Saturday, 13 September 2014

Granta 128: American Wild

Sigrid Rausing (editor) Granta 128: American Wild (2014)

I picked this up out of simple curiosity, and have ended up enjoying it so much as to prompt the uneasy suspicion that I have perhaps tired of science-fiction as a genre, science-fiction being the section of the book store in which the majority of my reading material is generally found. It's not that I ever regarded science-fiction as necessarily superior to anything else, just that it has held a particular fascination for me over the years. The absurdity of such a bias were it to be based on qualitative terms is demonstrated by moronic internet arguments about whether fantasy is better than reality as the substance of written fiction, and unfortunately I have seen such arguments. Those who say yes often state cases amounting to because real life is boring innit, which probably says more about them and their lives than it does about literature of any form.

I would rather gouge out my own eyes out with a spoon than sit through the tedium of a Mike Leigh film, opined one facebook dwelling Doctor Who fan in defence of a recent episode of the shit kids' show in which actors had spent an entire hour holding torches beneath each other's faces whilst delivering portentous lines such as the time is upon us and the future changes now because no-one had bothered to write a script that week.

The key word here is fan. The fan is a person who makes choices based on the logo or identification of a product, on whether that which is chosen belongs to an established canon or series of related - even interchangeable - products. In terms of fancy pants books without pictures, the fan will not prioritise great literature over literature featuring specific familiar characters or ideas which will hopefully seem great, or great-ish, or at least not too pants-shittingly awful. Fan has been grasped as a status of which one should be proud, which is partially taking the piss out of oneself before anyone else gets around to it, and partially dressing up insular tendencies as something clannish and somehow indicative of effort or dedication; because no-one likes to think of themselves as a sad, wilfully ignorant fucker. This is aided by a cultural climate in which it is no longer seen as permissable to quantify anything as definitively shite or worthless just in case it causes someone somewhere to feel a little bit inadequate and have themselves a sad. Boo hoo.

Unfortunately, some things just are definitively shite and worthless whichever way you look at them. Terrance Dicks may well be an efficient - if not necessarily great - writer if you're eight, but if you're stood in front of me gushing over Doctor Who and the Face of Evil at the age of anything over twenty, then I have no resource by which I can summon benefit of the doubt in sufficient quantities to view you as anything other than a bit of a berk, which apparently means I have an elitist attitude. This applies equally if you're dressed as Batman, or if you have more opinions about Torchwood than can be encapsulated within a single sentence of just three words; and as for games are really sophisticated these days with storylines and everything - oh piss off, you stupid wanker.

Anyway, my point is that it's really not what you write as how you write about it which matters, and that spacecraft are not in and of themselves interesting, and that whilst I try to avoid anything that's too obviously generically hacked-out science-fiction landfill, sometimes I feel like I may as well be reading one of Junior's fucking Pokémon books; or at least this was the thought which came to me when I started reading this, the American Wild themed edition of Granta. Being a bit thick, I had always assumed Granta was probably not for me, an eggheady boffinfest of Hampstead based tales of Guradnia subscribers experiencing existential nausea over a Waitrose kumquat, or something, but really it's mostly just short stories, albeit extraordinarily well-written short stories.

River So Close by Melinda Moustakis relates the almost surreally miserable lot of a worker in an Alaskan canning factory, and is probably the most startling and visceral thing I've read since The Darkening Light by Ted Curtis earlier this year, albeit without the orange diarrhoea. I found Callan Wink's Exotics particularly enjoyable for its being set in the very familiar territory of rural Texas, and it was nice to recognise so much of the landscape and its people; and nearly everything else here within these 256 pages is of equal calibre. The voices are dynamic, seemingly incapable of cliché or generic sentiment. This is what writing is supposed to do but so rarely does. The standard is so high that it borders on exhausting.

That said, I personally found two of the stories less satisfactory than the rest, and I could have lived without both Andrew Motion's contribution and the pointless Kerouac talk show thing - both the work of poetic types and of no real interest to me; besides which, I'm not sure why anyone would care what Andrew Motion thinks about the great American wilderness. I suspect it's just one of those deals where we assume that an Oxford graduate will always have something fascinating and insightful to tell us, regardless of the subject we set before him. Then again, the few less engaging contributions doubtless make sense to someone, and with such an otherwise thoroughly gripping collection, I'm not complaining. It seems a little worrying that one of the two stories I failed to enjoy might be deemed speculative if not actually full-blown science-fiction. Hopefully I haven't outgrown my own reading habits.

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