Writers without a Genre

Iain Banks, a Scottish “novelist of hallucinatory brilliance who attracted notoriety with his grotesque and bizarre tales” died last week at the age of 59.  His obituary in The Daily Telegraph says that until his first book, The Wasp Factory, appeared, he “plastered the walls of his room with rejection slips”.  I know the feeling!  The Wasp Factory was a controversial first novel which brought Banks notoriety (1984).  “Even before its appearance, one publisher claimed that the book had made him vomit into his waste paper basket.  It had a similarly emetic effect on many reviewers: ‘a repulsive piece of work’; ‘silly, gloatingly sadistic’; ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’ were among the judgements of the newspapers.  Many, though, also conceded the hallucinatory brilliance of the author’s imagination, and there was widespread acknowledgement that Banks’ control of tone and language were more assured than that of many established novelists.”

“The defining qualities of Banks’ novels, whether mainstream or genre, remained a macabre black humour and a taste for the bizarre and the Gothic. . . . In 1987 he published Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels; thereafter there was, for a time at least, a clearer distinction between his science fiction output and his more conventional novels, which tended to appear in alternative years.  His space operas, which combined political musings, scientific speculation, mordantly funny asides (the names of the artificially intelligent spaceships were a long-running joke), and violent, frequently gruesome action sequences, brought him a new, large and enthusiastic fan base.”

My reaction is that Banks was one of those rare novelists who had two distinct audiences: a mainstream audience and a science fiction audience, although it has to be said that some of his works had their feet planted in both camps.  One recent commentator expressed the view that “not since Robert Louis Stevenson, has a writer so successfully bridged multiple genres”.  As a child, I was a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson; I liked Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and I thought of him as a clever novelist.  I decided to look him up, and I found that he, too, was a Scot.  His Wikipedia listing has him as a “novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer.”  In fact, Stevenson wrote twelve published novels, five collections of short stories, six uncollected short stories, five volumes of poetry, seven volumes of travel writing, and a long list of essays and other works.  In addition to all that, Stevenson ” wrote over 123 original musical compositions or arrangements, including solos, duets, trios and quartets for various combinations of flageolet, flute, clarinet, violin, guitar, mandolin, and piano.”

Unfortunately, he died at the age of 44, probably of a stroke, having suffered from poor health for much of his life.  With the rise of ‘modern literature’ after World War I, Stevenson was seen as a second class writer, specialising in children’s literature and the horror genre.  The 1973 edition of the Oxford Anthology of English Literature (2000 pages) does not even mention Stevenson.  But later in the 20th century, his reputation began to re-ascend with recognition of his literary skill and imaginative powers.  Setting the critics aside, he is the 26th most translated author in the world.

So, sometimes specialisation is not necessary.

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