I’ve several times asked for recommendations for fiction by women writers, because my fiction reading is over 95% male, and that’s not good, either for me or society. Unfortunately, most of the recommendations have been people I’ve just bounced off.
But today I realised something obvious — I’ve been asking for SF/F writers, especially, because the vast majority of what I read is SF/F, but there’s a much better description of the kind of stuff I want, one I’ve referred to several times in the past — what Lance Parkin refers to as “the Gray tradition”.
The kind of thing Lance is talking about there is by far my favourite fiction reading. Lance has a long list in the top post there of the common characteristics of the books he’s talking about. I’ve excerpted below the ones that — I *think* — are the things that most appeal to me, but do read all the posts there, they’re all worth it:
Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.
Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.
Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.
The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.
History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.
The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.
Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.
Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.
The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.
They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.
There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).
There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.
The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.
Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.
Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.
The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.
If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.
Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.
Some of the books Lance talks about fitting into this genre are Lanark, the Narnia books, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Invisibles, most of Philip K Dick and Alan Moore’s stuff, the works of Borges, Iain Banks, Lovecraft, and Michael Chabon.
Some that I’d add that seem to me the same kind of thing, though of varying levels of quality — Cerebus, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, most of Robert Anton Wilson’s stuff, Lewis Carrol, Stewart Lee’s novel The Perfect Fool, some of Vonnegut, Bryan Talbot. And sort of proto-Gray-Tradition people would include Blake, Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde.
The only problem with this is one of the *other* characteristics Lance points out as being common to all these books:
Be written by men
Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Several of the writers who’ve contributed to recent Obverse anthologies — I’m thinking especially of Elizabeth Evershed, Kelly Hale and Helen Angove — have done stuff which has the same *feeling* to me as many of these books, and I’m sure the forthcoming women-only Faction Paradox anthology will have a lot more, as Faction Paradox is, as much as anything, just a label saying “this kind of stuff” (my own forthcoming Faction Paradox novel fits almost embarrassingly into the description Lance gives).
But… there’s not much I know of. Susanna Clarke sort of fits, but her only novel so far came out ten years ago. Holly keeps recommending Scarlett Thomas to me, and having looked at the synopses of her novels she definitely seems to fit, but I read her nonfiction book on writing, Monkeys With Typewriters, and found her writing persona to be revolting — narcissistic, omphaloskeptic, and patronising towards any fiction that isn’t “literary” for the narrow definition of literary that gains the approval of the Observer’s books editor. I’ll probably try reading her sooner or later, simply because she does seem to fit my tastes perfectly other than that, but that book *really* put me off.
Are there any other women who write this sort of thing? There *must* be — I know enough women who *like* this kind of thing that there must be at least *some* women writing it. But of course, it’s entirely possible that if there are, it’s being labelled in a completely different genre to anything I’d normally look at. For all I know there’s some wonderful metafictional postmodern platonist romance novelist out there who is as highly regarded in her genre as Alan Moore is in his.
And if there is, I want to read her stuff…