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IWE and genre

“Civilisational or religious partitioning of the world population
yields a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human
beings as members of exactly one group…This can be a good way of
misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we
see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of
them… Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person
simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them
can be taken to be the person’s only identity or singular membership
category.”
– Amartya Sen, from the prologue to Identity and Violence: The
Illusion of Destiny

Remember, books are people too. It’s fairly clear that questions
related to literary taxonomy are primarily questions for booksellers
and critics, not readers or writers. On the other hand, these are
questions writers at least might consider being aware of, because they
play a very real role in determining their means of earning a
livelihood – which, while obviously not the objective of writing in
itself, is something a lot of writers would enjoy being able to do.
While struggling to get my own work published, I’ve learnt that
writing, while remaining the only meaningful experience in the entire
publishing process, is merely a stage of the entire quest, and in that
light, it’s been rewarding discussing some rather non-writerly
questions with other writers as well as publishers and critics.

Some of this project springs from personal frustration; the division
of books into categories that aren’t immediately obvious (non-fiction,
for example, is completely inoffensive) has always disappointed me as
a reader, and as a writer, simply because nearly all my favourite
books, like my favourite people, are multi-dimensional; they defy
definition, they grumble greatly when categorized. My own work is
found in shelves marked, depending on the speculations of bookstore
managers, Indian writing, SF/fantasy, children’s literature and once,
memorably, cookery. Literary borders are as difficult to draw as
political ones, though their creation fortunately involves less
bloodshed. That said, the social sciences of the literary world are
both fascinating and relevant, and their flaws, such as artificial
segmentation and aggregation, are the same as those of any process
that seeks to study heterogeneous objects as a mass.

This set of essays, however, is fundamentally flawed on many levels –
it is about a nascent, hard-to-define sub-section of literature, the
as-yet-mostly-nonexistent sub-genre of Indian speculative fiction in
English, which is itself a bastard child of two parents who, not
being dead, are difficult to analyze as they are not only infinitely
complex at any point, but, to complicate things further, change all
the time as well. However, since we’re dealing mostly with science
fiction and fantasy here, I’ll hope I can be forgiven for looking into
the future, and for making what might turn out to be wild, fantastical
claims.

What is Indian/South Asian literature in English? Even if we get past
the tricky question of origin, which has obsessed scholars since the
term came into being, and include the non-resident and the genetically
partially South Asian, in recent years the growing diversity in South
Asian English literature should lead to more questions – having
overcome the ‘South Asian’ part of the question by being
all-inclusive, how do we now define ‘literature’? Do we include comics
and graphic novels, speculative fiction, thrillers, chick-lit, campus
novels and crime fiction, all of which have reared their heads in
India over the last decade? This should prove a lot more difficult for
the sagacious and scholarly to do, given that literary snobbery is far
more acceptable than racism – and that Indian-origin writers abroad
might have very thin connections with India, but large advances and
literary awards add a great deal of density to the study of the field
– build its brand, in other words, however gut-shrinking that might
sound, while diversity in the form of new, not necessarily mainstream
writing increases the number of spices in the curry, but, in the eyes
of many not-so-neutral observers, does not necessarily add to its
taste.

The term ‘speculative fiction‘ is another puzzler. It’s a beast that’s
known by many names – weird fiction, SFF, literature of the
imagination – literature that in some way transcends the real, though
it’s nearly always a mirror image of the real, with certain upgrades.
Speculative fiction, spec-fic to friends, is essentially an umbrella,
a bar where a number of disgruntled genres come to hang out, its
leading patrons being fantasy, science fiction, horror and alternative
history
. It’s claimed by the bartenders that magic realism is also a
customer, though one suspects magic realism, a frequent invitee at
literary wine-and-cheese soirees, would deny this if asked. The term
is often attributed to Robert A Heinlein, who used it as a synonym for
science fiction in an essay in 1948. Whatever the genre includes, the
reason for the term’s existence is simply that books within the genre
are difficult to classify, and terms like spec-fic sound vaguely
impressive, are easier to explain than more bizarre concoctions like
magic realism, and also convey that these books aren’t Literature,
silence disgruntled writers complaining that their work isn’t ‘just’
SF or fantasy, and bring together a great many fascinating writers who
write about mind-bogglingly diverse things in mind-bogglingly
divergent styles, and allow everyone concerned to ignore these facts:
all (good) fiction is inherently speculative, all fiction involves
imagination, and escapism in literature depends on content, not
classification or theme.

In contemporary speculative fiction, one of the most frequently
discussed sub-genres is one that is in the process of being created –
the New Weird, a genre starring speculative fiction writers like Neil
Gaiman
, M. John Harrison and China Mieville, who all work under the
speculative umbrella, but blend their tales with other literary genres
as well. This is something science fiction has in common with science
– the most exciting work takes place in the overlaps between fields,
when boundaries are diffused and maps are redrawn.

“Something is happening in the literature of the fantastic. A
slippage. A freeing-up. The quality is astounding. Notions are
sputtering and bleeding across internal and external boundaries.
Particularly in Britain, where we are being reviewed in the papers, of
all things, and selling copies, and being read and riffed off by yer
actual proper literary writers. We are writing books which cheerfully
ignore the boundaries between SF, fantasy and horror. Justina Robson,
M John Harrison, Steve Cockayne, Al Reynolds, Steph Swainston and too
many others to mention, despite all our differences, share something.
And our furniture has invaded their headspace. From outside the field,
writers like Toby Litt and David Mitchell use the trappings of SF with
a respect and facility that has long been missing in the clodhopping
condescension of the literati.”
China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station, The Scar, etc., in
a guest editorial in The Third Alternative 35

Of course, spec-fic and mainstream literature have often had
cross-border talks – think of the magic realism of Murakami, or
Rushdie, or Marquez, or the not-SF SF of Margaret Atwood. Some of the
most iconic writers of contemporary speculative fiction blend genres
frequently and with ease – consider the exuberant book-peopled
universe that is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, or Stephen King’s Dark
Tower series – in the last few years, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan
Strange and Mr. Norrell was a successful marriage between speculative
fiction and the 19th-century English novel. And then, of course,
there’s the most successful writer in the world, J.K. Rowling, whose
blend of spec-fic and school stories have changed the world. Philip
Roth does alternative history; Bret Easton Ellis does horror. In a
sense, the term New Weird examines a phenomenon that’s not new at all,
in a literary world of which the most outstandingly weird aspect is
its compulsive need to segregate stories into categories in the first
place. Given that the term isn’t very old, most New Weird writers
probably aren’t even aware that they could be so described, because,
fortunately, no one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Today I will
start a New Weird novel.’ Jeff Vandermeer, one of the New Weird’s
leading lights, describes it as ” an affliction visited upon many of
us involuntarily. Labels like that one are at this point simply a
marketing tool.”

“I always tell wannabe writers not to read too much in the field where
they work. Obviously you need to keep in touch, but a deep knowledge
of the Old West or world history stands you in better stead than a
shelf of other people’s fantasy books. Import, don’t recycle. That’s
actually wisdom, that is.”
– Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld books, in an interview at
www.scifi.com

This is something Indian/South Asian writers of spec-fic would do well
to absorb. While it is, of course, necessary to keep in touch with
contemporary spec-fic (for practical reasons, to make sure you’re not
reinventing the wheel, as well as for sheer reading pleasure) there’s
no particular reason to feel disheartened by the fact that the first
glimmering of a body of work that could be called Indian spec-fic in
English began to be available in India about seven decades after pulp
SF magazines became wildly popular in the US, not to mention about a
century after Bengali SF became popular and a few millenia after the
Indian epics spoke of flying chariots, amazing weaponry and other
worlds – there’s still a lot that Indian spec-fic could give the
genre, though there is also a lot of catching up to do. The sheer
richness of India as a spec-fic source material resource – not just in
terms of myth and folklore and history, but in contemporary politics,
the arts, entertainment and social trends, and in the completely
absorbing story of India as a growing, rapidly evolving nation – calls
out for imaginative speculative treatment. And typically, this
resource has already been mined by Western writers in search of
something exotic to offer saturated Western SF markets.

This is not to suggest even for a moment, of course, that Indian
writers should see themselves in anyway constrained to write only
About India, since that might be damaging for their own writing, and
might only reinforce stereotypes already present in the publishing
world – the last thing Indian writers like being reduced to is writers
whose only possible role could be Explaining India. At the same time,
there’s obviously nothing wrong with Indians writing about India and
things Indian if that’s the space in which the writing is naturally,
organically set, and there are several Indian stories that survive,
indeed, thrive on, constant retelling. And there are still a number of
brilliant spec-fic novels just waiting to be written that are, in
various senses, Indian, and if Indian writers don’t write them, others
will. The process has already begun.

Even if we set aside the existence of India’s wealth in natural
resources as far as spec-fic is concerned, the sparsity of finished
Indian spec-fic is all the more remarkable given the abundance and
immense popularity of Indian writing in English. Of course, the
absence of Indian spec-fic books on bookshelves worldwide does not
mean these books aren’t being written – it just means they aren’t
being distributed even if they are being published. Spec-fic and
literary publishing are mostly segregated (another reason for
genre/mainstream borders) and the remarkable success of Indians in one
field is in no sense a source of increased attention for Indian
writers in the other. Besides, the literati aren’t the only with silly
prejudices in the publishing world; the SFF publishing space has its
own problems, the most blinding one being that readers of spec-fic,
especially in the US, are presumed to be looking for the familiar
unfamiliar – bug-eyed aliens, even more Tolkienspawn, more simplistic
George Lucas clones – that spec-fic, far from being literature that
explores new territory, boldly going where no books have gone before,
is as much literary comfort food as, say, most mass-produced
contemporary chick-lit. As publishers search for the familiar, much of
what is new and exciting but unfamiliar fails to break through the
crystal ceiling. Familiar plots, familiar characters, familiar tropes
gain strength through repeated cloning, making sure that the spec-fic
market remains white-male dominated, both in terms of protagonists and
writers. This is clearly something Indian writers will have to
struggle against, but they will certainly not be the first to join
battle – pioneers like Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler have
already made huge steps to make the spec-fic world aware of these
prejudices, and they haven’t been the only ones. Thanks to a variety
of factors, such as a real tiredness among readers of repetitive plots
and the phenomenonal information/culture bomb that is the Internet,
even American publishers are slowly opening their minds and their
coffers to spec-fic material from across the world – consider the
success of manga, the fastest growing phenomenon in world publishing
today. Spec-fic is certainly less inward-looking than it used to be,
and the New Weird, however questionable its definition, is a very real
symptom of this.

And it’s a better time now, than ever before, to be an Indian spec-fic
writer. The initial forays into Western markets have been made; Indian
spec-fic writing is increasing, albeit slowly, over various media as
the global popularity and increasing mainstream acceptability of
spec-fic trickle across to India; perhaps most importantly, the Indian
readership of spec-fic is growing and diversifying, as more
cutting-edge spec-fic, again, in various media, begins to be available
in ever-expanding bookstore chains. If good spec-fic is written now,
there’s more chance of it reaching Indian readers, and readers
worldwide, than ever before. To achieve that, here’s one possible
future; Indian writers bring their home-grown skills into the world of
spec-fic, blurring and reinventing genres, adding themes, experiences
and visions as yet unseen in the spec-fic world. In other words, they
colonize the New Weird, making it truly new. And truly weird.

Rana Dasgupta, author of Tokyo Cancelled, on putting books into boxes:

Q: In publishing terms, you’re seen as a ‘literary’ writer. But in
your first novel, you’ve used themes that relate fairly extensively to
the domain of speculative fiction – the memory database, the woman who
turns into a store, the relationship with a doll, and so forth. but
since your writing style puts you under ‘literature’, these influences
would then fall in the realm of ‘magic realism’, another imposed
classification to distinguish speculative-in-literary from
straightforward genre fiction, putting you into yet another artificial
pocket with writers like Margaret Atwood, Toby Litt and David
Mitchell. What are your thoughts on literary/publishing
classifications like ‘mainstream’ and ‘genre’? If, under threat of
torture, you had to classify your own work, where would you place it
on the speculative/literary spectrum?

A: Frankly I find the game of categorization very boring, whether it
is by nation or “genre”. It may have some function for people in
marketing, but it’s of no interest to me in my own writing. I write
something only because it seems to have a particular force to me, not
because it will satisfy the requirements of a particular genre, or
appeal to a certain kind of person.

In my personal view, books categorized as “science fiction” often meet
the standards of “literature” better than books categorized as
“literature” do. This is because i have a particular idea of
literature. for me, literature is philosophy: its purpose is not to
describe what we already know to be the case, but to create an
experiment with the imagination. Science fiction has always done this,
of course. Moreover, “reality” now seems to be an entirely science
fiction-style project, and to eschew science fiction totally is often
to retreat into some kind of improbable, and uninteresting, refuge.

I don’t think serious writers have any business internalizing the
slogans and generalizations of industry. To me it is entirely
destructive to their work. It can only result in the censorship of
the imagination – because something does not fit easily within a
genre, or will be too complex for the imagined audience, etc. It is
precisely in
the moments when one is surprised by one’s own writing, or fearful of
its implications, that one reaches into spaces that are interesting
and enduring.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
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