Man Booker-prompted ramblings…

The winner of the Man Booker Prize has been announced. Outsider Kiran Desai won with her book about 'globalisation, multiculturalism, inequality and the different forms of love'. So something nice and cutting edge then. I'm sure there are a plethora of opinions about this, most of them greaty more qualified that my own most likely. It seems that the Man Booker has not been particularly brave with its selections since D.B.C. Pierre's VERNON GOD LITTLE won (a bastardly brilliant book with style, panache, some damn relevant content, and most of all: balls). Every winner since has seemed a little flavourless to me. Perhaps that comes from reading too much genre fiction, where there is a great deal of plot movement and action. Not that literary fiction and action can't be combined, of course—but I'm talking largely about the Booker lists of recent times. And that is not to say I cannot enjoy literary fiction for its own merits. There have been some fabulous titles I've read over the last few months: Ian McEwan's SATURDAY, Ali Smith's THE ACCIDENTAL, James Meek's THE PEOPLE'S ACT OF LOVE. All very highly recommended. There has generally been a response to most recent Booker lists that there is too much 'blandness'. These books mentioned here can certainly not be accused of that.

It seems as if there is still a taste for books on multiculturalism with the Booker judges, which may or may not have moved on since Salman Rushdie et al pioneered that area a couple of decades ago. Interestingly, to my knowledge, you don't see all that much multiculturalism tackled in SF or fantasy (magic realists aside). Not that I can think of off the top of my head. Anyone else have any clues? Genre multiculturalism? (And not multi-species stuff...) I know that Ian McDonald's dizzying and mighty RIVER OF GODS is set in a future India, but it wasn't specifically about multiculturalism, and which wasn't the point. Moreover, has any SF novel been picked out for good reviews/awards because of this fact? I'm interested because the thing about SF is that it is meant to shine a light on ourselves in a way that other fictions simply cannot. It seems to be literary fiction that monopolises this rather large subject.

Marco and I were talking about the Booker this morning, and got onto the subject of David Mitchell. He is one of the shining beacons on Booker shortlists of recent years. I wonder if it is his SF content that denies him from winning one of the grandest of prizes? Incidentally, Mitchell used to be an SF buyer in a bookstore, and isn't ashamed to call a lot of his fiction SF - hurrah! Marco speaks very highly of his books. Once the Ballard phase passes, I shall hit him up on Amazon…

—Mark N


Susan Abraham said...

Hi Mark,
A nice blog here.

I did find your post enjoyable and agreed with heaps that you said.
Especially about the lack of flavour very interesting question about multiculturalism.

I in turn wonder...Is 'multiculturalism' still in its original form which had Asian writers in the West mostly writing about emigration (think Preethi Nair, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banarjee, Amy Tan, Manju Kapoor etc.) or has the subject evolved into something completely different from when it first started out.

The world has just got so completely global. I admire any writer who can still write in an insular/pure voice never having moved from his/her city.

I am a Malaysian Indian writer. Once I worked as a fashion journalist in Singapore. Then I became a travel writer, ending up on the safaris in East Africa. During this time, I lived 5 years in Australia and later 3, in London. Now I divide time between Malaysia &
London. Each country influenced me tremendously.

Today, my writing (stories, poetry) are a myriad of a highly-complex jigsaw puzzle that no asprin will remove. The issue of self-reflection even in the midst of tremendous enjoyment, becomes a constant headache. Clearly, my identity is multi-layered. And I can't even begin to count 'multi'. Sometimes, I look at my own work and think, 'what the hell am I writing.' And yet, I wonder that multi-culturalism hasn't become more individualistic and distinct.

There is Vikram Seth for instance, taking on the voice of an Englishman for An Equal Music. When asked about this at interviews, he says he simply felt inspired too.

But then he eagerly returns to non-fiction for a biography which then talks about the emigration of his Indian uncle in England and a German aunt. Perhaps the theme 'multiculturalism' now masquerades in different forms; slipping & sliding as if it was diving into water before it decides on a float in the raft.

But this was a good thought-provoking post. And I may just need another asprin. But thank you.

The Solaris Team said...

I suspect our Mark (English father, Indian mother) overstated his case a little, but I kind of agree with him. For myself (French great-grandfather, Irish mother) it's the idea that for some British literary types a person from another culture can only be commended if they talk about that other culture, or filter their ideas and observations through that other culture.At it's worst it's way too restricting, and verges on culturally patronising. In other words, an Asian writer for example apparently isn't capable of talking about humanity, only about Asians. Of course such a limitation is dangerous nonsense.

On the other hand, I'm writing this from the point of view of a culture (English, not even British) that doesn't need to justify itself, differentiate itself - we seem to believe, implicitly, that we've "won". How often to you meet an English person and within five minutes you are on the subject of Englishness? Can't remember the last time. Spend five minutes with most Scottish or Welsh people, to pick a near neighbour, and the topic will be paramount.

For me one of the delights of SF, particularly, is that it goes further, that at its best it does not know such limitations. (I did say "at its best"; Sturgeon's law applies equally to SF as it does to all those desperate little novels about the lives of upper middle class girl-women working in publishing and living in Primrose Hill.)

But yes, more aspirin!

The Solaris Team said...

Hi Susan,

I think when you share parentage from two continents/countries, you cannot help but be at least acutely aware of cultural sensitivites in writing. Although interestingly, I remember a character in Rushdie's MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN (I think), who was an Indian that wanted to be English, and that translated in over-doing his English mannerisms and whatnot, just to add complexity.

In a global age, one must not forget that there are people who barely leave their village/town, even in the UK. And I forget the percentage of people from the US who do not own a passport... There does see to be a second wave of multiculturalism in literature, in the form of Monica Ali etc., because there are of course second generation immigrants who deal with an entirely different identity crisis that their parents had to suffer. The UK is a good mixing pot of cultures, perhaps better than anywhere else, and maybe that is reflected in the obsession in literary trends.

And perhaps multiculturalism isn't seen in SF/F as much as it is seen as a literature of escape quite often… Some of these issues are things that people may not always want to address!

—Mark N

The Solaris Team said...

And to add to the second comment, there are many writers who don't feel the need to write about their own cultures in another culture's context. Ishiguru is one such example. And many 'other culture' influences manifest in an author's writing - Ballard's Shanghai childhood was echoed in many of his novels, without being obvious in many senses. I don't think one can ever overlook cultural differences as an important vehicle for metaphor.

I find that Englishness is particularly interesting, because what the hell is it to be Enlgish? We're a history of repeated invasions. Perhaps it's a (well-deserved) hang-up from the Second World War. Although I feel I can't really comment on this, having not lived back then to appreciate the cultural identity, let alone in the literature of the time!

—Mark N