February 28th, 2010


February Books 17) A Short History of Fantasy, by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James

This book is precisely what it says on the tin, with a first chapter taking the genre to 1900, a second taking it to 1950, and then individual chapters for each subsequent decade, with two extra chapters for a) J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and b) Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett, the whole text weighing in at less than 220 pages (plus index and lists). It doesn't interrogate the nature of fantasy literature in depth (one of the authors has done that elsewhere) but does define the genre clearly and convincingly, and also looks at when and why particular sub-genres (cute animal fantasies, paranormal romance, Big Commercial Fantasy) have become popular at different times. The authors integrate children's literature and also genre films and television into the narrative; this is not just about fantasy for grownups. It would be rather a good (and inexpensive) gateway text for the reader of fantasy (and/or sf) who wanted to dip their toe into criticism.

I know I always say this, but when I read books like this I want i) a better understanding of books I have already read and ii) suggestions of books I might read in the future which may appeal to me, and I got plenty of both here; I also was provoked to start thinking (though not sufficiently to complete the thought) about the books which received popular and/or literary acclaim which I just didn't like (including Little, Big, Light, and The Sword of Shannara). Mostly I found myself nodding in agreement or realisation with just the occasional raised eyebrow - Diana Wynne Jones surely wrote more than four books in the 1970s (p.139)?

For the non-fiction category of the BSFA awards, I have to choose between only two nominees: this book, or Deepa D's January 2009 blog post "I Didn't Dream of Dragons". Of the other three nominees, Hal Duncan has withdrawn his own (excellent if very lengthy) blog post on "Ethics and Enthusiasm" from consideration, recommending instead that people vote for Deepa D; I haven't seen Interzone recently, which is certainly nobody's fault other than mine, but means I have no opinion on the merits of Nick Lowe's "Mutant Popcorn" column in 2009; and although I greatly admire John Clute, the publishers of his Canary Fever have made it abundantly clear on their website that they are not interested in doing business with people like me who don't have sterling or US dollar bank accounts, so I am unlikely to see it before the voting deadline.

Deepa D's essay is heartfelt and moving, and was one of the best things to come out of last year's bruising RaceFail discussions; indeed it ties in to my professional work to a certain extent, which I rarely get with my reading of sff criticism. It was of course only one part of a much wider conversation (and some people, such as Hal Duncan, will vote for it in order to support that conversation as a whole). I will vote for Mendlesohn and James, however, as their book happens to scratch my particular itch; and in the end that is what voting and awards are all about.
not happy

Poking my nose in

I've been following the activism of Maura McHugh / splinister with interest and sympathy, but I think I now need to de-lurk and do so in practice - sparked by her correspondence with SFX here (a long read but worth it).

In a sense I am poking my nose in here, because I have bought perhaps two issues of SFX in the last ten years and am not really a horror fan; I have heard of very few of the men and women creative artists mentioned in the discussion. On the other hand I am a man who enjoys the genre (defined at its widest); and I would like to be counted as someone who is outraged at this sort of sexism in one of the genre's leading publications. I was also dismayed by several rhetorical deficiencies in Ian Berriman's response to Maura McHugh, sufficiently so to catalogue them below the cut.

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Berriman's sexism is no doubt unconscious, but we are all conscious beings, so that is a poor excuse. He could learn from Guy Adams, who was similarly called out by McHugh over a horror anthology a few months back, and issued an unreserved apology:

It is disgustingly simple for a man not to notice these things, a blindness to the importance of correct gender representation that I feel embarrassed to have fallen into.

Short of not making the mistake in the first place, that is the only 'explanation' that will do, admitting that you screwed up and undertaking to try harder; not telling us that your lady friends think you're a good egg, not fantasising about the thing you were going to publish but didn't, and not whining about people daring to count what is in your output. It has been a long time since I bought a copy of SFX, and I think it will be a long time before I buy another one.

February Books 18) One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey

This is a pretty tough book, in many ways: the violence and abuse perpetrated by the staff of the mental institution where the story is set is uncomfortable to read (and I have a daughter who is permanently institutionalised, so it cuts rather close to home). Also I was rather dismayed by the racism and sexism of the story: the only black characters are the brutal male nurses (though the narrator is half Native American); the main female character is the Big Evil Nurse (the other women depicted are two prostitutes and the Little Good Nurse, who comes in only at the end). It was probably not Kesey's intention, but I could see white American men who believe that they are being oppressed taking comfort and inspiration from this novel.

Having said that, it would be the wrong message. The book is about disorder and development - disorder in two senses, the mental disorders that many of the patients suffer and the disorder and subversion that McMurphy brings to the ward, and the opportunities he offers for his fellow inmates to develop n new directions. There is a tremendously cathartic couple of chapters about a deep-sea fishing expedition which almost summarises the entire book. The violent conclusion leaves several key characters dead but gives others the means of liberating themselves. So in the end I was glad to have read it, though I will not come back to it any time soon.

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages by Haddon W. Robinson