Genre Snobbery Is a ‘Bizarre Act of Self-Mutilation’
David Mitchell is an author with unusually broad tastes and a particularly wide-ranging imagination. His most famous novel, Cloud Atlas, which was adapted into a feature film by the Wachowskis, features linked stories that range from the present to the past to the far future. His latest books, The Bone Clocks and Slade House, deal with feuding immortals and a haunted house. Book snobs are often hostile to such fantasy and science fiction elements, an attitude that Mitchell has no patience for.
“It’s convenient to have a science fiction and fantasy section, it’s convenient to have a mainstream literary fiction section, but these should only be guides, they shouldn’t be demarcated territories where one type of reader belongs and another type of reader does not belong,” Mitchell says in Episode 175 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
Such stark divisions harm everyone. Literary writers find their creativity hemmed in on all sides by close-minded attitudes about what a novel should be, and fantasy and science fiction writers find their work dismissed out of hand by large numbers of readers and critics. But the biggest losers are readers themselves.
“It’s a bizarre act of self-mutilation to say that ‘I don’t get on with science fiction and fantasy, therefore I’m never going to read any,’” Mitchell says. “What a shame. All those great books that you’re cutting yourself off from.”
Mitchell just tries to write the best books he can. Some of them fit comfortably in the mainstream literary fiction section of the bookstore and some don’t. He’s encouraged that countless classics, from 1984 to Hamlet to A Christmas Carol, don’t either.
“The book doesn’t care if it’s science fiction,” he says. “The book doesn’t give a damn about genre, it just is what it is.”
He’s also frustrated that book snobs will insist that fantasy and science fiction can’t be great literature, while simultaneously acknowledging that many stories about magic or the future definitely are.
“There’s no intellectual consistency in these arguments,” he says, “so let’s consign them to the bowels of the Earth where they belong.”
Listen to our complete interview with David Mitchell in Episode 175 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
David Mitchell on Ursula K. Le Guin:
“I have clear memories from way back of finishing A Wizard of Earthsea on a rainy Saturday morning, and just having this incandescent urge inside me, like a magnesium ribbon, that I badly wanted to do that as well. I wanted to make those worlds and people—those imaginary worlds—and send them on journeys, and give them quests, and make other people feel what she had made me feel. And also those books just get better. They were good then, but they’re extraordinary now. I visit Earthsea about once a decade, and I read myself when I’m there—my earlier selves, reading them as a boy of nine, as a teenager of 15, as a young man of 26 or so, as a writer of 35, and as a person who re-read them to write an introduction to the Folio Society’s recent hardback reprint of A Wizard of Earthsea. So it’s kind of come full circle.”
David Mitchell on Dungeons & Dragons:
“I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. A lot of us did, actually, a lot of writers I know did. In the bars late at night at literary festivals, sometimes the conversation will get around to—with sort of a huddle of us in the corner, saying, ‘So, did you play Dungeons & Dragons?’ And it’s amazing how many say yes. So Gary Gygax has a lot to answer for. There’s probably a PhD thesis out there, in the realms of possible PhD theses that someone could write somewhere, on Gary Gygax’s influence on the 20th century novel. Because it would not be negligible.”
David Mitchell on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:
“Because he’s one of the two, three, four, five reigning kings of ‘greatest living British writer,’ there was just this big, big, big brouhaha in the press—in the admittedly tiny corner of the press that the book world occupies—there was this, ‘How dare he? Has he lost his marbles? What does he think he’s doing?’ A lot of people just didn’t get it, but this is what the book wants to be. You’re personally entitled to not like the book because you don’t think it works, you’re allowed to not like the book because you don’t get on with his style of writing, you don’t like the book because of its absurdity or strangeness—but don’t not like it because it’s got a dragon in it! Don’t not like it for that reason, please. Anything but that.”
David Mitchell on the future:
“Our present is only as good as it is because people a hundred years ago were thinking in the long term. We’re living off savings—environmental savings, social savings, laws that mean that life is much better for the non-rich now than it would have been for our great-great-grandparents. … I’m speaking to you from Pittsburgh, and there are these unbelievable, huge trees [that] were planted by strangers, kind of for my benefit. They weren’t very impressive in the lifetimes of the people who planted them—they were just sort of mediocre, 18-year-old oak trees—but now they’re these beautiful, blazing, fall-colored giants, and we need to do the same. We can’t just spend that, we need to invest for the people who come after us. We bloody well should, anyway! We need to take care of their planet for them. We need to take care of their ‘now’ for them.”
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