Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks

After this year’s male-dominated Booker longlist was announced, Naomi from The Writes of Woman got together a few other female book bloggers, who each suggested five female writers who they felt deserved more recognition (see parts one and two of the Unsung Female Writers series). Now, as a follow-up, Naomi has sought a male perspective: she asked me and Eric of Lonesome Reader for our suggestions. She also asked me to suggest a science fiction writer, as that’s not a field she knows much about. In the end, my entire list is SF-tinged to varying degrees – but you’ll have to read the post at Naomi’s blog to find out who I chose. Eric’s list is also well worth checking out.

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In another place, the SF fanzine Big Sky has marked Loncon 3 by putting together two special issues in celebration of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. In issue 4, you’ll find reprints of my blog posts on Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and The Prestige, and Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.

New indexing

A short admin post today, to say that I’ve changed the way posts on the blog are indexed. I used to have two pages listing all my reviews, but they became unwieldy. So I’ve been working on a new way of categorising posts, which you can find in a drop-down menu to the right. In particular, you can browse for posts on individual authors, or books translated from particular languages. Hopefully that should make it easier to explore the archives.

Some thoughts on Loncon

So, Loncon: I haven’t the time to write a full report – and, to be honest, I’m not sure that anything I wrote could do justice to this wonderful event. It was big without being overwhelming, had more than enough to keep anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction engaged for the full five days – and perhaps enough to make uninterested people start to change their minds.

I caught up with some people I hadn’t seen in the real world for months (years, in some cases), and was pleased to meet others for the first time. My three panels unfolded mostly as billed, went very well from my point of view, and certainly seemed to be well received. I’d like to thank everyone who joined me in a discussion, as participant or moderator: Nina Allan; Anne Charnock; Scott Edelman; Chris Gerwel; Leticia Lara; Kev McVeigh; Patrick Nielsen Hayden; Aishwarya Subramanian; E .J. Swift; and especially Adam Roberts, who generously agreed to join the Genre and Mainstream Panel at short notice.

There are two other things emerging from the con that I’d like to highlight, one general, one more specific. My general point is about the atmosphere of the con. I may have my reservations about genre SF and the culture that surrounds it, but I also need to champion what the community does well. SF has a long tradition of reader criticism, and that means a lot of people who take a serious analytical approach to their reading – and, when they gather together at an event like Loncon, the result is second-to-none.

To take one of my panels as an example: I and a panel of writers and editors spent the best part of an hour talking about three specific short stories. Imagine the literary festival where a mainstream equivalent of that could happen. Now imagine one with dozens of panels like (and unlike) this. The interested literary reader has nothing to compare; I know, because I’m such a reader as well.

My more specific point is a thought that has developed from some of the panels I attended on non-Western SF, and SF in translation. The point was made that Western audiences can be resistant to stories that lack conflict (stories without ‘moving parts’, as the writer Amal El-Mohtar put it). And I’m struck that similar attitudes often prevail towards mainstream-published SF (they can be stereotyped as focusing on character at the expense of a fully worked-out background, and so on). Of course, these are two different issues in many ways; but I do wonder if there’s a connection somewhere – perhaps a limited view of what science fiction can (or should) look like? This is a thought I’m keen to explore further.

Finally, my thanks to everyone who was involved in the organisation of Loncon. You did yourselves, and SF, proud.

“In these pages, the Professor had walked beyond beaten paths, looking for truth in a place no one knows”

Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

HPIt occurred to me when I was compiling my review list in preparation for Women in Translation Month that I’d read all bar one of Yoko Ogawa’s books which were available to me in English translation – so now seemed as good a time as any to complete the set. It’s a paradoxical feeling: on the one hand, I’ve now read everything of Ogawa’s that I can, so I must have some kind of handle on her work; on the other, it’s only four volumes out of a much larger bibliography, so how can I be sure?

This is particularly relevant in the case of The Housekeeper and the Professor, because it’s a little different from Ogawa’s other books that I’ve read – the intense focus on a distinctive relationship is still there, but it’s noticeably less dark. There’s still a sting to it, but the overriding tone is wistful. I believe from what I’ve heard that it’s not typical of Ogawa’s work as a whole, but I say that with a degree of uncertainty.

Anyway, our narrator is a housekeeper who goes to work in 1992 for a retired professor of mathematics (neither character is named). After being injured in a car accident, the Professor remembers nothing from before 1975, and his short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes – so, each time the Housekeeper arrives, it is their first meeting as far as he’s concerned. But the pair bond (albeit one-sidedly) over maths: it is the Professor’s world, literally and figuratively; and the Housekeeper becomes able to understand more because the Professor will happily explain concepts to her repeatedly (though for him, of course, it’s always the first time he’s done so).

Underpinning the novel is the idea of mathematics as a hidden, eternal map of the universe; Stephen Snyder’s translation really captures the joy of this view of maths. For example, here the Housekeeper imagines the universe as a vast, intricate pattern of lace:

The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth. (p. 124)

So the Professor’s worldview comes to influence the Housekeeper’s: she is inspired to do her own investigations into prime numbers, and even refers to her son solely by the Professor’s nickname for him, Root (derived from the flat top of the boy’s head, which reminds the Professor of the square root symbol).

It’s a sign of how far the Professor’s outlook comes to suffuse Ogawa’s novel that the little numerical questions he asks the Housekeeper as a greeting – ‘What’s your shoe size?’, for example – seem jarring when he blurts them out in another context (namely, in the barber’s chair). At that sort of moment, we see the Professor’s outbursts as the rest of the world sees them: the ravings of a confused old man; but when he’s with the Housekeeper, we understand that they are a part of his mental framework.

Stability is a key theme running through The Housekeeper and the Professor: mathematics as an eternal truth against the vagaries of life; maths again as the Professor’s store of knowledge against his fleeting memory; this particular job, these circumstances, as something the Housekeeper wishes to remain in. The melancholy truth, of course, is that the characters’ situation cannot last forever; but hope remains, because the numbers will go on.

Elsewhere
My other blog posts on Yoko Ogawa.
An essay on Ogawa’s work in the LA Review of Books, by Robert Anthony Siegel.

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

Open thread: the books that changed you

Following on from my Fiction Uncovered article about  how I’ve changed as a reader in recent years, I thought I would open the subject to you. Please leave a comment and tell me about a book that changed the way you read. Is there a book that put you on to a different kind of (non-)fiction? One that you returned to after abandoning and that suddenly ‘clicked’? Something else? Let me know!

Fiction Uncovered Guest Editor

This year, Fiction Uncovered have been inviting various people to act as Guest Editor of the site, each posting four opinion pieces over the course of a month. So far, the Guest Editors have been my fellow book blogger Simon Savidge; my fellow Desmond Elliott shadow juror Kaite Welsh; and the journalist Anita Sethi. I’m excited to announce that this month, it’s my turn.

My brief for the four columns was fairly open, apart from that they should have a British focus (which I’ve mostly stuck to, with a tiny bit of fudging). I won’t reveal exactly what my pieces are about just yet, but I will say that I’ve aimed to cover my main reading interests  in them. I’ve also created a page on the blog where I will linking to the columns as they appear.

The first column is up now. It’s called ‘Uncovering the Reader‘, and is about how we change as readers – how, sometimes, you don’t appreciate a book unless you read it at the right time. I use my own experience as an example, talking about some of the ‘milestone’ books where I think I changed as a reader.

Further reading

If you’re interested, here are some links to where I’ve written more about the books mentioned in the column: