As Others See Jim Crace

I know, I know: symptomatic of the genre’s neuroses, you’ve seen it all before, and a science fiction novel just won a Pulitzer, for heaven’s sake. But sometimes I can’t help myself. Here’s Joyce Carol Oates on Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse:

Long the province of genre entertainments—science fiction, dystopia fantasy, post-apocalyptic movies—the future has been boldly explored in recent years by such writers as P. D. James (“The Children of Men”), John Updike (“Toward the End of Time”), Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Oryx and Crake”), Doris Lessing (“Mara and Dann”), and Cormac McCarthy (“The Road”). Now comes a grim prophetic fable by the much admired British writer Jim Crace, who in previous novels—“The Gift of Stones,” set at the dawn of the Bronze Age; “Quarantine,” in the time of Christ—has shown a flair for imaginatively evoking the past. Kingsley Amis once remarked that there isn’t much point to writing if you can’t annoy someone; it might be said that there isn’t much point to writing about the future unless you can frighten someone. Certainly, most fiction about the future—not least the famous dystopian works by Wells, Huxley, and Orwell—is designed to unsettle and provoke. These novels are fundamentally didactic; their authors have crucial lessons to impart. Contemporary “speculative fiction” shares that aim; it extrapolates from current conditions and urges us to confront the consequences.

Bobbins, start to finish. I might just be persuaded to let her get away with “most fiction about the future is designed to […] provoke”, but I point and laugh at “it might be said that there isn’t much point to writing about the future unless you can frighten someone”, and her attempt to potrary McCarthy, James, Atwood et al as a band of brave pilgrims, bringing civilisation to the wilderness.

7 thoughts on “As Others See Jim Crace

  1. I don’t even bother to read literary reviews on “genre” fiction or on “lit fic” authors treading into the “genre” wilderness, praised for doing things that have probably been done before and just as well if not better by the “genre” authors.

    (Besides I hate the look of the New Yorker site now. Why are there so many damn images every year? Why do random comics pop up in articles that have nothing to do with it? It’s like reading Yahoo News. Ugh.)

  2. In her defence, Oates is a more complex case than other “litfic” (horrible term) writers in that she does write genre. Admittedly that would be crime and mystery (under her own name and the pseudonyms Rosamund Smith and Lauren Kelly) and horror than SF, of which only a handful of her short stories would count as. But she’s been in magazines such as Omni, F&SF, Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s and anthologies such as Metahorror (ed. Dennis Etchison) and has won genre awards such as the Edgar and the Stoker.

    That doesn’t mean I would necessarily agree with everything she says. As Niall does, I would take issue with some of it, bearing in mind I’ve not read Quarantine, nor many of the novels she cites in the review. But I would suggest that Oates’s view of genre is rather less patrician than…well, many other literary novelists and critics, including some of the ones Oates names here.

  3. I would take issue with some of it, bearing in mind I’ve not read Quarantine, nor many of the novels she cites in the review.

    I’ve read Toward the End of Time and the idea that it boldly explores the future is laughable. The whole list of novels is rather strange. Are the fifteen year old Children Of Men and the twenty year old A Handmaid’s Tale recent novels? This just exposes the fact it isn’t a recent phenomenon at all. You could perhaps say that have been more of these sort of “SF by mainstream writer” novels over the last couple of years but Oates doesn’t attempt this.

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