Ishiguro and Le Guin: the Genre Gendarmes and Gender

On Monday, the ongoing conversation about "genre" fiction versus "literary" fiction received a jolt from two well-known and well-loved names. Beloved author and Fiction Unbound favorite Ursula K. Le Guin called out beloved author and Fiction Unbound favorite Kazuo Ishiguro for his remarks in a New York Times interview, in which he expressed some anxiety over fantasy-genre elements in his just-released novel, The Buried Giant.

“Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

"It appears that the author takes the word for an insult," Le Guin wrote on the blog for Book View Café, a publishing co-op for speculative literature. "To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice." She observed the 'surface elements' of fantasy--in the case of The Buried Giant, ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, magic--are common to literary masterpieces such as Beowulf as well as "commercial hackwork," but fantasy, at heart, was about "drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story."  She concludes:

Ursula K. Le Guin.  Photo by Jack Liu (2014).

Ursula K. Le Guin.  Photo by Jack Liu (2014).

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

We over at Fiction Unbound went nuts. Leave it to Le Guin, a hero of speculative literature, to rebuke the fantasy stigma in such stirring, uncompromising language. Fantasy novelist Scott Lynch started the hashtag #TotallyNotFantasy on Twitter, and there was much rejoicing.

It's just my luck that I pulled the straw for news editor this week. Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors, and so is Le Guin. I am distressed. Since the tide seems to be tending against Ishiguro, permit me to offer three brief, possible defenses:

1.  Authors may legitimately worry about managing expectations. If one is looking for a fantasy novel and opens Ishiguro--I say this confidently without having cracked open The Buried Giant yet--one will be disappointed. Readers who expected high-concept science fiction from Never Let Me Go did not get Orphan Black. If "they" say The Buried Giant is fantasy, if the publishers and marketers are "going to say it's fantasy," then readers may come in with a host of perfectly legitimate expectations that fail to pan out. If that's what Ishiguro was worried about, he has every right.

Kazuo Ishiguro with the cast of the film adaptation of  Never Let Me Go .  Photo by Bex Walton (2010).

Kazuo Ishiguro with the cast of the film adaptation of Never Let Me Go.  Photo by Bex Walton (2010).

2.  Authors don't have to agree with a stigma to fear it. It is indisputable fantasy novels face a stigma from the hoity-toities of "literary" fiction. David Mitchell got ridiculed in his New Yorker review for the fantasy 'surface elements'; Le Guin has also spoken powerfully about the literary establishment's dismissive attitude towards speculative fiction, for example in this terrific (old) interview in Guernica:

I am still mostly referred to (dismissed) as a “sci fi writer.” When Margaret Atwood writes a serious review of one of my books for the New York Times, it is printed under the title “The Queen of Quinkdom,” to make sure nobody takes it seriously. I am shortlisted for major awards, but the awards go to people like De Lillo and MacCarthy who also write science fiction, using the tropes and loci and metaphors of science fiction, but fastidiously keep their literary skirts from being defiled by the name of genre.

Let's say Ishiguro really does fear being identified with the fantasy genre. It's not like that's an irrational fear.

3.  This is distracting us from the important work of roundly condemning Jonathan Franzen. Every minute spent on #Ishiguin is a minute we could be devoting to #Franzenfreude. Won't someone think of the tweets?

ON THE OTHER HAND, there's another thread running through these genre wars, and that's gender. Le Guin lays it out plainly in the Guernica interview: men are forgiven their speculative elements more than women. Cormac McCarthy's The Road won the Pulitzer; Karen Russell's Swamplandia! literally lost to no one. So, when Ishiguro shies away from the fantasy genre, to what extent is he exercising a gendered privilege of "transcending," "superseding," or just plain being excused from the genre stigma?

At the end of the month, the Fiction Unbound contributors will be piling on to The Buried Giant in another mass review, so stay tuned!

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