The Author & The Author: China Miéville talks to English PEN

18 October, 2010

photo © Andrew Testa for The New York Times

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.

You can hear an interview of Miéville at the Pan Macmillan website where he talks about The City & The City. Do check it out. And you can find a New York Times article of him here.

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.

10 Responses to “The Author & The Author: China Miéville talks to English PEN”

  1. Sounds like a fantastic night 🙂 I’m going to have to go and see Mieville talk at some point as he always sounds so interesting. It must be wonderful to know that he recognises you and that you were able to have a good conversation.

    I completely agree with Mieville’s opinion of the Booker prize and I hope that a genre fiction writer wins the Booker sometime soon.

  2. Tom Says:

    Sounds great! Any juicy details you can share from that Embassytown reading? I’m desperate for info on it, and I can’t wait until it comes out!

  3. Nymeth Says:

    You probably won’t be surprise to hear me say I completely agree with Miéville 😛 Sounds like you had a wonderful evening – I confess I’m slightly envious!

  4. Colleen Says:

    That’s so ridiculously cool that he remembered you from last year. I’m hoping someone will get me this book for Festivus too. I gave it the page 40 test recently and it passed with flying colours.

  5. mee Says:

    Is your real name sakura? I thought it was a nickname 🙂

    I would be ridiculously excited if an author remembers me from a year ago!

  6. chasing bawa Says:

    Jackie: I know. We live in hope:) It feels as though things are beginning to change as people are more aware of this debate that’s going on in the literary world. I think that’s exciting. And it was really great to actually talk to him. He had time for everyone.

    Tom: Hello! He read the first few pages of ‘Embassytown’ so although you got the feel of the book, it didn’t really tell you what it was about. Except the main character is a woman and they live in a world with aliens who are in control…

    Nymeth: I wish you could have seen him talk too because I think you would love him! He has a new book coming out next year so I’m sure he’ll be doing more talks. Maybe near Manchester?^^

    Colleen: It’s the first book I read by him and it seems to be a good introduction to his work as it’s a little more mainstream (but I don’t think it is as it’s got a lot of very interesting concepts.) Him remembering me was totally unexpected!

    Mee: It’s my real name! My nicknames are all shortened versions of it, haha. I’m so shy with authors but he’s gone straight up my fangirl list!

  7. Nic Says:

    Hello, came across your blog while googling for commentary on Mieville’s debate with Mullan about the Booker at the Cheltenham Literary Festival this past weekend. Mieville’s a very engaging speaker, isn’t he?

    Also, scanning down a few of your previous posts I noticed that you bought some books from Albion Beatnik in Oxford. Yay! It’s my favourite bookshop of the moment, so I’m always pleased to hear about others discovering it 🙂

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hello and thanks for stopping by! Mieville is an interesting speaker. I always enjoy listening to him. I’m not sure whether you had a chance to catch it but he was on Newsnight Review the Friday before the Booker prize was announced (and Mullan was there too) and that was quite an interesting discussion.

      I thought the Albion Beatnik was brilliant, they had some wonderfully diverse books. I was, however, shocked to find out there were so few secondhand bookshops in Oxford, though…

  8. gaskella Says:

    Mieville sounds an interesting man – I saw him on the Review show once, and he was well able to hold his own against Germaine Greer! I will read one of his books sometime soon I hope.

    It is a shame there are very few S/H bookshops around Oxford – there was a big hoohah in the Oxford Times last year when another one closed down blaming the Oxfam bookshop which is very successful. I haven’t been to the Albion Beatnik yet though – need to have a wee trip on my own!

    I’m frankly getting fed up of litfic vs genre vs mass market – there are good and bad books throughout, so I say read what you want to! 🙂

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I agree with what you say about the debate. But as someone who reads several genres, I can’t but help reading about all this ;P Especially if the people who are involved in these debates don’t actually read more than one genre… I can’t wait for you to read Mieville’s books to see what you think. Of course I’ve only read one but I’m planning to remedy that!

      I haven’t actually been to the Oxfam bookshop in Oxford (didn’t have enough time) but the Albion Beatnik was wonderful. I’m sure you’ll find loads of things there!

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