Chabon in The NY Times

Michiko Kakutani reviews Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in The New York Times today. I honestly have little time or interest in the discussion of how genre fiction is or isn’t viewed in the mainstream, or even in the divide between genre and mainstream, but I was struck by how the one thing that Kakutani repeatedly praised is Chabon’s world-building skills. The novel, which I’m reading at the moment, is an alternate history, and a good one. The only possible thing that might set it apart from genre alternate histories (and this is a big maybe) is that the alternate history element of the story is pretty much used only as setting, while the story focusses on other matters. That is to say, the alternate history isn’t the point of the story. At least, not so far. Even allowing for that, it’s hard to see how anything else could win the Sidewise Award. Actually, here’s a question: given that the most successful science fiction novel of 2007 was written by Cormac McCarthy, do we in the genre have the courage to recognise non-genre writers achievements in these areas? Or, do we just not like to see the mainstream playing in our sandpit?

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8 Comments

  1. Actually, here’s a question: given that the most successful science fiction novel of 2007 was written by Cormac McCarthy, do we in the genre have the courage to recognise non-genre writers achievements in these areas? Or, do we just not like to see the mainstream playing in our sandpit?

    I think there is snobbery on both sides. SF fans are reluctant to admit mainstream SF novels into the canon–and mainstream writers are equally reluctant to let their work be classified as SF, even when its clearly so. Margaret Atwood comes to mind.

  2. It’s absence from the Clarke Award list is because the publisher refused to submit it and said they did not want it considered (Pynchon’s publisher’s didn’t reply). So we invited them into the sandpit and they declined.

  3. >do we in the genre have the courage to recognise non-genre writers achievements in these areas? Or, do we just not like to see the mainstream playing in our sandpit?

    Personally, I find the disregard for genre barriers — on both sides — pretty darn thrilling. I’m pleased as hell there’s a post-apocalyptic novel receiving so much interest & acclaim. The sheer expansion of possibilities for craft & for audience is not to be dismissed!

    Bam!

  4. Ishiguro was invited, and he came. In person. Everything takes time, and this is just the beginning; but Jonathan is right. It’s very much time these barriers came down (I don’t even like the barriers metaphor, or any geographical metaphor, because it reinforces the idea of distinction). I just reviewed the new Palahniuk. It’s a science fiction novel, and a very, very clever one; but it’s also a very clever and funny literary novel which devours just about every principle sacred to literary novelists–ie, it’s savagely fast and readable and trashy and cheap and just a lot of fun. If we must call them “barriers” let’s get them down, but I’d rather have some more fluid image of mingling and turbulence–it would be rather more contemporary than all this static stuff.

  5. Successful in terms of mainstream kudos (including Oprah’s book club), but in what other sense? The Road left me pretty thoroughly underwhelmed: it could have been an important book fifty years ago, maybe even as recently as twenty years ago, but I thought it was less interesting thematically than Neal Barrett Jr.’s Through Darkest America and stylistically than Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. A Canticle for Leibowitz, IMHO, is at least its equal on both fronts.

    That said, I’ve never minded mainstream authors “playing in our sandpit”. I’ll happily recognize the achievements of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Marge Piercy, Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, Doris Lessing, even Margaret Atwood (despite her comments about the genre). But giving this a Pulitzer while Ray Bradbury’s lifetime work is fobbed off with a “special citation”? Give me a break.

  6. I believe the barrier is essentially one-sided. Almost from the beginning, strong elements in the SF field have sought mainstream respectability, without lasting success. As a result, there is now a degree of defensive rejection on this side of the barrier. Why should we bestow are highest honors on writers or film makers who won’t show up to accept them, being too rich and important to care or too terrified of having their literary reputations tainted by association with that aweful sci-fi stuff? Support of the barrier is on the mainstream literary side. SF has become so prominent and popular that non-genre writers are willing to borrow some of our paraphernalia. But they still want their novels marketed and reviewed as “not really science fiction.” Being nominated for a Hugo would be so painfully embarrassing.

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