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Liz Williams
Posted on Thursday, May 15, 2003 - 01:22 am:   

Last night saw the mad social whirl once more commence, with the first of two evenings dedicated to the lead-up to the Arthur C Clarke Awards. Held at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, y'day's line-up featured Gwyneth Jones, Justina Robson, Paul McAuley, Muriel Grey (who is a Scots TV presenter and writer) and Andrew McKie, who is the SF reviewer for the Daily Telegraph.

Also present: Mike Harrison, China Mieville, Pat Cadigan, various agency folk (Mic Cheetham, Simon Kavanagh), Stef Swainston, Farah Mendlesohn - the usual suspects, in short.

Subject of the talk was this so-called renaissance in British SF, what it is, why it's happening and whether, really, it even exists. There was a lot of loose talk about the current differences between US SF&F and the scene in the States, which the panel loosely seemed to concur is dominated by soft-centred militaristic SF, whereas the UK industry appears to be focusing on more diverse work in both fantasy and SF. I am by no means sure that this is the case so would welcome any more informed views on the matter. Farah said that this States-side preoccupation, if such it is, is not reflected in the Hugos. Paul McM feels that the British scene is hallmarked by more 'weird shit'. But then the mighty name of Jeff VanderMeer was invoked like that of some chthonic demiurge and so much for that argument…

Andrew McKie (who is speaking from a right wing perspective, BTW - his paper isn't called the Daily Torygraph for nothing), said that the UK SF industry is undergoing something of a political resurgence and that he considers this to be a good thing, even though it is mainly driven by the Left. He's thinking of people like China and Ken McLeod here, but remarked that he does not regard this as being as simplistic as it may first appear and said that he sees a move toward examining socio-political structures under a SF aegis.

The conversation then got more than a bit derailed on the perennially thorny issue of women in SF and Where They Are, prompting a quick head count on the part of Farah (she reckons about a quarter of the contemporary UK writing scene is female). And then the panel got sidetracked onto the even hardier perennial of SF vs Fantasy: the difference between the two, causing my eyes to glaze somewhat (I can sometimes get into this one, but not usually. Glad I'm a writer and not a critic: it's for me to write the stuff and for them to figure out what the hell it is. Not easy in my case, but that's their problem).

Most of us did not stay for the Quatermass movie, but bailed out to a nearby pub where, for once, we were sensible, ate actual food and drank sparingly . I spent most of the evening talking to Muriel Grey ("It's so hard to find other women who want to talk about decapitation!") and a YA author, and subsequently to McKie about the history of British occultism and whether Nietsche did in fact die of the clap.

I'm actually not sure whether this 'British renaissance' issue is even a debate we should all be having right now - seems to me that this is one of those historical questions that is only going to be at least partly resolved some years down the line, if at all.

By the end of this week we are all going to be heartily sick of one another, not to mention knackered. I remember the days when we kept coal in t'bath and the Clarkes were one night a week…
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KJ Bishop
Posted on Friday, May 16, 2003 - 02:10 am:   

As someone who doesn't live in either the UK or the US, I think you're right to doubt that the revolution is markedly British. I don't know how informed I am - maybe there's a lot of UK work that never reaches Australian shores, but from what does come here, and from what I can find online, the interesting stuff doesn't seem to be coming particularly more from one country than another.

My thoughts, for what they may be worth (1c? Do I hear 2c?) is that the revolution isn't so much in writing as in reading and publishing. I think there has been interesting, left-of-field spec fic getting written for ages now; it's just that now there seems to be a sudden market appetite for it. I suspect it may have started with music video clips. The wide public got used to the surreal, and to postmodern narrative techniques, in 3-minute segments on MTV; it filtered into popular movies, then into readers' expectations from books.

Well, that's my crackpot theory for the day :-)
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Liz Williams
Posted on Friday, May 16, 2003 - 04:39 am:   

The pre-Clarke's run-up continues apace, with its participants becoming progressively paler and more dilatory. I got back from London this morning.

Last night's session focused on the boundaries between SF and mainstream.

Speaking were Justina Robson, the books editor of London listings magazine Time Out, and writer Toby Litt. Present were more or less everyone who was there y'day, with the addition of Peter, Stef and Rebecca from Macmillan and also Darren Nash.

Time Out editor: subscribes to the view that what he terms 'premium middlebrow' is also a genre, but this is not reflected in the media which prefers to promote the view that mainstream fiction transcends protocols rather than subscribign to them. He reckons that this has its origins in the Bloomsbury Group, where the notion of the literary novel became linked irretrievably to cultural privilege. He also said that there is a tendency to market as abstruse that which is actually just froth.

Justina said that genre writers feel culturally ignored and cited Atwood and Gibson as having their cake and eating it. She sees a greater degree of cherry-picking of narrative grammar, both in genre and in mainstream. She also argued that there is an underappreciation of narrative tropes on the part of both mainstream and genre critics in evaluating the work of the other.

However, despite some dark muttering about Margaret Atwood's steadfast belief that she does not write genre, oh no, not ever and whether this is evidence of deep self loathing or simply a marketing ploy, Justina came down on the side of the latter and suggested that Atwood's sales would plummet like 'an elephant down a liftshaft' if she confessed to be writing SF.

Mic Cheetham informed the panel that literary editors tend to say that 'they don't know how to read SF' (try opening the book at page 1 and mouthing the words?) and said that in her professional opinion (as a lit agent) she has never seen a genre that gets so dismissed - eg by Ian Jack of the Granta list, who has explicitly said that no SF will be appearing on it. She questioned where this nervousness originates. Darren Nash added that he wishes, as an editor, that people would just say that they disliked SF, rather than the usual claim that 'it's crap so we don't have to take any notice of it.'

China Mieville apparently is unperturbed by the fact that genres get differentiated, but said that his concerns lie in the fact that these differentiations are hierarchical.

So there you go. After the session the Tor Macmillan folk, Simon K and myself retired to the Opera Bar where we remained, more or less vertically, until closing time.
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Liz Williams
Posted on Friday, May 16, 2003 - 05:07 am:   

I don't think it's particularly crackpot, KJ! - some of the focus at last night's talk referred to the effect of SF films bringing the genre into the mainstream (and as I walked along the underground, there were huge wall ads for the Matrix, for Crake and Oryx - all sorts). There's also a culty, pulpy retro style thing going with design at the moment.

I'm in agreement on the 'not especially British' movement. A fair bit of Macmillan's list comes from elsewhere - notably Australia and the US.
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JeffV
Posted on Saturday, May 17, 2003 - 06:02 am:   

I agree with KJB, too--it's been done for years, but only now picking up an audience and critical attention.

Re Atwood--I think she's brave enough just tackling near-future nightmare scenarios. I don't think she has to ally herself with a ghetto, too. I mean, the work is what is it. Everything else is just publisher labels and jockeying to sell as many copies. The work itself doesn't change.

All very, very interesting--thanks, Liz, for the reportage!!!

JeffV
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Liz Williams
Posted on Saturday, May 17, 2003 - 06:20 am:   

No worries, Jeff - since I went, you lot might as well reap what passes for the benefits! Though neither are new topics for discussion, exactly, and as is common with this kinds of thing, few enough conclusions get reached. What is nice, however, is that the discussions have been held in a relatively mainstream forum (rather than the upstairs of some boozer somewhere).

It has been a marathon week (during which, however, I have managed also to get a surprising amount of work done) and the dementia continues tonight with the actual awards, to which I will be off in a bit with the Brightonian section of the Britpack. Will keep you posted.

Liz

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