I Wish Iain (M.) Banks Would Stop Dabbling in Mainstream Realism

Besides The Wasp Factory, I’ve never been a fan of Iain Banks’s non-SF novels. They often strike me as dull and unoriginal—they don’t really ring true, or have the same verve and energy as his Culture SF novels. I really wish he’d stop trying to show the literary crowd how it’s done. The howls of derisive laughter from that quarter might be politely private, and even motivated by a bit of tribalism, but still…

Have I got your attention yet?

Mostly, I’m just reversing some of the hypotheticals set out in Banks’ recent article in The Guardian about how “literary” writers are slumming it in SF without having done the proper reading of science fiction (so as to avoid hackneyed ideas). Not only are they slumming it, they’re apparently cynically writing novels just to cash in a paycheck—ride that popular SF/F wave.

…but…it takes a lot of time and effort to write a novel. The paychecks aren’t always necessarily that big. I kind of hope most writers are writing out of affection toward what they’re writing about, even as, of course, everyone wants to make a decent wage while doing so.

I might also point out that (1) the originality of ideas rarely seems to be the reason for most SF novels to exist—prudent recycling can yield good results; (2) non-SF audiences may not particularly care about the originality of the idea as opposed to the execution (including characterization), and (3) a lot of “SF” writers I’ve read recently don’t seem to have read much science fiction, either.

On the other hand, in some ways Banks’ fiction might prove his point. I don’t really hate his various incursions into “mainstream literary” subjects, but I do prefer the author’s science fiction more, and I know I like the SF because Banks does have a great knowledge of the field. I’m fairly sure his space opera is much wiser and richer because of that knowledge.

But that’s a different thing to say. For me to say this about a particular writer working in a particular specialized subgenre doesn’t mean I’m engaging in the same kinds of gross generalities as Banks in his article—at least I hope not. Mea culpa, if so.

(These generalizations remind me in a way of some reactions to Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction novel, The Sparrow. “She isn’t one of us, she hasn’t been properly consecrated,” and then those people had to eat crow because it turned out Analog’s Stanley Schmidt had helped her edit it and she had a very good working knowledge of the field.)

While space opera might be a leap if you’re known for frothy, funny relationship stories set in Manhattan, I’d also argue that there are scenarios in SF that really don’t require that much novel reading research. For me, at least, I can count the interesting post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read on one hand, so me trying to determine McCarthy’s reading habits seems somewhat irrelevant to whether The Road was going to be any good or not. Just for example. Just for me.

Anyway, I absolutely love many of Banks’ novels, I’ve learned a lot from his fiction, and admire him greatly for his book on whisky, so I contemplated not even writing this post. As it is, there’s no heat in these words—mostly just bemusement that it seems like over the past 20 years (the period of my involvement in the field) nothing has really changed in how we talk about genres, define our fellow writers, or, apparently, construct scenarios about other people’s motivations and intent in our heads.

18 comments on “I Wish Iain (M.) Banks Would Stop Dabbling in Mainstream Realism

  1. Pam Uphoff says:

    The thought of SF/F being a high paying genre is a bit scary. I mean, I thought we were well down from Mysteries, until a writer of both told me that, no, her mystery advances were small than the SF advances. But Romances, they still beat SF cold, right? Right?

  2. Flea says:

    I clicked through intending to quote Neil Gaimen on “entitlement issues” and you stopped me cold when I realized you were reacting to Banks’ piece in The Guardian. Agreed, 100%.

  3. Sam M-B says:

    Did you read Le Guin’s review of Embassytown in The Guardian? Mainly relevant here for the opening shot across Atwood’s bow.

  4. sandra says:

    This remember me a Philip Roth interview in wich he practically said he had created the whole alternative history genre with his novel The plot against America. He REALLY believed nobody had done nothing similar before him (sorry Harry Turtledove, goodbye Keith Roberts)! I’m not against mainstream writers doing SF, but how can you make a good SF novel without knowing what other SF authors had written before?

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’ve read The Plot Against America and I thought it worked just fine.

  6. Joe says:

    I actually enjoy Iain’s non-SF – Wasp Factory is amazing (and it is so hard to square such a book with nasty sections with the genial man swapping drinks with you when you meet him), but others like the Crow Road are also very good (and that one made an effective BBC serial too). One thing I did find interesting in his SF verses his mainstream work is back when I worked in a high street bookstore I noticed if it was the year Iain had made an SF novel then roughly half of the readers would turn up their noses. Middle class ladies would ask for the new Iain Banks, I’d show it to them and they’d declare, oh, it’s one of his frightful Sf novels and walk out the shop. However I placed his new mainstream novels alongside his SF when they came out, as well as with the Scottish fiction and a goodly percentage of the SF reader picked it up despite being ‘mainstream’ simply because they like his writing. But it rarely worked the other way around with mainstream readers picking up say Use of Weapons. Their loss.

  7. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I don’t actually dislike Banks’ mainstream fiction. It’s fairly various in approach anyway.

  8. KatG says:

    So let me get this straight, Cormac McCarthy, a man who never graduated from college though he had several fellowships, whose pals are scientists, who has said that the only books that matter to him deal with issues of life and death, who has written westerns and suspense thrillers, been a popular and lucrative bestseller including the winning of major awards that increase bestselling sales, and had popular movies from big studios made of his books — that Cormac McCarthy is slumming it to write SF for one novel — a genre I’m routinely told is dying (though it’s not,) can’t sell anywhere near as well as fantasy, romance or mysteries, and has only recently gotten any renewed interest from Hollywood at all — because SF is supposedly more popular than what he’s been doing all along and he supposedly wants to show others how to do it properly without coming up with some never touched on SF premise? Are we quite sure that Banks is feeling well? Or maybe just some writer annoyed him at a dinner party.

    It’s nice that Banks says that science fiction is not a closed house, but given that he attempted to slam the door shut and lock it, I’m not sure I take him at his word. The power of science fiction is not about purity tests and authors who live in god-like aliens and AI’s houses, not to mention the ones where reporters discover conspiracies, should perhaps not be throwing stones.

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Kat: Just in case my post seems confused, Banks doesn’t reference Cormac M–that’s my example only. But your comment is very valid in terms of dissolving that false binary system that everyone seems to love to prop up.

  10. Drax says:

    Banks’ Walking on Glass will always always have a weird special place in my heart, even more than Wasp Factory and the SF/Culture stuff. Thanks for pointing me to his Guardian piece….

  11. KatG says:

    Yes, I know, he’s very careful not to really identify anyone who he’s talking about, but McCarthy as a prominent example does sort of nail the problem. A lot of people think Banks is dabbling in science fiction, a lot of people are angry that he puts the M. in his name for SF as if he’s embarrassed, and a lot of people consider him not a real science fiction writer as he’s not sufficiently hard enough SF for them and writes militarized space opera, etc., none of which I particularly agree with, but it points out the difficulties, as you did, in assessing merit by hypothesized intent. And here’s Banks, applying some vague not really defined criteria to apparent dabblers who are supposed to know who they are and pass some unexplained litmus test of serious intent. I’m with you, I’m very tired of decades of imaginary wars, of people only being able to think of SFFH as us and them, and the scope of SFFH divided into endless us and them’s, rather than as part of the body of literature. Who publishes you and what shelf you are on in a bookstore is not what defines what you write, and it would be nice if major writers like Banks expressed that understanding, even if the media often doesn’t. Doesn’t make me like him any less, but it’s disappointing.

  12. Sam M-B says:

    After actually reading what Banks wrote, it really seems to me like this yours is an over-reading (or perhaps a mis-reading), Jeff. Banks doesn’t use the word “slumming” at all, and his warning seems to fundamentally be one against writing *ignorantly* (to avoid looking like a fool) rather than one of warning against “slumming”. (Though primarily as a warning against being derided or laughed at by the SF community, not in some larger sense warning against something.) I read it and my first reaction is: “meh”. And my second is: “Does Banks really think that High Profile Literary Author cares if they might get laughed at by a bunch of low-brow SF geeks?” Not: “Oh Noes, Banks is calling out the slummers.” Though maybe I’m mis-reading what you’re saying here.

  13. That’s an interesting detail to point out but doesn’t address his main thrust. I’d be happy to have mis-read, of course. I like Banks a lot. But please re-read my entire post, then re-read his piece.

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