Peter Temple wins Miles Franklin Award
Some of you may have caught up with last night’s announcement that Peter Temple has won the 2010 Miles Franklin Award for his novel, Truth.
I want to post something about the award and its profile later this week, but for now I think it’s worth saying I think it’s an interesting decision. There’s no doubt Temple’s a truly gifted writer, and while I suspect his last novel, The Broken Shore, is probably marginally better, Truth is a very impressive piece of work (to my mind the unrelenting darkness is a bit overwhelming, and the highly stylized language actually gets in the way of Temple’s real strength, which is his uncanny ear not just for the Australian vernacular, but for the darkness below the surface of Australian society).
But simultaneously, Truth is, at its heart, a piece of genre fiction. Now before you all leap down my throat, let me point out that I don’t mean that as criticism, and neither am I suggesting that there’s a hierarchy at the pinnacle of which sits the literary novel. What I am saying is that it’s possible to recognise and define forms of writing that operate within particular conventions, and which are, to a greater or lesser extent, judged by their success within those conventions. Crime fiction is one such genre, as is SF. I’m generally resistant to the notion that literary fiction constitutes another but I recognise many people believe it does. These genres aren’t better or worse than literary fiction, nor are they absolute (in fact they’re actually highly fluid). Nor, despite the tendency to dismiss them as such, are they mere marketing devices. What they are is a kind of critical shorthand, a system that provides ways of understanding and appraising the success or otherwise of different kinds of novels.
Understood like this, I hope no-one will take it askance if I say that whatever else it is, Truth is basically a crime novel, and therefore a piece of genre fiction. That’s not to say it’s not an extremely good crime novel, but it’s still a crime novel, and operates within the conventions and constraints of the genre. And that, in turn, makes it an unusual choice for an award like the Miles Franklin, which has traditionally been reserved for literary fiction.
I suspect the decision is actually a good one, since it goes some way towards breaking down the apartheid between genre and literary fiction, but I also think it’s one that may turn out to be more problematic than the judges realise. That’s partly because it demands they begin making quite difficult choices between different sets of criteria. After all, the quality of a piece of genre fiction is at least partly a function of its success at fulfilling the expectations that define the genre, but is a book that meets those expectations as “good” as a literary novel that meets the expectations we place upon literary fiction by successfully taking risks with language and structure, or challenging the expectations of its readers in interesting ways?
My point isn’t that one’s more significant, or more important than the other, simply that they’re very different sorts of questions, and balancing them is likely to present real challenges. After all, it’s not snobbery that’s seen the development of awards designed specifically for crime novels, but a recognition that crime fiction is a recognisable form, and deserves to be celebrated on its own terms.
But more deeply, opening the door to crime fiction also raises the question of why the judges haven’t opened the door to other genres. Does this decision mean they’ll be reading Greg Egan’s new novel, Zendegi, for next year’s award (assuming, of course, it features an Australian character)? Or Margo Lanagan’s new one (assuming the same thing)? Because surely if they’re prepared to admit crime novels they should be admitting SF and Fantasy? Or indeed Horror, and Romance.
One answer might be that Truth is just a really good novel, and stands comparison with the literary fiction that also made the shortlist. Certainly the judges are at pains to emphasise they think it possesses “all the ambiguity and moral sophistication of the most memorable literature”. And while I think that’s true, it might just as easily be read as an admission the judges are a little uneasy about the basis of their decision. And, more problematically, isn’t this assertion a way of tacitly suggesting “genre” sits somewhere lower on the hierarchy of quality than “literary” fiction, because what you’re really saying is that Truth isn’t just a crime novel (with the emphasis very much upon the “just”)?
As I said above, my point here isn’t to detract from Temple’s win, or to suggest Truth isn’t a worthy winner. But I do think it’s worth registering that it’s a decision that throws up some difficult questions the judges will need to work through in years to come, and one that emphasises the way our criteria for literary quality, and the categories they give shape to, are changing. Is that a good thing? Probably. But it’s definitely a thing, and one that deserves to be recognised, and not hidden away behind shifty notions about Truth being more than “just” a crime novel.
Update: I’ve just noticed that in the time it’s taken me to write this post, Culture Mulcher’s whipped up something on exactly the same point. It’s the quick and the dead, obviously.
1 Just for the record I think Truth fulfils both these criteria.
2 More deeply, you’re also denying the fact that unlike the novels of a writer such as Richard Price, which really do exceed the genre we tacitly group them within, much of Truth’s power derives from its success as a crime novel, so to pretend its generic elements are irrelevant is to place a good part of what makes it a success beyond scrutiny.
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And not just Culture Mulcher but also Jess at Meanjin, which began a comments thread that promises to get longer quickly, where I’ve said what I think about Truth and the crime/genre/’literary’ thing. The win is generating huge interest, in Temple, Truth, the Miles F, fiction and crime fiction. Which is great.
Bloody Jess, beating me to it. And I think your comments there about Temple’s use of literary techniques are well-made, and on the money (as indeed have been your comments here on similar questions). If others are interested, Jess’ post (and Kerryn’s comment) is at http://meanjin.com.au:80/spike-the-meanjin-blog/post/peter-temple-s-truth-wins-miles-franklin-2010/
Haven’t read “Truth” yet – just reserved it, finding it in my local library catalogue, much to my surprise.
My initial thoughts about the hierarchy of “genre” and “literary” fiction are that:
1) At the time of Poe & Dickens there wasn’t much distinction (in English)
2) The distinctions that later arose probably stemmed from the appearance of the dime novel around the turn of the C20th
That gives you both the possibility of the literary genre novel (e.g. “A Great Deliverance” – and, maybe, “Truth”) and the literary critic’s assurance that genre fiction means bald and lurid plots, cardboard characters, uninventive language, simple/simplified concerns…
I’m curious as to whether you meant “assurance” or “assumption”, because if you meant the latter, and it was a slip, it’s an interesting slip, since I suspect the breakdown in the traditional boundaries between genres, and assumptions about them is being driven at least in part by the wider breakdown in the cultural authority of critics, and a lack of preparedness to take their assurances about what’s good and bad as gospel.
That said, I’m not sure it’s exactly right to say the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction didn’t exist in the C19. They had different terms for it, but there were very clearly demarcated ideas as to what was “quality” and what wasn’t. You only have to read George Eliot sniffily describing something as “Dickensy” to know that, or remember the put-down that underpins the derogatory term “novelette”. But you’re certainly correct to emphasise the way the categories have mutated over time.
Bluerose, I’m also wondering just what sort of literary critic you have in mind — James and I, for example, are both ‘literary critics’ and both of us have been running very different lines from the one you describe here, as have, at least in this century, the vast majority of our colleagues and peers.
Speaking as a crime historian here: the genre of crime fiction did not even have a name until the 1880s. It was only after Fergus Hume and Doyle that it became recognizable as a genre. Wilkie Collins’ crime work was defined as ‘sensation’ fiction, along with that of his great rival Mary Braddon. Both of them are now regarded among the great Victorian novelists.
I increasingly find now that the only truly Dickensian novels are modern crime. In terms of quality, it is the most reliable genre I get for reviewing. And I’m by no means a “fan” of the genre, just an eclectic reader.
‘In terms of quality, it is the most reliable genre I get for reviewing.’
This Guardian report just came through my Reader: Neil Gaiman (and others) are talking about the literary/genre (here in the context of short story narratives)?
This may show my ignorance but I would have thought that the first and most important criteria would be: Is the book a good read? If that was a crieria I would have thought as long as a genre novel can pass other tests(three dimensional characters(or does the literary fraternity demand four dimensions these days), well crafted writing, plausible(within the context of the novel) events, etc.) it would have a better chance of suceeding.
Mr Bradley, would you list the conventions and constraints of the crime novel? Even in shorthand, it would help the ignorant.
I think that’s a question better directed to someone who really knows the genre like Kerryn or Lucy. I’m just a crime fiction dilettante.
Quote Understood like this, I hope no-one will take it askance if I say that whatever else it is, Truth is basically a crime novel, and therefore a piece of genre fiction. That’s not to say it’s not an extremely good crime novel, but it’s still a crime novel, and operates within the conventions and constraints of the genre.Unquote
These do not sound like the words of a crime fiction dilettante, Mr Bradley. They have the bell-like tones of someone who knows what he’s talking about. Would you please explain them.
Hi, James, Kerryn; sorry, so few comments came through on the receive notification of comments thingy I didn’t realize you had both responded.
James: I did mean “assure”. The assurance can be direct or indirect – see Craven, below.
What I am thinking of is criticism in the first half of the C20th, where Isherwood and Maugham were both ranked as serious novelists, along with Woolf and Joyce. Literary fiction contained more varieties of fiction then.
Recently Peter Craven wrote a small piece (in the SMH, I think) about the short listees for the missing Booker. His review of Fire from Heaven contained an expression of surprise – he said he kept forgetting how literate it was. That surprise raises two questions, or maybe hackles: why should Craven be surprised at literacy in a novel by Renault? (Because FfH is a historical novel and historical novels are not literate by definition?) Why does Craven not know that Renault was at Oxford with Isherwood, – attended the same lectures, had literally the same education as Isherwood – and was as literate as Isherwood?
The general slight surprise that Wolf Hall won this year’s Booker – being a historical novel – is another echo of the same assumption, and now fading assurance, on the part of critics about the hierarchy of literary worth that developed later in the C20th.
And now here we are – a crime novel with the MF.
There is social & economic turmoil afoot, and these Booker & MF decisions are reflections of it.
Bryce, if it’s any use to you, I wrote such a list in my comment at the Meanjin discussion, so here it is: ‘the original/eccentric detective, the multiple points of view, the school of red herrings, the school of the hard-boiled, the plethora of suspects, the scorpion twist and sting in the tail, clear good/evil and crime/punishment distinctions, the lerve subplot, the psychologically astute (Val McDermid’s Tony Hill) or semi-fey (Will Whatsisname in Red Dragon) intuitives — and with equally strong and well-established sub-genres: the clue-puzzle, the ‘country house’ plot, the police procedural.’
To that list of sub-genres I would add the psychological thriller, and to the list of crime-story conventions I would add the initial discovery of a dead body and the subsequent ‘reading’ of that body as a means to solving the crime. Kathy Reichs’ novels are a good example of the latter.
Another strong convention of the crime genre is the alternative to Philip Marlowe’s lone detective figure (from whom has developed a variation on that theme: the lone detective figure with the screwed-up private life and neglected health, like Mankell’s Wallander or Rankin’s Rebus), and that is the two-person team, often an odd couple or unlikely pairing who are nonetheless complementary in their skills and personalities and who have a strong bond: a good contemporary example is Elizabeth George’s aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley and his working-class sidekick Sergeant Barbara Havers, another is Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, and of course the best-known and probably the earliest is Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
KG: “and to the list of crime-story conventions I would add the initial discovery of a dead body and the subsequent ‘reading’ of that body as a means to solving the crime.”
Kerryn’s observation @ “reading” bodies, which is the dominant feature of the CSI/Forensic branch of the crime business (ala Reichs and Cornwell), brings to mind yet another sub-genre – that of “reading” society rather than bodies as a means, not perhaps of solving the crime but of pinpointing who the real criminals are or where the real guilt lies.
There are mainstream crime writers working this side of the street, like Sara Paretsky, George Pelecanos, Rankin (particularly in a book like Fleshmarket Close or Naming of the Dead) – and on TV, The Wire. The Australian writer Camilla Nelson has called this sub-genre the Social Crime Novel – a bringing together of the large themes and scale of the Social Novel, but written as crime.
I think Temple, in Broken Shore with its indigenous plot elements and Truth with its corruption, is also working in this genre. Which is perhaps what the MF judges responded to.
What defines these writers and their books is that at the end, though some sense of resolution may be obtained, ultimately they expose something rotten at the heart of the society/institution/culture and fail to change or defeat it. In these novels the restoration or continuance of the status quo is no cause for celebration.
It’s a big tent this crime tent – tempted to quote Dr Who and suggest that:
“People assume that crime is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… crime-y wimey… stuff. “
Thank you, Ms Goldsworthy. But what of the constraints of crime fiction? Mr Bradley and others have used the term ‘conventions and constraints’ as if they were a collocation.
You’re not going to let me off the hook here, are you?
Well, off the top of my head, let me give you two. One is the subject matter. As the name suggests, Crime Fiction is tangled up in all the worst aspects of human nature. That’s not a bad thing, but it does constrain it in terms of theme and subject matter.
Another is its dependence upon plot. Obviously there are degrees of this, but almost – if not all – crime fiction is focussed to a greater or lesser degree on questions of whodunnit, or will they get caught. And since the resolution of that question is usually less interesting than the possibilities thrown up along the way, and the state of not knowing, it tends to mean crime fiction tends to be more interesting before you know what’s going on (something very similar can be seen in the inability of shows like The X-Files, Lost and Battlestar Galactica to satisfyingly pay off the possibilities they throw up).
In this context I think it’s interesting to compare novels like those of Richard Price to those of Temple. For all the sophistication of Temple’s craft, and the complexity of the social and moral analysis, the resolution of the mystery remains central, and I tend to leave the books with a sense of disappointment (the more traditionally literary device of the epilogue in Truth notwithstanding).
In Price’s novels, by contrast, the whodunnit elements are really just pretexts for a much more traditionally literary sort of novel, concerned with the textures of inner worlds and social detail. And, as a consequence, they tend to end with possibility, and openness, rather than resolution.
Again, this isn’t necessarily a criticism. And I do think it’s interesting to note the way the newer iterations of the form, in particular the Wire-esque creations PM Newton describes as Social Crime Novels move beyond this preoccupation with plot (though interestingly, I actually think when it comes to Pelecanos the straight crime novels do this more effectively than the more “literary” novels). But it’s certainly a constraint, and one writers work with and against in different ways and with differing degrees of success (to borrow Kerryn’s expression).
I suspect Kerryn may well disagree with me on this point. And as I say I’m not a serious reader of Crime Fiction. But to my mind it is one of the constraints operating upon Truth, and indeed quite a lot of Crime Fiction.
Oh and please call me James. The Mr Bradley thing is freaking me out.
This might be of interest as well:
‘I suspect Kerryn may well disagree with me on this point.’
Sorry, James, which bit?
I would add a third and perhaps more nebulous but still very powerful form of constraint and that is readership. Readers of crime fiction are on the whole a very knowledgeable and sophisticated group, at least with regard to their chosen genre, and they have a set of expectations about what a crime novel will entail, which direction it will go in, what its main characters will be like and how the plot will play out. If you set out to write a crime novel and then ignore any of the factors that make it a genre that people want to read (see list upthread there) then you will end up with no readership.
To my mind good crime writers are those who can (also) write within their crime stories the kind of scene that has nothing directly to do with the crime but takes your breath away in a ‘literary-novel’ (perhaps they would be better called ‘art novels’, as in ‘art music’) kind of way. Like the scene in Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night where Harriet Vane realises, after about five books’ worth of UST, that she is, in fact, in love with the hero. Or the opening scene of an early Kathy Reichs, before her agent or whover fatally told her to dumb it down, in which Temperance Brennan walks numbly through the scene of a plane crash, looking at body parts hanging out ot the trees, clearly in a state of shock, and it’s described from her benumbed and alienated POV. Or the scene in The Broken Shore where Joe Cashin is lying in hospital, life-threateningly smashed up and in terrible pain, and a sympathetic nurse brings him an iPod (or equivalent) with the great Swedish tenor Jussi Björling on it and although he’s never heard of Björling and knows nothing about opera it somehow gets him through the night and everything looks marginally more bearable in the morning. (And this in a book which is essentially about child abuse and racism; Temple is a serious ‘social’ writer.) I suppose it depends on which crime writers you read, but there’s no dearth of complex interiority in the good ones.
That said, I do take James’s point about the mystery-solution prevailing, but I don’t have a problem with that. I like a little closure.
It was the mystery-prevailing thing I thought you might disagree with, since it suggests a fairly narrow sort of reading. And just for the record, I wasn’t suggesting there wasn’t interiority in crime books, just that in Price’s the interiority takes precedence. The final pages of Lush Life (for instance) are pretty incredible.
And I’d be happy to be provided with a good list of 20 crime writers or crime books I absolutely should have read if anyone felt like making one (I suppose with Crime it’s the writers that count, rather than the books). My reading in the genre is pretty patchy and I’d be very happy to be given some guidance on where to begin filling in the gaps.
I’ll throw a few suggestions on the list for James.
If you haven’t read Rankin (or even if you have) I’d put The Naming of the Dead out there and as a companion piece, Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist. 2 books that are crime novels but are actually state of the nation novels about, in Paretsky’s case, how the USA was going slowly mad after 9/11 and during the introduction of the Patriot Act and how they’d done it all before, and in Rankin’s book set during the G8 in Edinburgh and the London bombings, how it feels to be invaded, see the rule of law begin to fray and how people behave in such circumstances. Having read Saturday and Falling Man both post 9/11 world novels, I found the characters, the ideas and the themes of the crime writers resonated on a deeper level than did McEwan or DeLillo.
I’m currently reading (from 1 – 10) the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. To best appreciate them you really ought to read them in order, they planned them as a large 10 part novel, and the characters really do develop over the course of the series, as does the major character, the welfare state of Sweden from the mid 60s to the 70s as seen through the eyes of a couple of Marxist journos. As you wanted 20 and I’ve just suggested a 10 book series – I’ll leave it at that.
Though – I’d like to throw up a question.
There are literary writers who jump the fence at times to “do” genre. Benjamin Black is perhaps the one that springs to mind, though I’d also include Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, which featured a forensic examiner trying to solve the murder of one man in the midst of a civil war.
More recently, Richard Flanagan wrote The Unknown terrorist, and in early interviews made it clear that he felt his usual way of writing wasn’t going to work for the story he wanted to tell. So, he’d adopted what he termed a simpler form, and simpler words, because he wanted the reader to see straight into the story.
The reception of that book was an interesting example (it seemed to an outsider looking in) of critics not knowing which way to “judge” the book. Some reviewed it as a crime thriller and found it not overly successful (TLS) – some reviewed it as a “mockery” of the form of the crime thriller and kind of very clever piss take (NYRB) and some as a straight political work by a literary author that worked on every level (Michiko Kakutani).
It didn’t work for me and seemed to be a good example of how a writer, perhaps seeing genre writing as all form and no heart, fell into the trap of ticking the boxes of conventions and constraint instead of seeing them as scaffolding on to which you can actually make unique works of art.
… um, so my question re he Unknown Terrorist was … was that book genre or literary? Did it work (in your opinion)? Did it work or fail on what grounds – as genre or literary?
There … a few questions.
In terms of either quiet or amazing en passant interiority, and / or integrated social observation / analysis, I’d rank middle-period Rankin over the last few books (definitely over Naming the Dead). Rankin wrote 20 Rebus books: towards the end he was clearly sick of the subject.
Pelecanos’s crime novels are more successfully socially observant than the non-crime novels.
The most successful bridger of worlds, I think, is Walter Mosely. Easy Rawlins’s voice is very recognizable L.A. – pained, correct, self-educated, aware; speaking truth about all. Mosely’s evocation of post-riot Watts (still burnt out & unreconstructed, parts, 20 years later), is spot on. Those novels do allow for both pessimism on the grand scale (though they’re not always pessimistic there), and for genuine pleasure in and appeciation of small victories.
I think Mosely is the 3rd great pillar of post-war (WW2) crime / detective fiction, along with Chandler and Hammett. The template did come from Southern California.
I’ve found this discussion really interesting. On the topic of whether “Truth” is a work of literary fiction or not – as a reader, I would have thought that a book in any genre could potentially be a work of literary fiction. I don’t know what the official criteria is, but in my book a well written novel which succeeds in engaging the reader is the criteria. This could be due to a strong plot, interesting characters, or capturing the right tone for the novel. An example for me would be Sonya Hartnett’s “Butterfly”. To me it seemed to be confused. The style of writing (lots of descriptions, metaphors, etc) and setting of 1980’s didn’t seem to sit well with a story about the issues of being a 13 year old girl. Interestingly, my 15 year old son had to read “Ghost’s Child” for school and wouldn’t read another of Hartnett’s books based on his experience and he is a voracious reader of many different styles. I contrast this with Merlina Marchetta’s “Saving Francesca” (about a group of 17 and 18 year olds) having similar issues but more simply written and thus is, in my opinion, a more believable and engaging novel (even to someone on the wrong side of 40).
My two cents on crime fiction – just finished Jo Nesbo’s “The Redbreast”. Although 10 years old, it had all the elements that a reader wants, no matter the genre. A plot that uses the issues of the country in which it is set (in this case the history of Norway’s involvement in WWII) to create a believable basis for the story. Many subplots which are finally interwoven at the end, but keep the reader engaged. Characters that are believable and not “photoshopped” to remove all those traits and backgrounds that make them interesting.
I’m going to take the Fifth on The Unknown Terrorist, simply because I know Richard a bit, and it’s always a little weird to go picking through books by people you know in public. But one thing I would say is that if memory serves he actually claimed the model wasn’t a crime book but a novel by a German novelist whose name escapes me at present.
And thank you all for the crime fiction suggestions. I’ve read Rankin (though only Exit Music, which I was pretty underwhelmed by) but will go back and check out some of the earlier ones. Haven’t read Paretsky but will (I’m assuming I should read Mankell as well). And agree re Pelecanos, who I’ve read quite a bit of – the “straight” crime novels are much better than the attempts at a more literary mode. Never quite got the measure of Mosley, but suppose I should try again.
I’m now wondering whether I should promote this question, and the similar question as to which are the great SF novels to the status of a full post . .
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Böll, is the one you’re thinking of. And no worries re taking the 5th.
Though if anyone else wants to chuck in their two cents worth I’d be interested.
And I was also underwhelmed by Exit Music – though I’d disagree with bluerose that Naming of the Dead wasn’t one of the strong ones. I felt Rankin was exploring some fairly meaty ideas in that one and that it’s quite a passionate book. Which bearing in mind how close to the end of the series it is, is an achievement.
And this has reminded me to re-visit Mosley.
Re SF post – is Science Fiction to Speculative Fiction, what genre fiction is to literary fiction?
As an example of an earlier lit-crime crossover – I’m currently reading Judah Waten’s ‘Shares in Murder’ (may have the title wrong as it’s on my bedside table at home) published in 1958. It’s fantastic, but I doubt whether it would be published now – the dialog is passably authentic, but Waten achieves the great bulk of his characterisation in what might be described as a ‘literary’ way (in the same way Temple wonderfully constructs Villani in ‘Truth’ by way of reflections upon his early life with his father, but far more extensively.) That is, a few lines of dialog, and then a large slab of exposition. For me, at least, this works well for Waten principally because it’s in these expositional chunks that the real perceptiveness and depth of character flows through – but that’s the odd thing. Perhaps this is what Kerryn meant when she said that readers of the crime genre come to crime fiction with certain expectations – and in Waten’s book the expectations for a modern reader would I suppose be confounded (Lee Burke writes a bit like this too, but not nearly to the same extent) and while my favourite parts of ‘Truth’ are the passages at the farm, richly textured, full of feeling, it’s an unusual crime writer from my experience who is brave enough to slow the plot with these more dense, but often more rewarding passages of prose that generally function more to characterise than directly advance the plot (in this respect alone I found ‘Truth’ somewhat literary – although the dialog began to irk me a bit – I much prefer his ‘Shooting Star’.)
Thanks, James and all, for your kindly reception & feedback. I hope that anyone who looks at Mosely will find the books as satisfying and pleasurable as I have. (Because without pleasure there is nothing.)
It’s interesting that an earlier book, Broken Shore, was the better book.
Years ago, decades even, while writing my thesis I noticed a pattern of next books winning. One book would be well received and get great reviews, but somehow miss out on the award. It was as if there was a time lag involved before a good book could be properly absorbed by the judges. It was the author’s next book, even though the reviews were often less favorable, that would win.
interesting discussion on Truth. To me its form was as important as its content, or plot, and I guess that would be my shorthand definition of literary. I’ve never been a crime fan precisely because of your point that the books mostly collapse like a souffle once you know the plot, leaving disappointment and a slightly sick feeling, like eating too much chocolate.
It would be wonderful to have this discussion about Sci-Fi – could this be a separate post, as you mention above? I think Sci-fi and fantasy are, culturally, where crime was a few years ago – massively popular but looked down on by many. Sophistication around speculative fiction seems to be lacking in Australia in particular – one wonders how Mitchell or Kim Stanley Robinson would fare were they Australian.
I don’t have a definitive list of great sci-fi/fantasy novels though would have thought The Odyssey, The Inferno and Gullivers Travels were pointers to its literary antiquity. Enders Game by Orson Scott Card is intriguing partly because it is used in officer training by the US military and partly because it has plot twists that don’t lead to the souffle collapse/sick feeling I mentioned above.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Mars Trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt are books that I would argue should satisfy as both speculative and literary fiction – I am using these terms as shorthand of course.
A fascinating element of appreciating classic sci-fi is the way it ages. It endures its ‘dated’ period (which many literary works also suffer) and then if its social commentary is sharp enough and the ideas interesting enough, it becomes as much a document of its time as any other good writing. Despite ignorant fluff from the commentariat during the year 1984 that Orwell’s book somehow ‘failed’ to predict the future, what’s astonishing about Brave New World and 1984 is just how much Huxley and Orwell got right. Anyway, who says 1984 didn’t predict the future? We have security cameras everywhere (a major element of Truth) and it outlined North Korea’s fate pretty well…
It would be interesting to hear thoughts on why sci-fi and its friends and relations seem to be the most profitable and popular film genre and yet get so little love in the literary world? My guess is that film solves two classic sci-fi problems with ease – the ‘info-dump’ and the lack of engaging characters.
Apologies for the long post but perhaps it shows there’s a big discussion that could be had on literary sci-fi?