In the literary battle between fantasists and realists, I know whose side I’m on

In much speculative fiction the  story, the concept, tends to squeeze out humanity, character, nuance

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The Independent Online

In Reacher Said Nothing, Andy Martin’s entertaining account of how Lee Child wrote his latest book, several sneers are directed at what the great leather-coated thriller writer describes as “bullshitty literary fiction”. Compared to an honest-to-goodness storyteller, these people – Coe, Barnes, Amis and the rest – are noodling away in a self-indulgent, backward-looking way. “What is it about these guys?” Child asks. “What is their audience?”

It has become oddly fashionable, this contempt for the serious novel. Child once told an interviewer that he could write a Martin Amis novel in three weeks. Every year, when the Booker Prize shortlist is announced, a writer of genre books chippily complains that some thriller, spy story or science fiction story has unfairly been excluded. Nick Hornby regularly chunters on about the humourlessness of literary fiction. Now a Booker winner has joined the chorus, but has pushed the argument beyond what we read into the way we live.

In an interview on the paperback publication of his novel, The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro complains about the upstairs-downstairs attitude of critics and publishers who dismiss any novel with a murder as a crime yarn and any story with dragons as a fantasy. “Crime is very important in our society. Why is it regarded as less serious than middle-class divorce? Why is middle-class divorce a subject for literary fiction, but relationship between the drugs trade and politics is not?”

He is right, of course. With the possible exception of folk music, there is no world quite as riddled with snobbery as that of books, and the division between the respectably serious and what is snootily perceived as lightweight entertainment is absurd and patronising. Ishiguro’s theory, though, is that the prejudice goes deeper. 

In an age which worships growth and productivity, he argues, it has been in the interest of those running things over the past couple of decades to discourage imaginativeness, to present stories as something which any sensible, ambitious young person will outgrow. Discipline and facts have been what mattered: exams, league tables, the right qualifications. “Education’s task was to get pupils to abandon the fantasy that comes naturally to children and prepare them for the demands of the workforce.”

Few could argue with that. In the modern curriculum, the emphasis has shifted from reading and writing adventurously towards literacy, the need to be able to put together a good CV and get a job. Prescribed reading lists are more important than discovery. Creative writing has become an add-on – the equivalent of PE or music lessons. As a child grows older and the world of work approaches, imaginative work becomes increasingly less important.

Daringly, Ishiguro suggests that this Gradgrindian age is drawing to a close. All over the world, stories are leading the way to a new way of living and working. After the success of authors such as Philip Pullman and J K Rowling, the fantastic became startlingly trendy in the literary world. New writers who cheerfully worked within the previously unfashionable genres of science fiction and the graphic novel – Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell and others – are now taken seriously.

More significantly, the importance of fantasy is being recognised in industry and even by politicians. The people recruited by internet multinationals are now, according to Ishiguro, the very opposite of disciplined fact-slaves. Firms such as Microsoft are actively recruiting people who have not lost the capacity for fantastic thinking, who see the world as a place of adventure and possibility. In China, where not so long ago science fiction was regarded as politically subversive, conventions are being held to encourage productive storytelling. 

Suddenly, it is good to boldly go to places beyond the imagination of the more earthbound. Blue-sky thinking is the order of the day. It is that phrase that gives one pause. Didn’t Cameron introduce some blue-sky thinker into government? He was around long enough, spouting nonsense about this and that, to provide Armando Iannucci with some rather good jokes for The Thick of It before wafting off back to California. The BBC went through a brief blue-sky phase, too. Thinking the unthinkable mysteriously led to a period of creative stagnation, hot air accompanied by staff cuts.

The blue-sky brigade is now globally in demand, according to Ishiguro. Everyone wants to tap into the imaginative creativity of geeks, but Europe – “the last bastion of highbrow art” – lags behind. “We need more fantasists,” he says.

I feel a strong urge to man the barricades. I have nothing against non-realistic fiction (it would be odd if I had, since my last novel told of a war between rats and humans), but I am resistant to the idea that those who love computer games and graphic novels are somehow more attuned to the future, more useful and productive.

The problem in much speculative fiction is that the story, the concept, tends to squeeze out humanity, character, nuance. Even the best books set in a future world (Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, or Ishiguro’s own Never Let Me Go) have little room for the small subtleties of human personality – the sort of things which emerge, for example, in a story about a middle-class divorce.

Life is more like bullshitty literary fiction than a fantasy. If some kind of cultural revolution is on its way, with realists being replaced by innocent, wide-eyed story-lovers in touch with the world of goblins and fairies, I know which side I am on. 

Fantasy may be good to read, but when it comes to decisions about the way we all live our lives, I would prefer to put my trust in those who think inside the box.