Women Writers In “The Gray Tradition”?

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…

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20 Responses to Women Writers In “The Gray Tradition”?

  1. I’m not sure that this is entirely right, but a couple of Kate Atkinson’s novels are in the right sort of area. Emotionally Weird is a metafictional student comedy set in Dundee in the 70s. I think it’s completely brilliant, but your enjoyment of it may depend on whether or not you think it’s funny.

    Her most recent, Life After Life, is a time-travel-but-not-really story set between and during the world wars. The only way I can think of to describe it is that it’s a bit like if The Invisibles consisted entirely of variations of Best Man Fall. It’s got its flaws, but I’m struggling to think of a Gray Tradition novel that doesn’t.

    They’re a lot more understated than a lot of other Gray Tradition novels, and a lot more focused on the personal rather than broad sweeping concepts. More Michael Chabon than Philip K Dick.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      “If The Invisibles consisted entirely of variations of Best Man Fall” is another way of saying “book that Andrew needs to move right to the top of his reading list”…

    • I feel I should also probably warn people who might find it distressing or triggering, Life After Life contains an uncomfortably detailed look at an abusive relationship. Also, a lot of death, but that’s to be expected from the book’s premise.

      And now I will stop clogging up Andrew’s comment section.

  2. Hollistic Tendancies says:

    Seriously, The End of Mr. Y is all the things in that list. And it’s practically in arm’s-reach of you now. Go read it, or I’ll read it to you.

  3. Wesley says:

    Here are a few books that hit on some of these criteria or feel similar to me, though how close they really are to what you’re looking for may vary:

    Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven
    Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl
    Tatiana Tolstaya, The Slynx
    Liz Jensen, My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time
    Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History (This looks like military fantasy on first glance, but gets weirder as it progresses.)

  4. excellent post, Andrew! i’ve been thinking (trying to ..) along similar lines. recently finished ICE by Anna Kavan and came away thinking it was .. more Ballard than Ballard himself / in terms of DISASTER and, most of all, the triangle of narrator/protagonist, “strong man,” and Dame — think The Crystal World, The Day of Creation, or a dozen-plus other titles. .. but nearer to your concerns are what *else* ICE called forth : items by Robbe-Grillet (Kavan’s uses of TIME), Herbert Read’s The Green Child, and – hey hey hey – the “Greater Unthank” of Lanark.

  5. Kalieris says:

    Possibly Kushiel’s Dart? Not sure it will have exactly the right feel to you, but when I was reading the checklist I kept thinking of that book specifically. Author is Jacqueline Carey.

  6. Lance Parkin says:

    Hi. I think I need to point out I really, really don’t think it’s either necessary nor desirable that men write these. I just went down the list and felt I needed to note it.

    Good to see a list of suggestions of women writers tackling similar things.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I didn’t think for a second that you thought either, and if I gave *anyone* the impression otherwise, I apologise. It was certainly clear to me that you were being descriptive rather than prescriptive, and I hope it was clear to others.

      One author that’s been repeatedly mentioned to me on Tumblr (where I crossposted this), incidentally, is Kelly Link, and in particular her book Magic For Beginners.

  7. Karl Musser says:

    Mary Doria Russell – especially “Sparrow”
    Kage Baker – the Company series
    Lois McMaster Bujold – is more known for the Vorkosigian books, but I think the Chalion series meets your criteria better
    Paula Volsky – I’d start with “Illusion”
    Vonda McIntyre – for her books are are not part of series, try “The Moon and the Sun”
    Jacqueline Carey – her non-Kushiel books probably fit your criteria better than the Kushiel ones.
    Emma Bull – I’d start with “Territory”
    Octavia Butler – might be a little too dystopian for your criteria, but I think it’s good stuff

    and from the graphic novels division:
    Ursula Vernon – “Digger” is pure awesomeness

  8. Sorry, Russell’s The Sparrow is almost impressively awful, and I don’t see how it fits the criteria. Octavia Butler on the other hand is excellent, although again not sure if she’s a particularly good fit here. Some of Katherine MacLean’s shorts (specifically those in The Diploids collection, that being the one I read) might figure, but should be read anyway as she’s fantastic. Maybe also take a look at Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon as that definitely ticks a few of the boxes, although of course it’s a play rather than a novel.

    And sorry (particularly to Karl), but The Sparrow just seemed like simpering, manipulative crap to me. Genuinely one of the worst things I’ve ever read, even including Who tie-in fiction.

  9. Tony Harms says:

    You have written such a specific list of things that it is difficult to imagine who might fit into your template. However I have run your list into the computer and it has triumphantly returned a name:

    J. K. Rowling

    Perhaps you need to step out of your comfort zone a little? Many of your criteria are also found in “magical realism”, a landscape where there are plenty of women. Try “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston, or “Silk Road” by Jeanne Larsen

    And for a book where the narrator is constantly engaged in a struggle to assert herself as a person, where she is spirited away into a world where the values are subtly but intrinsically different and where she has to decide whether to remain or return to the “real” world, doesnt “Jane Eyre” have some similarities with the books you are talking about?

    • Lance Parkin says:

      “You have written such a specific list of things that it is difficult to imagine who might fit into your template.”

      I wrote the list, not Andrew, and I wrote it as a list of existing commonalities among a set of books that we wouldn’t normally lump together, not as a compulsory set of requirements a new books before I’d want to read them. A huge number of books (and other stories) fit the template and, as you say, the list is *so* specific, that is a little odd.

      “Perhaps you need to step out of your comfort zone a little?”

      Again: I do read other things. As Andrew says, it’s not meant as a prescriptive list, it’s a descriptive one.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, what Lance said, basically. I actually hardly ever go *into* my comfort zone, as it happens — without wanting this to turn into me trying to display my broad-ranging and utterly fascinating tastes, I am not the most well-read person I know, but I’m definitely the most *widely*-read person I know in real life (some people I know online are scarily so).

      But the point of this post is that time and again, those works of fiction that have meant the most to me — the books I keep returning to, that I rave about to friends, that I have to buy multiple copies of because I read the originals to pieces, the ones that make me think about life in a different way, all fit into the description Lance put together.

      It’s not that those books are my “comfort zone” — if I want comfort reading, I’m far more likely to turn to, say, P.G. Wodehouse. Reading The Inimitable Jeeves is just a straightforward joy, while reading, say, VALIS is, frankly, a bit of a slog (picked those two because they’re currently shelved next to each other on my bookshelf). And Wodehouse is clearly the better writer in every way that matters. But Wodehouse doesn’t start my brain moving on totally different tracks the way all these writers have — which is *very* odd given all the similarities Lance noted (and there are far more than the ones I listed — what’s there is a subset just consisting of the ones I think I respond to, rather than all the similarities that are there).

  10. Christian Taylor says:

    Marisha Pessl springs oddly to mind. She’s only written two novels, but they both tick many of the above boxes as they might be imagined by someone desperate to avoid genre ghettoization.

    Her first, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is heavier into metafictive and intertextual wibblety-wobblety, and the fetishization of written texts leading to a dissolution of the main character/narrator’s certainty about her own reality. It’s also overwritten in a manner that makes professional critics swoon. It gave me cause to remark, “If she ever stops trying to please the accusing ghosts of her lit professors, we’ll have a real hum-dinger of a genre author.”

    As I do not write reviews for The New York Times, The New Yorker, et alia, I found her second book, Night Film, tremendously preferable. Just about any online plot synopsis should convey it’s “Gray” credentials.

    • Lance Parkin says:

      “Marisha Pessl springs oddly to mind.”

      I’ve really loved both of her novels. And I have no problem with people writing to please lit professors.

      • Christian Taylor says:

        I wouldn’t say that I mind that approach per se, it’s just that particular story I felt to be a tad undermined by it. And I do feel a bit sad when it comes across as a little . . . Procrustean? Is that too harsh a word?

  11. Andrew Hickey says:

    Just want to thank everyone here for these suggestions, even though I’m not replying to each individually. Some of these sound really interesting…

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