Monday, May 30, 2005

The Y chromosome

I am fond of science fiction as a category, but fussy about what I like (my crime fiction tastes are much more promiscuous), so it was with great delight that I read a truly EXCELLENT s-f novel, Life by Gwyneth Jones. I read Bold As Love a few years ago (can't remember how I heard about it--some random mention of a rewriting of the King Arthur myth caught my attention?), really loved it but found it impossible to get hold of the sequel. However all seem to be more easily available now than last time I checked, when I had to get the English edition through BorrowDirect at the library. Must get that sequel.... Anyway, Life is amazing! My perfect science-fiction novel, a really excellent read, with all the kind of biology stuff I most enjoy and an attractive main character and good research-scientist story and interesting feminism/gender thing going down. It's got interests distinctly overlapping with the much higher-profile Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear; but where that's a high-concept science-fiction thriller (I liked it a lot, don't get me wrong, but it's not in the end my kind of a book), this one's much more subtle in the writing and really imaginative and powerful in its conception as well. Read it if you have any taste for science fiction whatsover! (Also if you like novels and science but don't care for science fiction.)

I've been thinking about this whole "not for everyone" book controversy, spurred initially by a piece by Anne Burke that you can read here, and summed up in her following statement:

One of the reviewers’ favorite lines about Dalkey Archive titles is that—even when the reviewer is generally praising the book—they aren’t “for everyone.” A number of years ago, this line seemed to be a requirement for any reviewer at the New York Times Book Review or NPR. Its latest appearance is in a review by—of all places—the Complete Review (perhaps the most interesting review source on the net), which recently reviewed Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana. Since these reviewers seem to know that a book “isn’t for everyone,” then should we assume that they have a list of books that are for everyone? Surely they must. Let us also assume that they would all agree that such authors as Homer, Shakespeare, Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner are “not for everyone.” So, since they appear to use “for everyone” as a standard to which writers should aspire, what books could possibly achieve this universal acclaim that Europeana fails to achieve? The only one that comes to mind is The Little Engine That Could. I’ve never heard any complaint whatsoever about this book.

All reviewers, in the future, should be required to list at least five books that they see as “for everyone,” a practice that might allow us to judge their tastes and intelligence rather than simply using the phrase to dismiss a book that they seem unable to dismiss in any other way, or at least any way that can stand a close inspection[.]

(And here's the response at the Complete Review, which includes links to other blog discussions if you scroll down to the bottom of the post.)

I want to stand up for the usefulness of the phrase "not for everyone." I don't think I'd use it in a print review, I see the objection that it's lazy, but in a blog entry about a book, what's wrong with it? Seriously, I love Gwyneth Jones, but her books are not for everyone. I read a lot of books that I like very much, but there's a lot of variety in the ways that I would then recommend them to others: there are books that have a remarkably widespread appeal, and others--no less good--with a narrower one. I'm not talking here mainly about genre issues, though I will note in passing that people who say they don't read science fiction or don't read crime fiction are missing out on some of the best novels around. And judgments like this are of course also very personal--I bet that nobody would agree with every single judgment I make below, and it's wholly possible that someone might make exactly the opposite set of judgments. But I would say that everybody should read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go but that while Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is a work of complete genius & one of the best novels of 2004 & one of my FAVORITE novels of 2004 it is nonetheless "not for everyone." A novel that is demanding or deliberately difficult in its prose style might not be for everybody. A novel that is full of explicit violent or sexual content might not be for everybody. A novel that just has a very distinctive sensibility of one kind or another might not be for everybody. Whereas there are novels that in some other sense really are suitable for the widest possible audience, whatever that audience might think about its genre preferences etc.--Kate Atkinson's Case Histories is a book like this, and so is American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and so are older novels--here's where I'm getting onto shakier ground, I'd guess--by Dickens or Austen or my very beloved James Baldwin. Novels written for the widest possible human constituency, as opposed to novels about which it can legitimately be said that they are "not for everyone." (BTW I do think Homer and Shakespeare are for everyone, but wouldn't make the same allowance about Joyce, Proust or Faulkner.)

Must get off the soapbox now and go and get some work done....

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