Genre and the Edges

‘In the evening, I’d pour myself a glass of very strong rum on the rocks, and I’d write hardboiled poems…’

Pedro Juan Gutierrez

I’ve spent my writing life on the periphery. It’s not only a matter of success, or lack of, although that certainly plays its part. You stand watching the dance floor with your back against the wall, doubting you can match the moves. Yet still you feel the beat…

During my teenage years, in small market town in the Midlands, I learned that a bookshop could be a departure lounge, and library card could be a passport. I would head to a second-hand bookshop on the way home from school. Run by two, rather haughty, middle-aged men, who favoured cravats and half-moon glasses, it stocked a large range of science fiction books from the sixties and seventies, yellowed pulps smelling of dried out paper. Something about the clutter of a secondhand bookshop blurs the taxonomy of your sense of literary history. You hop between the classics and erotics, the fine and the fantastic. You choose your own canon. Influences are usually misfiled.

Later, the taste for science fiction looped back to me when I visited the, now sadly defunct, Fantasy Centre bookshop on Holloway road. I was in my mid-twenties, getting by on dead end jobs, living in a small basement flat off Blackstock road, but I’d hit a pocket of stability (or boredom) and felt that I could put my feet under a desk and write. I read John Sladek ‘s The Muller-
Fokker Effect
, Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, Robert Sheckley’s The Same to You Doubled, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls, Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. The Fantasy Centre also did a neat line in crime fiction. I read Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Jerome Charyn, Marc Behm, and Derek Raymond. Some of these writers came to me through the excellent book reviews by Chris Petit in The Guardian. Some came from the Internet. Some came through the writing of James Sallis, who I began to see as some tutelary guide through the distinctions of poetry and fiction, genre and the canon.

If this seems like a bad schooling for a British writer in the early twenty-first century, then it all seemed quite plausible at the time. (Both A.L. Kennedy and Michel Faber, for example, have hailed the influence of Sheckley on their fiction). And while I may not have written science fiction, beyond one or two blurred attempts, the genres of crime and science fiction certainly influenced my approach to the realistic novel. Maybe that accounted for the novel slipping through the gaps. Not long after its release, I watched two copies of All the Dogs gather dust in the crime section of a bookshop around the corner from where I worked. Up until that point, I’d had no idea that I’d written a crime novel.

In Samuel Delany’s essay ‘Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ – or the Conscience of the King’ (which I would recommend to anyone interested in these distinctions) he argues that realist novels are a distinct ‘discourse’ of writing, one which he prefers to categorise as ‘mundane literature’. In effect, literature is only another genre, with recurring tropes, attitudes, stories. Delany argues: ‘Science fiction’s origins in the pulps and its persistence as a generally popular writing category simply mitigate against the sort of stylistic unity that literature privileges both in the productions of single writers and, certainly, the production of the whole field.’ In effect, the discourse of science fiction works against the whole idea of an ordered, Leavis-ite canon, or the grand cultural wrestling matches of Harold Bloom. Delany goes on to say, ‘I believe reading science fiction as if it were literature is a waste of time. I suspect that reading literature as if it were ‘literature’ is also pretty much a waste of time…. It is possible [however] that, on the level of values, reading literature as if it were science fiction may be the only hope for literature.’

I’m still at the edge of the dance floor. Probably, I always will be. I spend most of my writing time on poetry these days, albeit while keeping up with a daily quota of words towards a detective novel. I don’t see a contradiction between working across these two forms. Poetry and crime fiction both function at a formal level, an intensified exchange of rules and codes, like Chinese boxes of purpose and, yes, tradition. And, under Delany’s terms above, the discourse of contemporary poetry seems to me to have more in common with science fiction than it does with the literary. The stylistic unity has run wild. The centre is over-rated, anyway. Best work from the edges.

‘Edge’ literatures such as science fiction and mystery typically plunge right into mankind’s grandest questions, unabashedly attempting to place some kind of frame around man’s life in the universe’.

James Sallis.

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