The Author & The Author: China Miéville talks to English PEN
18 October, 2010
You may all recall how I loved China Miéville’s The City & The City which I read last month. I know, I got it last year but it always takes me ages to get to a book. I wish I had read it sooner because it was so different from anything else I’d read and his two cities, Besźal and Ul Qoma, occupying the same geographical space and time still haunts me now. I’m still trying to figure it out somehow.
So I toodled along to English PEN‘s event at the Freeword Centre in Farringdon last week. It was a more relaxed affair compared to the last one and we were welcomed with a glass of wine before being ushered into the theatre where Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, was waiting to talk to Miéville. I think there were about 30 people in total. As usual, Miéville is a brilliant yet rather prolix raconteur, dotting his arguments with vocabulary I didn’t know existed such as ‘radical estrangement’, ‘post-facto theorising’ and ‘fabulologic’. Some people may find it irritating but frankly, I could drown in it. He’s funny, extremely polite and very engaging and had us in fits of laughter the whole time.
As it was Booker night, there were inevitable questions regarding his take on the Booker Prize and his thoughts on literary fiction which led to an interesting discussion on what is litfic and genre. I think Miéville was hoping that Tom McCarthy’s C would win as it showed that the Booker panel were becoming more inclusive in their choices. The fact that it was included in the shortlist alone showed the panel to be ‘game’. One thing he did say was that he didn’t agree with the idea that litfic is the epitome of literature, that that is where literature should end up. Like with any piece of literature, Miéville argued that there’s good and bad work and just because it comes under the umbrella of litfic, you shouldn’t automatically think it’s better than books in other genres, many of which are much better than some of the popular litfic pushed strongly by big publishing houses (e.g. Ian McEwan’s Saturday). Literary fiction denotes quality, market and the interior/domestic genre but not necessarily that it’s the best. And he doesn’t agree that it’s all about the sentence quality either, believing that some works are so powerful it doesn’t matter if the prose needs a little more polish such as Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. What he believes to be the most important thing is that the author must believe in the world they are writing about, whatever the genre, regardless of any restrictions. He cited a lot of Pyncheon here regarding championing the lack of structure. I have yet to try Pyncheon who I’ve heard is rather difficult.
There were many questions about The City & The City and Miéville admitted that many of his fans were unhappy with the juxtaposition of a straightforward crime noir in a fantasy setting. He described it as a novel in three parts: in the vein of Inspector Lynley with a feisy female sidekick, two unmatched cops who end the case with a grudging respect for one another and a political thriller. For me the most interesting aspect of the book was its social setting rather than the mystery (which I didn’t have a problem with either). Miéville wanted to explore the idea of social filters and markers which I think he does brilliantly, and it’s something that is logical, not fantastic.
And to end it all, Miéville read the first few pages of his next book Embassytown, a science fiction tale with aliens and monsters which will be out next year. He also mentioned several authors he rates highly: Hugh Cook, Ape’s-Face by Marion Fox, John Crowly, M. John Harrison and Kelly Link. They may not all be polished but they have passion.
And of course I got a copy of Kraken signed. And what made my night was that Miéville recognised my name and remembered me from when I first met him at the Southbank a year ago and got The City & The City signed! TOTAL SWOON. I suspect he has photographic memory. For a change I wasn’t tongue-tied and spoke to him for about five minutes. I wanted to know whether he’d write another story set in the cities of Besźal and Ul Qoma, and although he was uneasy about revisiting something that has already been done, he did acknowledge that he may change his mind. Never say never. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
All in all it was a very interesting and lovely evening. What do you think about this whole Booker Prize and litfic debate? Is it the pinnacle of literature? Do you agree/disagree with Miéville’s views? I read a lot of genre fiction and feel that there are a lot of extremely well written gems out there compared to some of the more popular/mainstream/literary fiction that’s always highlighted in the press. I’m curious to know what you think.