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The great literary paranoia

Nilanjana S Roy | September 08, 2005

I'm sceptical about software packages for writers, but that comes from years of trying to persuade my machine to write my column for me. To no effect: the computer has better memory than I do, but it also has permanent writer's block.

One of the cleverer writing software packages is called New Novelist -- `The software will coax the detail out of you and store it in a useable and accessible format.' It's interesting how well New Novelist understands market forces: `You're then asked to choose which category (plot-driven, character-driven or epic) and plot-type your story uses.'

This is cynical, but not bad, advice to the aspiring, untested writer: decide in advance whether you want to be High Lit, or crime, or chicklit, then figure out how to write it. It may have not been how Faulkner or Soyinka, Raymond Chandler or Ursula K Le Guin got going, but it's a start.

Mainstream literary prize lists reveal a deep paranoia, a grand defence of the literary novel versus whatever oozing horror might try to slide through the gates.

Margaret Atwood would make the cut for a Booker shortlist with mediocre science fiction allied to tremendous literary skill, but Nancy Kress (Beggars In Spain), a brilliant writer who can ask classic SFs question with as much literary style as the most desiccated critic might desire -- no, she's out.

The ambitious, sprawling, cluttered epics of Dom DeLillo or Salman Rushdie or Peter Carey qualify; but the far more ambitious epics of Neil Gaiman or Stephen King stay outside the gates.

It's the market that needs genres, divisions and careful corralling of authors; with more books being published in our time, the publishing industry needs labelling and categorisation as much as the food industry. Whether a particular writer is actually a rare epicure taste, an exotic indulgence, a mainstream gourmet pleasure or a processed mass-market snack is less important than the fact that the label has stuck.

The divisions we make are deeply inadequate. William Gibson? He's cyberpunk. But Haruki Murakami, who writes on the thin edge of fantasy? He's literary. Rushdie's a literary writer, if you manage to ignore -- and most do -- that early, clumsy foray into SF with Grimus, his flirtation with classic SF techniques in Fury, the use of fantasy in Midnight's Children.

However, the borders between the closely guarded kingdom of high literature and the invading barbarian hordes from the worlds of SF, fantasy, crime writing or reportage are very porous.

Susanna Clarke, whose debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell imagined two wizards clashing in an England forgetting its heritage of magic, won the Hugo this month. Jonathan Strange was on the Booker longlist and a score of other mainstream prize shortlists last year; but that didn't stop the judges of one of the world's great SF awards from seeing it as the fine work of fantasy it is.

Off just this year's Booker longlist, Ian McEwan's Saturday examines esoteric medical territory in ways that are close to non-fiction science writing. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go asks a great SF question: what would the lives of clones be like? There are writers who've asked that question before Ishiguro, but they all come from the SF tradition.

Writers know something that critics should: the terrain in which you write is vast and endless and contains no borders; the worlds of literature and genre fiction bleed into each other all the time.

Back in 1989, a writer began work on a saga of seven ageless siblings, Dream, Destiny, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair and Destruction. His source material included Shakespeare, Greek myth, the life of Lucifer after the fall, and Barbie. This is classic epic territory; if any mainstream novelist attempted even half of this, he'd get a Booker nod simply on the grounds of ambition.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman saga was published in graphic novel form between 1989 and 1996, and ranks as one of the great works of storytelling and imagination, no questions asked.

And of course he didn't get a Booker nod; faced with a great writer using a thoroughly contemporary form to tell a great story, the response from the guardians at the gates of literature was to pretend that Gaiman and Sandman didn't exist. Half the authors on the Booker shortlists that spanned that period have been forgotten, justly. But the Sandman is still read, and celebrated -- outside the gates.


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