Thursday, 4 January 2007

In praise of ignorance

First, a happy New Year to all my readers. I hope both of you have a prosperous 2007. Sorry, that was a joke. Second, I got a nice mention by Shannon McNear in the Speculative Faith website. Yes, it would be nice to think that there was a bit of a buzz about my books. I can hear it now ‘There's this British guy…’ ‘You really ought to read him…. .’ or (best of all) ‘this guy is weird, I think we ought to burn his books. Publicly.’ Oh please!

Now on to my main subject this week. I don’t know if anybody else does this, but when I browse the web I often come across fascinating sites, skim through them and then later on, end up thinking to myself. ‘Where did I come across that?’ Anyway on a site, a well-known SF author (I am pretty certain it was Orson Scott Card, who has written some jolly fine stuff in his time) suggested that it was an absolute essential that anyone writing within the genre of science fiction ought to read extensively within that genre and he gave a long list of titles that must be read.

Initially this produced in me the sort of embarrassed reaction normally associated with turning up in T-shirt and jeans to some function where everyone else is in suits and ties. Have I read this year’s Hugo Awards? Hugo who? And as I thought about it I began to imagine that there could indeed be a buzz about the name of Chris Walley; that quieter insistent whispering that goes ‘Apparently – or so they say – he hasn’t even read ….. Can you believe it?’ (But I have read Ulysses; yes, really, all the way to the end).

Then after I had stopped feeling incredibly ill-equipped I actually began to wonder whether it was true that to write successfully in a genre you had to have read all the great classics within it. A couple of points have come to mind.

The first is that I think you can over-prepare too much for almost everything in life apart from the Day of Judgment. We all know people who say they’re going to go camping or climb mountains, but spend so much time getting all the kit ready, buying all the maps and doing all the preparations, only to find that night has fallen, the rainy season has started or they have become bedridden with old age. We only have so much time, particularly those of us who are amateur writers. (By the way I’m happy to be relieved of that status: e-mail me for details of my bank account.) Isn’t one of the best ways to learn to write, just to write? Carpe diem!

The second thing is to wonder whether extensive reading within a genre might (and I only say might ) produce a tendency for a writer to produce just ‘more of the same’. Mightn't it just reinforce some of the stereotypes and clich├ęs? If you only ever read within a genre, are you ever likely to produce works that push the boundaries of the genre?

Actually, I never set out to be a science fiction author. This is not simply because there are more people who have flown in space than there are authors who have made a respectable living from science fiction. It is that I don’t care for much of what I have read – or glanced at in the genre. Confession time: I don’t like books that spend 300 pages working out the possible implications of one bit of science: I can get very unenthusiastic about tales of romance amongst the Yhyg’stail of Flaterwump 5 and I don’t actually like Star Trek!

The thing is I want to write about what might happen to real people in weird and extraordinary situations. In other words, I’m only interested in ‘science fiction’ as a genre in as much as it provides me with framework for dealing with things that I cannot deal with in any other setting.

In fact I not even sure that I liked the idea of ‘genre’ at all. Maybe the whole idea of genre is simply the effort of booksellers and librarians to try to keep things in some sort of order. Perhaps, really I’m a secret anarchist. There's a thought!