‘If You Write SF, Deny Your Genre’

Some people may have missed Brian Aldiss’ letter to The (London) Times on October 16 under this heading. He says:

Sir, At the Cheltenham Festival Margaret Atwood said that writers “are
likely to be compulsive wordsmiths” — presumably a way of saying that
writing is for some of us an expression of the life force.

Her life would have been more difficult had she not cleverly denied that
her early science fiction novels, such as A Handmaid’s Tale, were
science fiction. Had she neglected this strategy, there would have been
for her no more literary festivals, no more reviews, no more appearances
on BBC breakfast programmes.

It is a truth widely acknowledged that SF is not worth consideration by
sane minds. Kurt Vonnegut and J. G. Ballard have adopted Atwood’s
gambit. When Vonnegut grew tired of being a guru, he returned to SF and
wrote such brilliant novels as Galápagos. No reviewer spoke its name.
When — possibly because of my age — I was invited on Desert Island Discs
this year, I was told that SF readers were nerds who were poor and could
not “get a woman”.

(I was very tempted to use that last quote as the heading. Just for sport, of course.) Aldiss raises an issue that has plagued numerous genre writers down the years, from Stephen King to Terry Pratchett, who said that magical realism is fantasy for people whose friends went to Cambridge.

But to be honest, I enjoy that outsider status. One of the roles of genre fiction is to kick over the statues. We should celebrate that.

Who Really Writes The Stories?

All writers are privy to a big secret. They rarely talk about it among themselves, but when someone foolishly raises it, there are embarrassed smiles and nods and a few mumbled words of agreement. The reason is simple: to admit the big secret would mean admitting intellectually dangerous things to yourself and to risk the rest of the world calling you a crackpot.

So I’m going to tell you about here.

Writers are deeply troubled about the genesis of their stories. Not only that, they have nightmares about the reality of said stories, and their meaning and potency beyond the words on the printed page.

To illustrate, I’ll give you some examples from my own work. In World’s End I wrote about the main characters visiting Glastonbury Abbey where they uncovered secret knowledge encoded in the design of the ancient Abbey’s floor. Due to the vagaries of the way I work, I’d already semi-written this scene before I went to Glastonbury to conduct the research on the detail of the setting. While I was there, I came across a book which discussed how secret knowledge had been encoded in the Abbey’s floor, but the knowledge and much of the pattern had been destroyed in a fire almost a thousand years ago.

Now I had never come across this before. I swear I made it up. It’s just coincidence, right? It’s the kind of thing that could have happened, so no reason why it shouldn’t have happened.

Except the same thing happened again when I was writing Darkest Hour: something I was convinced I made up, came to light while I was researching Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh.

And it happened again during the writing of Jack of Ravens. Three times I have written about real things that were completely beyond my knowledge.

Most writers will tell you this happens all the time during the creation of a story. Stephen King has spoken (in On Writing, I think) about how he has come to consider his creative process more like archaeology: how the story is already fully-formed somewhere and he is simply digging it out of the sand.

Other authors have told me in very concerned tones about how what they have written has somehow started to affect the ‘real’ world. Graham Joyce speaks eloquently about near-supernatural happenings on a Greek island that echoed the story on which he was working, House of Lost Dreams. Robert Graves has written about the strange pile-up of coincidence and synchronicity during the writing of The White Goddess when books would mysteriously fall from shelves, open on the correct page with the information for which he had been frantically searching for days.

Both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have spoken about the use of the imagination during the writing process as an act of magic, and it’s difficult for many writers not to believe that. Strange, irrational things happen during the creative process. There’s a sense of tapping into something else, and once tapped that something else coming into your life to haunt you for a while.

So now I’ve got this out into the open I’d be interested to hear about the experiences of others…