China Miéville and The Futures of the Novels

In today’s Guardian (my favorite media organization, in part because it’s responsible for the best soccer podcast on the planet) you can find China Miéville’s keynote speech to the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers’ conference, which is all about “the future of the novel,” or, since he wants to pluralize it, “the futures to the novels.”

The whole piece is interesting, starting with this little shout-out in the direction of publishers like Open Letter and Archipelago and Europa and etc.:

A first hope: the English-language publishing sphere starts tentatively to revel in that half-recognised distinctness of non-English-language novels, and with their vanguard of Scandinavian thrillers, small presses, centres and prizes for translation, continue to gnaw at the 3% problem, all striving against the still deeply inadequate but am-I-mad-to-think-improving-just-a-little profile of fiction translated into English.

And translation is now crowdsourced, out of love. Obscure works of Russian avant-garde and new translations of Bruno Schulz are available to anyone with access to a computer. One future is of glacially slowly decreasing, but decreasing, parochialism.

And those publishers of translated fiction are also conduits for suspicious-making foreign Modernism.

And for that, I’m ordering a copy of Miéville’s The City & The City, which I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. Or maybe I’ll just order ALL of his books. The more I read this article, the more I started literary crushing on Miéville—just check out this section:

Paulo Coelho’s ill-judged Joyce-bashing has made him a butt of scorn this week, but he’s a safe target because, with books that multitask a little too openly as self-help manuals, he’s not so clubbable. Unlike, say, Ian McEwan, who not-that-differently declared against “the dead hand of modernism”, for all the world as if the dominant literary mode in post-war England was Steinian experimentation or some Albion Oulipo, against which young Turks hold out with limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition™.

All the usual caveats: yes, there are admirable novels written according to such norms, and conversely there’ve always been writers playing with form, etcetera. But two things remain key.

i) The culturally dominant strain of English novel has for years been what Zadie Smith called “lyrical realism”: the remorseless prioritisation, with apologies for repeating my favourite heuristic, of recognition over estrangement.

ii) Today it is not quite qliphothic1 business as usual.

This whole speech is worth reading—in part for the ideas it contains, and in part for the great little riffs along the way. Here are a few select paragraphs that made me smile:

Early predictions for what digitality would do to the novel look pretty creaky, as the futures of the past always do. The hypertext novel? A few interesting experiments. The enhanced ebook, with soundtrack and animation? A banal abomination. [. . .]

Stand down. The blurring of boundaries between writers, books, and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction, doesn’t mean some people won’t be better than others at the whole writing thing, or unable to pay their rent that way – it should, though, undermine that patina of specialness. Most of us aren’t that special, and the underlining of that is a good thing, the start of a great future. In which we can maybe focus more on the books. Which might even rarely be special.

One of the problems, we often hear, about online piracy, ebooks and their ephemeral-seeming invisible files, is that they ‘devalue writing’, that our work is increasingly undervalued. Well, yes. Just like the work of nurses, teachers, public transport staff, cleaners, social workers, which has been undervalued a vast amount more for a whole lot longer. We live in a world that grossly and violently undervalues the great majority of people in it. [. . .]

What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?

This would only be an exaggeration of the national stipends already offered by some countries for some writers. For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it’s easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity.

So there you are. You can read the whole thing here.

Coda: I don’t know much of anything—or to rephrase that, I know basically nothing—about the Edinburgh World Writers’ conference, but based on this piece and his reference to railing against the “hegemony of the market” over the course of the conference, I’m very intrigued. This is the sort of thinking we need in the book industry today. Not someone blinded by the gold coins flowing from 50 Shades of Gray or the latest neo-fad that can be imitated; not someone still stuck in the “ebooks don’t smell right” phase of future-anxiety; not Richard Russo someone who boils all of book culture down into indies vs. Amazon; definitely not some copyright lawyer working in an anti-piracy department boring us to tears. We need more interesting perspectives like this, and new ideas that trip through our cultural biases, fetishization of the capitalist model, and techno-anxieties to come up with some fresh ways of looking at the seemingly insolvable problems of art vs. commerce, or legacy publishing models vs. Internet populism.

1 He explains “qliphothic” a paragraph earlier: “Jewish mysticism warns of the qliphoth – husks, entropic shells of psychic muck and detritus that encrust and obscure that numinous. As you can tell, I’m turning my attention to English fiction.”

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