Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, September 18, 2009

in defense of genre fiction

In the British journal New Scientist, Kim Stanley Robinson makes a case for Virginia Woolf having been influenced by star Maker and Last and First Men, novels by the science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon:

These strange novels made a real impact on Woolf. After reading them, her writing changed. She had always been interested in writing historically, but her stream-of-consciousness style made that difficult to accomplish. Her character Orlando's fantastically long life, and the chapter "Time Passes" in To the Lighthouse, were two attempts at solving this problem. The modular structure of The Years was another. But after reading Star Maker, she tried harder still. In her last years she planned to write a survey of all British literature that she was going to call Anon; and her final novel, Between the Acts, concerns a dramaturge struggling to tell the history of England in the form of a summer village pageant. The novel ends with Stapledonian imagery, describing our species steeped in the eons. Woolf's last pages were a kind of science fiction.

I tell this story here because it has not been told before (Woolf's letters to Stapledon are in his papers at the University of Liverpool, and were not included in her Collected Letters); and also because it shows so clearly how open Woolf was to science fiction. When it came to literature, she had no prejudices. She read widely and her judgement was superb. And so I am confident that if she were reading today, she would be reading science fiction along with everything else. And she would still be "greatly interested, and elated too" - because British science fiction is now in a golden age.

I think he’s right about that “golden age” — my essay about one of the best British SF writers, Iain M. Banks, will be in the next issue of The New Atlantis — and I think he’s also right that it’s a shame that none of these writers is going to end up on the Booker Prize shortlist anytime soon. The distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction gets less tenable every day.

The Booker Question is explored at some length here.

5 comments:

  • Your post about genre v. literary fiction made me think of B.R. Myers' "A Reader's Manifesto." I'm sure it's old news to you, but I would be curious to know your view of Myers' piece.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200107/myers

  • There's more freedom in form than outside of it.

  • my essay about one of the best British SF writers, Iain M. Banks, will be in the next issue of The New Atlantis

    As I love Banks and rather enjoy your writing as well, I am really looking forward to this... please do let us know when this article is out.

  • Ok, so I'm not really as lazy as I might appear... I see that the issue is out...

  • Michael Straight said...

    I don't know about those Brits, but in America, the golden age of science fiction is thirteen.

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