They shoot talking horses, don’t they?

So this year’s Clarke award short list has caused a bit of a stooshie. It always does, it’s that kind of an award although, in the past, it used be complaints about books from non-genre publishers sneaking into the ghetto party; now it seems to be the other way around. I’ve no intention of going near some of the stuff that’s come up over the last 24 hours. People have opinions; yay for people!  But what I’m interested in is some of the assumptions made about the skills that go into writing a novel, and their relative worth.

I found Nina Allan’s response interesting for its reference to a recent Guardian article by Damien Walter that asked the question: Should Science Fiction and Fantasy do more than entertain?  Nina, quite correctly, opined that the genre should be at a stage of maturity now where such a question should no longer need to be asked (although, to give Damien credit, perhaps it still has value to a wider audience like the Guardian readership–one would hope not, but…).  The answer to the question is plain: of course it should. But for me there’s a danger of demoting the value of entertainment. Yes, undoubtedly, the scope that working in SF and Fantasy affords should in fact (and I’d argue, in the best cases, does) place genre novels at the cutting-edge of literature. All literature. I love the boundary pushing stuff, and I’m proud to call it my own.

But SF and Fantasy novels are allowed to entertain too. And if for many of them their function, their ambition, is solely to entertain, they shouldn’t be criticised. There are still (believe it or not) a lot of books published every year. There’s room for the literary edge-cutting stuff and the core genre entertaining stuff. In fact there’s a demand for both. But my point here is not about writing for the market or about some perceived bifurcated readership: the enlightened reader vs the undemanding but immersed reader (many of whom are actually the same individual who like variety). My point is about what it takes to make those kind of books work: to make them the kind of books that readers genuinely get lost in, whose pages they cannot help but turn, whose characters they grow to love, whose deaths they weep over. There’s a huge amount of skill required to make a book that kind of entertainment. The ideas may not be particularly inventive, the prose may not sparkle (as long as its serviceable for its purpose that’s all that matters), the form and structure may be industry standard and its place of reference in the genre conversation might be firmly rooted in the late seventies, but if the author’s aim is to write an a gripping, entertaining adventure–and they excel at that–then that, to my mind, should be rewarded.

It might be argued that there are a lot of awards out there, and some are automatically more suited to celebrating those qualities (The Gemmell Awards recognise THE Fantasy for example), but as it has been pointed out, the Clarke Award judges change every year and if this year’s selectors saw fit to reward what–to me–looks like a genuine variety of types of book, then good on them. I said before that I’ve only read two of the shortlisted titles (and mostly enjoyed them, although there are other books that I enjoyed more), and I suppose there’s a chance that some of the ones I’ve not read yet will turn out to be not to my taste. If they’re really rubbish, I might get a bit angry too. But if the criticism against some of the novels is simply that they’re core genre–that they fail to seek to push those boundaries, that their ambition is merely to entertain–then I think that’s devaluing a huge part of what makes genre writing great.

5 thoughts on “They shoot talking horses, don’t they?

  1. The main reason I read fiction? To be entertained. Sometimes I’m entertained by lofty ideas or awakened to new empathies by walking in the main character’s shoes. But sometimes I just love the mystery, or the action, or the love story and the author created such a good experience for me and I’m thankful for that. Like you said, no need to demean authors who entertain.

    1. Thanks for that, Ellie. Sometimes authors have a tendency to view the merits of a novel in a much more analytical way than regular readers do, and sometimes they tend to lose sight of what’s actually important to the readership. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with quite a lot of what Nina says in her post–partially about the merits of the Stross and Mieville books and very much so about some of the ones that didn’t make the list, like Osama–and I’m not necessarily arguing for awards to be given to entertaining books in preference to novels that are ambitious in their ideas or form. My own preference is for a magic balance of all of those things, but that hardly ever happens, does it? All this post was trying to say is that a book can have many qualities, and I can see no problem with–all other things being equal–a novel of modest ambition told so skilfully that it totally grips, mesmerises and captures me emotionally being given an award over dryer works with more lofty intentions. (Again, this is not meant to refer to this year’s Clarke, as not having read all the books I can’t make that assertion, but just in general).

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