone else and bumped him off, but Des knows Lionel will find out the truth one day.) Towards the end of the novel Lionel duly takes his revenge.

Now then, let’s start unravelling some of this.

The title, which I have quoted in full until now, has a subtitle which is an indication of the author’s intent: this is a novel examining, or satirizing, or criticizing the “state” of modern England. Martin Amis has become an expatriate, so his visits to this country are short and intermittent. Distance can lend objectivity, but it can also introduce error. Much of what is wrong with this book can be traced, directly or indirectly, to Amis’s presumptuous stance, that he, a wealthy author from a privileged background and now living abroad, can tell us anything about the place we live in, through descriptions of a benefit-receiving or working-class family.

One of the many casual errors Amis commits concerns the “Asbo” – properly, it is an ASBO, an acronym for “Anti-Social Behaviour Order”, and crucially it was a civil order, not a criminal penalty. Amis should have known at the time he was writing that the ASBO, a mis-judged Blairite “fix” like so many others in those days, was largely unsuccessful in its results and was falling into disuse by the authorities. It was never a “badge of honour”, although the tabloid press thought it was – in reality most ASBOs were deployed against street drinkers, a hamfisted attempt to cure them of alcoholism.

Amis’s novel falls into two broad parts: the divider is Lionel’s lottery win, with his activities before and after spelled out. The first half is where most of the satirical work of the novel takes place, but Amis soon loses interest in that. The second half, a dazzling sequence of almost random social or pop-cultural references to foods, magazines, TV shows, music (not much, though, about texting, social networking, gaming, etc.), becomes increasingly like a farce. The repellent creation Lionel is now almost marginalized, and all Amis is left to write about is a world of scruffs and scroungers that he obviously dislikes and does not understand. The second half of the novel involves a constantly changing cast whose names, let alone their characters, are almost impossible to tell apart: Dawn, Dawnie, Des, Dudley, Daphne, Drago, Dylis? I suspected the author found himself late delivering his manuscript, and having done as much as he could with Lionel rushed something out so he could be rid of it. The closest literary parallel with these 100+ pages of frenetically recorded births and deaths and blow-out meals and posh houses and TV appearances and illnesses and infidelities are those old Confessions of … novels by Timothy Lea, but without the jokes. Not one.

Lionel Asbo is told in two main voices: a third-person narrative, which we should assume is intended as the authorial presence, and the dialogue, sometimes phonetically rendered (“Get you tits fixed” is a favourite line), of Lionel and his associates. The one time we see a letter written by Lionel, we are given a good look at his terrible spelling – for instance CUMPEW UH, with Amis obligingly providing the glottal stop. In fact, Amis frequently comments on the dialogue, explaining pronunciation, etc. At one point Lionel unexpectedly utters the long word “labyrinth”, and the author immediately points out that Lionel’s “enunciation” was improving: he was now saying labyrinf, not as might be expected, labyrimf. Later: “The first time he said brothel he pronounced it broffle, and the second time … he pronounced it brovvle.” As the book goes on there are more and more of these italicized interjections, to such an extent they become a sort of third narrative voice, jutting interchangeably into both the dialogue and the narrative. The two main voices are not even wholly discrete: the narrative style often slips into the vernacular, such as on p.93, in a description of Lionel’s suite of rooms in a snooty hotel in St James’s: “[There was a] bedroom, lounge, office area, bathroom with two sinks (and an extra shitter in a little closet of its own).”

In a 1990 Introduction to a reprint of William Sansom’s novel The Body, Anthony Burgess warns of the dangers that exist when there is a disparity between the mundane abilities and lifestyle of a novel’s characters and “the mentality of a professional writer who has read all the fiction and poetry ever written, especially in the modern age, and learned from their example how to contrive a highly original style of his own”. Burgess goes on to say that the danger is one of appearing to condescend. He discusses the way James Joyce enclosed Leopold Bloom “in a symbolism of great subtlety and erudition”, which elevated rather than condescended. He says that Sansom also avoids condescension. I think if Mr Burgess had known about Lionel Asbo he would have had a field day, as Amis not only keeps trying to show he is one of the lads, but consistently elevates condescension into class-based sarcasm.

It is the author’s mistakes that really set this novel out on its own. These range from the practical (poor research, or unfamiliarity with everyday life) to stylistic (bad writing).

On the practical mistakes, one hardly knows where to begin. Maybe you noticed that in the plot synopsis, Lionel’s mum christened him – no, she could only name him. Christening is a Christian sacrament. In 2006, according to Amis, milk was still being delivered in London in glass bottles – no, only a tiny handful of the posher addresses still receive any milk delivery at all, and an even tinier handful receive glass bottles, but Amis is probably protected from this knowledge. Des, a 15-year-old living in a rough urban neighbourhood, still attends school. Alone in the whole of London, this teenager wears short trousers, a purple blazer and he carries a satchel. He and Lionel live on the 33rd floor of a high-rise, where the lift never works, so they bravely run up and down the stairs, sometimes carrying furniture – I bet Martin Amis has never tried even to walk slowly up 33 floors. At one point, Lionel complains that his left pillock was aching – Amis obviously means his left testicle, or (daring slip into the vernacular) his left bollock, but “pillock” has only one meaning and that’s a stupid or annoying person. It’s from a Norwegian dialect word pillicock, which means penis. Diston (Amis’s imaginary inner-London slum area) is said to have gravid primary-schoolers – pregnant 5 to 10-year-olds?

Then Amis makes mistake after mistake when he talks about the crimes Lionel Asbo is said to have committed. Does this matter? Not really, but in a novel about the criminal underclass, where offences regularly feature, the one thing anyone can be sure of is that the perpetrators will know exactly what they’re up against and why they have been banged up. Lionel has form for “Extortion with Menaces” (doesn’t exist, and anyway Amis ought to be able to spot a tautology when he writes one), and “Receiving Stolen Property” (doesn’t exist – the offence is called Handling Stolen Goods, or just plain Handling). “Attempted Manslaughter” (p.18) is another non-existent offence in England and Wales – manslaughter is usually inadvertent, or is a reduction by mitigating circumstances from a murder attempt. There are several more Amis errors of this kind, too tediously technical to keep listing here, but all this sort of detail is quickly discoverable on the internet, as I just found.

However, it is on his home turf, writing the kind of sentences the other guys couldn’t write, that Amis is uniquely awful.

P.10: “Dawn simmered over the incredible edifice … of Avalon Tower.” How does that work? Simmering means cooking slowly just below boiling point; people can “simmer” with rage when they are holding it back. But a sunrise? (There is also an important character called Dawn … I wondered for a surreal moment if Amis was talking about her.)

P.22: “He squinted up with his unfallen eyes.”

P.28: “The worst stretch of Cuttle Canal was as active as a geyser: it spat and splatted, blowing thick-lipped kisses to the passers-by.” Presumably Amis is saying here that the canal is so damaged by pollution that it is in constant reaction, as chemical events take place. But “blowing thick-lipped kisses”?

P.34: “Diston, with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston, a world of italics and exclamation marks.”

P.36: “… a heavy silence began to fuse and climb. A muscular, pumped-up, steroidal silence, a Lionel silence, shrill enough to smother the parched whispers of Jeff and Joe …” Difficult to see how any silence can “fuse” (i.e. unite or join or integrate), let alone “climb”. The “muscular, pumped-up, steroidal silence”, related to Lionel, is a flourish too far, especially as we know that Lionel is lazy, overweight and flabby. A “shrill” silence? A silence that can “smother” other sounds? (Jeff and Joe, incidentally, are two pit bulls, kept calm and domestic by being fed Tabasco every day. “Parched” is not the word for them.)

P.40: “… a film of water swam on the flagstones.” Presumably, Amis means a small puddle or a patch of water – “film” is generally used to describe a thin sheet or layer. But water is never in layers, and it never “swims”.

P.200: “They started forward, sliding sideways through the clenched teeth of the locked cars.”

P.245: “… the trail of life had frayed.”

Again, it becomes tedious to keep arguing this sort of detail – the above should serve fair warning to anyone who persists in thinking Amis is an inventive or descriptive or fluent writer. An earlier novel by Amis, the dreadful London Fields, had just as many similar solecisms. He gropes for images, he approximates descriptions, he uses the wrong words, but like a concert pianist hitting a dud note he plays it loudly, as if he meant it all along. The other guys, it is true, do not write like this – they are better at it.

Martin Amis once said (to Val Hennessy in Time Out), “My curse as a writer is that I am not read slowly enough. By reading my work fast one may perceive the local effects, the jokes, the virtuoso paragraphs but one gets absolutely no idea of the novel’s architecture or artistry.” Well, I read Lionel Asbo slowly, hoping for jokes, virtuosity and artistry, but it was a sordid experience. I wished I could have read this ill-judged and badly written novel faster.

Clearly, to quote another of his utterances, he needs frenzied editing by his publisher, and doesn’t get it. This interests me. One of my novels was published by Jonathan Cape (coincidentally at the same time as London Fields) and I was impressed by the thoroughness and sensitivity of the copy-editing, the attention to detail, the high standards on which the editorial staff insisted. I could hardly believe London Fields was from the same publisher. Yet dozens of these terrible Amisian gaffes still get through the Cape system somehow and I can’t help wondering how it happens. Perhaps his truculent style of surly ad hominem attack intimidates the editorial staff, so that he receives the lightest, most “respectful” treatment of his text? Or maybe he simply goes through the copy-edited text after Cape have finished with it, and restores his howlers?

The case of Martin Amis is not all that interesting when his work is considered in isolation, away from the white noise thrown out by his manner and his provocative and ill-informed public remarks about Islam, etc. He is a writer who was given a good start, but who peaked too early: Money: a suicide note (1984) is usually regarded as his best work, but that was three decades ago. His fiction since has been an up and down affair: sometimes no better than all right, sometimes awful. Lionel Asbo is his most recent fiction and it is at the bottom of his own mediocre scale. It reads like a terminal novel, a fizzling out of what some people thought all those years ago were the signs of a sparky new talent.

In year 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown requested members of the British public to suggest a four- or five-word slogan, perhaps in Latin, to sum up what signified modern Britain. I can’t remember if a winner was ever found, but a reader of The Times memorably suggested: Dipso Fatso Bingo Asbo Tesco. This witty remark said everything that Lionel Asbo says, but the novel is some 99,995 words longer and notably lacking in wit. I’d commend the slogan to Martin Amis, but I rather suspect he wouldn’t know what a “tesco” is.



Gollancz have come through with a cover design for The Adjacent. I am left wordless (for a change), but keep staring at it. The book will be published in June 2013.

The artist who created this image is Brian Roberts:

Artist: Brian Roberts


Lice in the Locks of Literature

“Science fiction is the cockroach in the house of books: it survives on scraps and never goes away. Occasionally, as in the work of HG Wells and JG Ballard, it becomes sublime.” (From the Guardian, 19th November 2012.)

This comment (part of an essay which was semi-jokingly trying to create all sorts of new literary genres) was written by Robert McCrum, an associate editor of the Observer. Before he joined the newspaper McCrum worked at Faber & Faber as an editor.

It was in this capacity that I met him in the early 1980s. Before his arrival he had been described to me by Matthew Evans, the Chairman of Faber, as a representative of the new generation of editors who was going to be brought in to revitalize the Faber fiction list. McCrum duly took up his post and some time later he took me to lunch. At this time I had been with Faber since 1969 and had published all my books with them. These included my first five novels, a short story collection, an anthology and a children’s book. I felt my position with Faber was more or less secure, although by instinct I never take anything for granted – just as well, as it turned out. At the time of our lunch I had recently delivered my new novel to Faber, The Affirmation. The editor for this was Charles Monteith, one of the greatest of all post-war book editors, who worked with William Golding, P. D. James, Lawrence Durrell, Philip Larkin, Brian Aldiss, many more. Charles Monteith was due to retire from Faber shortly, and McCrum was his replacement.

“You’ve had it easy up to now,” McCrum said to me over lunch. “Faber’s going to change out of all recognition. The big boys are in town.” I looked at this young chap with the pink ears and shiny face – he looked as if he had started shaving earlier that week. I asked him which of my books he had read … in particular had he read The Affirmation? “I don’t read sci-fi,” he said in a pained voice, implying of course I don’t read rubbish, as you should know. He went on, “If you want to stay publishing with Faber you’re going to have to look to your laurels.” In spite of my many qualms about being defined by science fiction, or indeed any other genre, I realized that arguing with this rising young star of publishing was going to be a complex and difficult matter. No time for that then – our lunch was quickly over.

I knew only one thing about McCrum before we met: he had just published his own first novel, In the Secret State. On my way home I bought a copy. I read it on the train and finished it that evening. It was an illuminating experience: McCrum was a lousy writer! The novel is a sort of sub-genre of the Le Carré type of thriller, told through the medium of former public schoolboys mingling with each other in the secret services, and having to interview lesser types, while making knowing allusions to privilege and position, and betrayal of the class by those whom they feel should know better. Familiar enough, but McCrum’s addition to this genre was amateurish and incompetent. I couldn’t help wondering why any pro publisher had accepted it. He was incapable of controlling a short scene, let alone a whole novel. Clumsy viewpoint shifts occurred two or three times a page and he could not imagine or describe a scene with any conviction. His attention to detail was erratic and often incorrect. The dialogue in particular had a phoney feel to it, and the book depended heavily on the use of this unconvincing dialogue.

A working relationship between me and this young high-flyer seemed likely to be problematic. The point needs to be made that I do not expect my editor to be a published novelist. In fact, most of the editors I have got along with best have not been writers. For a sole example, Charles Monteith never to my knowledge published a word of fiction in his life. The other editors I have worked most productively with over the years have been the same. However, if an editor should in fact turn out to be a fellow professional then I naturally expect that he or she should be at least as competent as me, and preferably more so. To judge by In the Secret State, McCrum had a lot to learn. I certainly did not feel like taking any lessons in writing from him, not then, or indeed now, three decades later.

It’s perhaps just as well that writers and their editors do not have daily contact. I kept my head down and began work on my next novel, The Glamour. Charles Monteith duly retired, and McCrum’s reign at Faber began. I had only intermittent dealings with him over the next two or three years. On one occasion he sent me a manuscript by a young writer he had just taken on, saying he felt that some of the “sci-fi” elements needed an expert view. Gritting my teeth I read the thing – it was OK, but the writer was as hopeless at viewpoint as McCrum himself. Suspecting I was flogging a dead horse, I wrote a detailed report to McCrum, and gave as just one example of poorly handled viewpoint a chase scene where every moment of doubt or fear or suspense was undermined by the writer’s habit of switching between the characters, so that nothing was left to the reader’s imagination. When the novel finally came out I was interested to discover that the clumsy shifting around of viewpoint was just as I had read it before, except in the one scene I picked out as an example, where this simple technique was now handled correctly. McCrum hadn’t been able to convey a basic editorial point to the writer, not because he didn’t agree but because he clearly didn’t get it.

In the meantime, The Affirmation had been published. It suffered poor sales in hardback and Faber had great trouble in selling paperback rights. McCrum and Matthew Evans took me to lunch, ostensibly to talk about future plans, but told me they wanted to “reposition” me in the market. I was suddenly interested. To me, this meant that Faber were acknowledging they had published and sold The Affirmation inadequately, and they were planning to do something about it. I listened carefully. “What we want you to do,” McCrum said, “is get in your car and go out and discover England.”

Although it was optioned to Faber, my next novel, The Glamour, was published by Jonathan Cape.

McCrum’s career as a publisher is usually regarded as successful. The Faber general fiction list, which until his arrival was clearly looking a bit moribund, was duly revitalized. The firm has now, once again, become a leading publisher of literary fiction. This sort of “repositioning” is of course a result of a business decision as much as an editorial one. A company with a blue-chip literary reputation like Faber will have no problem attracting the best novelists if an effort is made, with an editor appointed to make the effort and propagate the new policy to literary agents and speak encouragingly to the writers. Meanwhile, the company will back up the initiative by making the right sort of money available. Since those days McCrum has moved on – for a while he was Literary Editor at the Observer. Now as one of that newspaper’s associate editors he appears to be a freelance commentator on the world of books, writing regularly for the Guardian blog.

McCrum’s weakness is that he will not acknowledge his blind spots. Genre fiction, or what he thinks is genre fiction, is the prime example. He abdicates himself from addressing the problem by assuming that genre fiction abides by rules and conventions that general fiction does not, and that it has an orthodoxy he neither understands nor wishes to learn about. He thinks it is a specialist form that can only be dealt with by an editor with specialist expertise. On the whole he believes that genre fiction lacks the greatest challenges of literary fiction by taking a less demanding route, an easier way. He sees all genre writers as buttressed by an undiscriminating fan readership. He assumes they lack any clear critical standards or apparatus, and that they are untalented or unambitious.

This is true in varying degrees of all writers and all areas of fiction, but to take literature seriously we have to look at its best examples. McCrum seems unable to grasp that. He dismisses what he does not know as being worth only his lip-service, his derision.

That is his weakness, but the real problem is that he is out of date. When I met him thirty years ago I could temporarily forgive his callow manner and patrician attitudes, but I was alarmed and discouraged by his conventional and unoriginal approach to literature. Out of date then, and still out of date now, to judge by the flippant and ignorant article I quoted at the beginning of this. I find his glowing, exempting reference to J. G. Ballard particularly offensive, as when I knew him McCrum had never even heard of Ballard, a writer whose astonishing work had been influential since the late 1950s, but whose presence only dawned on the likes of McCrum after Empire of the Sun was published in 1984. Anyone who doubts McCrum’s wider areas of weakness should glance through the 68 comments that followed his appearance on the Guardian website.


Holy Cows

I first read The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth in 1962. I was 19. I had been influenced by Kingsley Amis’s description of it in New Maps of Hell (‘many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far’). I bought the then-current paperback edition published by Digit Books and read it in a sitting. I can remember almost nothing about it now, except that I agreed with Mr Amis. Following his instruction I considered it then, as I consider it now, to be one of the ‘best’. Years later, when I was sometimes called upon to give talks to groups of general readers (i.e. not dedicated science fiction fans) I would take along my Digit paperback, and use it to illustrate the familiar argument that what you see on the cover of a book does not necessarily tell you anything about what’s inside. I would show the cover and invite people in the audience to guess what the novel might be about. The painting shows a large machine, shaped rather like a spaceship, and with a propeller whizzing at the front, bursting upwards out of the ground, knocking over a man who happened to be standing there moments before. Various wrong guesses from the audience always followed – I remember, for instance, the fairly typical reaction from one grumpy chap who was clearly not enjoying my talk, ‘Some stupid bloody thing about people flying around in spaceships and being attacked by pirates.’ When I explained that the novel was a satire on American advertising, that the ‘space’ in the title was a reference to advertising space, and that the story dealt with a copywriter who had to mount a fraudulent campaign to sell property on a bogus version of the planet Venus … the point was presumably made. (50 years)

In the same year I read (for the first and only time) George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, again partly from a recommendation in Amis’s book, but mainly because a few years earlier a BBC TV dramatization of the novel had caused a sensation in the press and among viewers. I had been too young to watch it then and I was curious. Although I have always meant to read the novel again I have not done so, although I have over the years referred to it. I see it as Orwell’s supreme novel, an unquestioned classic, but overall I consider his non-fiction to be his best work. This high regard is both for the timeliness of his thinking, a genuine and fulfilling insight into those turbulent years surrounding and during the second world war, and for the clarity, precision and sheer beauty of his writing style. (50 years)

1965: Penguin Books published Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in their science fiction package. I read it and ever since have considered it to be exceptional within Dick’s oeuvre, in that as well as the ingenious idea it contains some excellent writing. I have not read it since, and no longer even own a copy. Is the writing still excellent? I know that these days it is close to heresy to question Dick’s wonderfulness, but because so many of his other books reveal hasty passages of scrappy writing and a tendency to fall back on hack-writing techniques, I can’t help wondering if High Castle is a true exception to his norm. Still, I remember it well, and by this time I was 22 and clearly knew a thing or two. (47 years)

By 1967 I was regularly reading manuscripts for the publishers Gollancz. One day I received a phone call from them, wondering why I had not yet reported on the manuscript they had sent me three weeks earlier. (For my part I was wondering why there had been such a long gap.) When I went to the Post Office sorting depot I was handed a large, bedraggled and torn package, with sheets of paper falling out of all sides, and various loose sheets attached to the outside with a large elastic band. It was the top-copy original manuscript of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, now regarded as a classic of the genre. By some miracle none of the pages had been lost, although several were crumpled and dirty. I read it as soon and as quickly as I could, and reported positively on it – Gollancz did not publish it, as it happens. Although I knew John Brunner personally and considered him a friend, I always kept my thoughts to myself about his books. He wrote terrible potboilers and a lot of them too. Stand on Zanzibar was different: it was glib and clever, like so many of John’s other novels, but it was also ambitious in scope, innovative in form and uniquely amongst his books to that date it contained genuine passion. It was a breakthrough for him. (45 years)

We move forward fifteen years. By 1982 I had started acting as an agent for a small number of hand-picked American writers who until that date had not had anything published in Britain. One of them was William Gibson. He sent me, rather diffidently under the circumstances, the typewritten manuscript of a novel called Neuromancer. As soon as I read it I recognized it for what it was, even though it was not entirely to my own taste. I realized my opinion was irrelevant, and sent it to Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz. He immediately bought it. I am still no great fan of cyberpunk, but it was in its time radical and different. Neuromancer was the first and best of that sub-genre. (30 years)

For better or worse I have come to be seen as a John Wyndham specialist, and have been commissioned to write several speeches and essays about him and his work. This has meant fairly regular re-readings of his novels. These I continue to like, but with substantial reservations. Wyndham was one of the first SF novelists I discovered, when I was 16, long before even The Space Merchants. Until I had been able to read more widely, and understand where Wyndham’s work was best placed, he was my favourite SF writer. Of his four main novels the one I continue to like most is The Kraken Wakes, but I happen to think that The Day of the Triffids is in fact a better written novel. It has certainly grown into its status as a modern classic. I last re-read it in 2005 and it remained as effective as I remembered. Incidentally, I disagree with Brian Aldiss’s familiar and often quoted put-down of Wyndham, that he wrote ‘cosy catastrophes’. I believe the sobriquet is wilfully misleading and takes no account of the time and place when Wyndham was writing his best-known work. There is something steely and uncompromising inside most of Wyndham’s work, which an attentive reading will discover. (7 years)

John Fowles died towards the end of 2005. My own response to the unhappy news was to read, for at least the third time, his best and most lasting novel, The Magus. Although not at all a science fiction novel, and barely even fantasy, it is of huge importance to the genre because of the influence it has had, not only on so many writers, myself included, but also on film-makers. I think it has become fashionable to denigrate The Magus, partly because of what Fowles himself often said about it (he seemed to be the only person in the world who thought the ‘god-game’ was worth playing), partly because of some of the second-rate novels with which he followed it, and also partly because of the execrable film that was made of it in 1968, starring Michael Caine. However, back in the mid-1960s The Magus came over as a startling and fresh and technically dazzling novel. I was certainly dazzled by it for a long time. The writing in the first third of the novel has always seemed to me among the finest descriptive passages I have ever read – the forensic last part constitutes probably the most intricate and challenging thriller-writing of the century. My last reading of the novel was the 1977 revision, which until then I had not liked as much as the original. (7 years)

In 2006, the publisher Peter Owen brought out a re-issue of one of the gems in the Owen backlist: Ice by Anna Kavan. I had first read this in the early 1970s, when it was in a Picador paperback with an amazingly appropriate cover using a detail from (I believe) a painting by de Chirico. I have always loved the book, seeing it as a core slipstream text, one that will enchant as many readers as it might infuriate others. I was pleased to be invited to write an Introduction to the new edition, if for no other reason than it gave me a chance to re-read this short and almost perfect novel. (6 years)

I first read Keith Roberts’s Pavane when it appeared as a series of long stories in the magazine Impulse. I was mystified and enthralled by the stories and read them again as soon as they were published together as a novel (1968). Pavane is one of those rare novels which is not only beautifully written but also compellingly told. It is a novel set in the then present day (the late 1960s) in a world where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated, and a repressive Papal-dominated kingdom was set up in Britain under the Spanish. The details of the resulting low-technology society, the subtlety of the observations and the apt choice of significant characters are all to be marvelled at. I remember Michael Moorcock belittling the novel when it was published (probably because he and Keith Roberts did not like each other) – he said disparagingly that it was no better than the sort of stuff John Brunner turned out every week. This must constitute one of the most lead-bottomed literary judgements ever. I re-read Pavane for pleasure in 2007, and it was even better than I had remembered. (5 years)

Finally, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. I read this around the same time as everyone else who took an interest in such things: not long after it was published in 1969. It seemed then to be a remarkable and innovative novel – it won several prizes, and since then has remained a well-regarded and perennially popular novel. I had always remembered it in the most favourable way, feeling that it was a work of traditional science fiction that one could rely on to mount the best sort of argument in support of the genre. Some of the descriptive writing is vivid and appropriate, the characterization of the alien beings is totally plausible and sympathetic, and the idea, in its day, was suitably radical and startling. I re-read Left Hand in 2008, more out of curiosity than anything, in effect to see if it really was as good as I remembered. I discovered that it held up well, that it was a much shorter book than I expected, that the descriptive writing was still superb, but that the sexual chemistry that had seemed so unusual and alien four decades earlier was synoptic in a way I had not recalled. Overall, the novel felt more ordinary than I wanted it to be – it no longer seemed to be the paradigm shift it had once been, but this, I suspect, is a result of its own influence. It broke new ground and a generation of writers took strength and confidence from it. It remains a work of classic status, in my view. (4 years)

The point of all this:

The number of years noted at the end of each description is of course a rough estimate of the time since I last read any of these books. I have revisited these titles because throughout most of November Nina was encouraging me to take part in the Locus “All-Centuries” poll, and vote for the “best” novels and short stories from the 20th and 21st centuries.

In their publicity, Locus did not explain what they meant by “Best”, which immediately raised the usual questions of definition: best written?, best selling?, best loved?, and so on. Never mind that. I was resisting because I generally find these popularity polls a bit meaningless, rather like those internet polls you sometimes see: Do you believe in God? Vote now: Y/N. In the world of books such a poll has an extra quality of absurdity in a genre of fiction where there are so many sacred cows, so many false or misleading literary values, so much reader-nostalgia for the stuff they read when first discovering science fiction or fantasy.

Nina’s best argument in favour of making me think up my own submission was that unless a large number of people with a variety of interests actually voted for the work they believed in, those cows would remain sacred, and the familiar hegemony of the Heinlein-Asimov-Clarke-Bradbury school would stay unchallenged.

Well, I finally gave in, while suspecting that there aren’t enough votes in the world to dislodge Robert A. Heinlein or Frank Herbert from their dominant position as immovable greats. Using the “memory-jogger” lists that Locus provided (which were in fact pretty good, as the net they threw was quite a wide one) I came up with about fourteen titles from the 20th century that I could argue were the “best”. After some thought I dropped four of them. I wanted, for instance, to include something by H. G. Wells, but in reality his best scientific romances were all published in the 19th century, and it felt like special pleading to put in something like The First Men in the Moon (1901) just because it was by Wells.

Then I looked again at the 10 titles that remained, and the doubts about the whole enterprise returned in force. I was and am painfully aware of how long it was since I had read most of them. Now that I have looked into my recollections of the reading of each title, I realize how unreliable my judgement must be. Not only is my reading of (e.g.) The Space Merchants half a century old, it comes from a literary culture that has disappeared, and even the corporate America that was being satirized is no more. This is the same flawed argument that makes some people cling to their liking for the Heinlein juveniles or the Asimov robot stories they read when they were 14. I was 16 when I read the most long-distance of all these books, but at least I have re-read some of them in relatively recent times, so feel I can argue for or against them with some confidence.

I have listed the books in the chronology of my most recent reading – this is not the same as the order as I would put them in for preference. In fact, now I look at the list I think that I would reverse it entirely: but with Pavane above Left Hand, and The Space Merchants below Nineteen Eighty-Four.

However, I know that my false values, my nostalgia, my sacred cows, are just as unreliable as everyone else’s. I never sent in my list. Locus will be announcing the thrilling results later this month.