Graham Sleight: Cultural Prophecy

Russell says that, “we’re less bothered by lists (except, maybe Adrienne) than by arbitrary conditions or unrealistic expectations attached thereto”. Yes, absolutely. To restate what I said earlier, lists arise out of pragmatism—the pragmatism of “What should I read given that time is finite?”, and the pragmatism of knowing that we as a group don’t have any absolute purchase on what’s good: we’re just a bunch of people who’ve read a lot. There’s no such thing as a perfectly objective standpoint, and the best (or at least, least bad) way to deal with that is to try to be conscious of where each of us is coming from…

Gary raises an interesting point, though. If Anathem is 300,000 milliAmazons more popular than Pump Six and Other Stories, do we have a particular duty to flag titles that people might have missed? A book like Nisi Shawl’s Filter House, for instance, is published by a small press and, even with the best will in the world, isn’t easy to find. So should we be going on about that rather than something huge and unmissable like Anathem? Or, to take another example, there’s Ian R Macleod’s Song of Time, only published in a limited edition by PS in the UK. It’s representative of yet another of SF’s strands, engagement with “the mainstream”—in this case, the influence of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea looks pretty powerful. Or, to turn the coin over, are we showing too much interest in Anathem just because of how large it looms in the mountain-range of 2008 books? (Full disclosure: although I finished Anathem, I bounced off it pretty hard—in retrospect, because I couldn’t deal with all the worldbling.) As my link to Russ in the first post hinted, canons can and do get used for advocacy.

What I guess we’re engaged in—without wanting to sound too pompous—is cultural prophecy. We’re trying to figure out which of these books are going to wind up having an influence on our field and on readers in general. Auden said that “Some books are undeservedly forgotten, none are undeservedly remembered“—but who can tell what culture’s going to wind up finding fertile in the next few years? If President Obama winds up dismantling the US security state, Little Brother may lose some of the relevance it now stakes a claim to. Cultural influence sometimes comes from works that are formally innovative and look “revolutionary”—Dhalgren is a perfect example, and I’d note that many people still find it a difficult book. But I’d put at least as much money for lasting influence on The Graveyard Book as on Anathem. For all its widely noted virtues, Gaiman’s book is small-c conservative in its form—more so than, say, Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. But it winds up sitting in the mind after it’s been finished like Charlotte’s Web—a perfect fixing in the form of art of some ideas about growing up, life, and death. But all art is a kind of gamble: will the choices your work embodies make it appreciated on publication and last thereafter? Who can tell if you’re going to be remembered like this?

Graham Sleight

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