Thursday, 19 June 2008

Fear of the Nerd Ghetto

"I'm looking for a copy of The Hobbit, please." "It's in the Science Fiction section under T." "Science Fiction?? Why on earth would you put Tolkien under Science Fiction???" ... To which the obvious answer is, wearily, where else is there? One could argue that he (and HG Wells, and Jules Verne) invented the genre of science fiction/fantasy. It is possible for a book to be, technically, science fiction, and yet, simultaneously, a work of litrachoor. Great science fiction works masquerading as "acceptable" literature include 1984, The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy, the Gormenghast trilogy, and many books by Margaret Atwood, J G Ballard, Nabokov, Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, yadda yadda yadda. I've had to argue the case for the prize-winners Persepolis and Maus being "worth reading", despite being graphic novels. "Literary Fiction" is my least favourite publisher-invented category, the implication being that any other kind of fiction is somehow less worth reading, or only as "a holiday read". People often ask for a recommendation for something to read, or for a book group, adding hastily "Literary fiction, you know, something good." I have always believed that you have to have everything in your literary diet; how can you judge what's trash unless you've read it? How can you appreciate the marvellousness of Jane Austen without having read Georgette Heyer (far lower brow but actually historically spot-on and immensely good fun)? How can you spot the unashamedly enormous chunks of dialogue and plot Jilly Cooper* has plagiarised wholesale without having read Alison Lurie's Love and Friendship, Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair, Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, or Cyra McFadden's fabulously funny The Serial? And some of the greatest and most enjoyable pieces of potboiler have survived multiple reprintings - Gone With The Wind, for instance. I can't think of anything more enjoyable for a book group than the 1956 bonkbuster Peyton Place - after all, it has a fabulously racy plot and, these days, it's a very interesting insight into the way small towns in the 50s reacted to issues of adultery, illegitimacy, abortion etc. Any takers? ...
* Just realised I got that analogy the wrong way round and inadvertently compared Jilly Cooper to Jane Austen. Probably a first in the world of fiction. What I meant was - while enjoying the very lightweight charms of Ms Cooper, spare a thought for the considerably greater talents of Lurie, Dundy, McFadden and particularly the excellent Tey...

10 comments:

Rol said...

Hear hear! Break down the walls of genre-snobbery - a good story is a good story regardless.

lucyfishwife said...

Rol - Nothing sadder than people who won't read a book unless it's B-Format (Lit Fic size) and classily jacketed. Like anyone on the bus cares what you're reading! There was a brilliant bit in Francis Spufford's "The Child That Books Built" (great book, great author)about the face he adopts when browsing sci-fi - a kind of chimpy grimace of "Oohff no THANKS" if the cover has metal bikinis etc on it..

The Poet Laura-eate said...

How I know this debate well from my days as an Oxfam Bookshop Volunteer. At least twice on my watch ever Saturday! And most couldn't *believe* they ought to check religion as well for titles by CS Lewis.

And we even had some old friends of CS Lewis as our regulars.

lucyfishwife said...

I used to work with a girl who insisted in putting in the Gay/Lesbian Fiction section ANYTHING that was by a gay author - so travel writing by Bruce Chatwin, plays by Oscar Wilde, biographies of Dirk Bogarde etc etc were never where you expected them to be. We just about managed to stop her putting kids' books there too...

Reluctant Blogger said...

Oh yes, I am not keen on typecasting books - it depends what mood you are in. I read all sorts - some is what would probably be considered real dross and I read a lot of teen type fiction because some of it is very good. And putting things in sections can put people off - I would be put off things in the SciFi category but actually some books which might fall in there I have picked up in secondhand bookshops and read and enjoyed and only later seen they are categorised as SciFi.

Dan said...

I think the anti-snobism should extend beyond books too. There is nothing wrong with a summer blockbuster movie, for example, or a good old bit of bubblegum pop

Steve said...

The only author I actively avoid these days is Pratchett... but I did read 2 of his novels first... other than that I'll read anything. Oh apart from Geri Halliwell.

lucyfishwife said...

RB - well QUITE,the only problem is the enforced stereotyping publishers are guilty of - book jackets are now aimed squarely at the hard of thinking. I used to want to have a section called "Odd" because most of the things I like tend to fall between categories, and my greatest teerm of approbation for a book is "It's quite ODD..."

Dan - some of my favourite music is cheese, some of my favourite movies are blockbusters. I love CGI. And many of my favourite authors are schlocky (Stephen King, Kim Newman, etc). Snobbery is a major major crime in any industry!

Steve - I draw the line at anything that says "based on my real-life SAS experiences" or is called something along the lines of "Please Daddy Don't"...

Steerforth said...

I've just discovered your blog, via your comment on mine. It's superb! I shall now be a regular visitor and have put a link on my main page.

Did you work for Ottakar's as well, or just Waterstone's?

lucyfishwife said...

Steerforth - Just the W - I was part of the consultation group* when they tried to reconcile** the Ottakars/Waterstones contracts.

* unlistened-to group of booksellers that Personnel were under contractual obligation to pretend to consult

** screw both sides of