Neil Gaiman’s New York Times review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel began a debate about the borders between fantasy and literary fiction. For a special issue guest-edited by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, the New Statesman brought the pair together to discuss genre snobbery and the evolution of stories.
Neil Gaiman Let’s talk about genre. Why does it matter? Your book The Buried Giant – which was published not as a fantasy novel, although it contains an awful lot of elements that would be familiar to readers of fantasy – seemed to stir people up from both sides of the literary divide. The fantasy people, in the shape of Ursula Le Guin (although she later retracted it) said, “This is fantasy, and your refusal to put on the mantle of fantasy is evidence of an author slumming it.” And then Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times reviewed it with utter bafflement. Meanwhile, readers and a lot of reviewers had no trouble figuring out what kind of book it is and enjoyed it hugely.
Kazuo Ishiguro I felt like I’d stepped into some larger discussion that had been going on for some time. I expected some of my usual readers to say, “What’s this? There are ogres in it . . .” but I didn’t anticipate this bigger debate. Why are people so preoccupied? What is genre in the first place? Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?
NG I think if you were a novelist writing in 1920 or 1930, you would simply be perceived as having written another novel. When Dickens published A Christmas Carol nobody went, “Ah, this respectable social novelist has suddenly become a fantasy novelist: look, there are ghosts and magic.”
KI Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry? I can see there’s a case for saying there are certain patterns, and you can divide up stories according to these patterns, perhaps usefully. But I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them, and that you should think very carefully before doing so.
NG I love the idea of genres as places that you don’t necessarily want to go unless you’re a native, because the people there will stare at you askance and say things like, “Head over the wall to Science Fiction, mate, you’ll be happier there . . .”
KI . . . or, “Come over here if you want but you’re going to have to abide by our rules.”
NG I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel. I have a mad theory that I started evolving when I read a book called Hard Core by Linda Williams, a film professor in California. It was one of the first books analysing hardcore pornography as a film genre.
She said that in order to make sense of it, you need to think of musicals, because the plot in a musical exists to stop all of the songs from happening at once, and to get you from song to song. You need the song where the heroine pines for what she does not have, you need the songs where the whole chorus is doing something rousing and upbeat, and you need the song when the lovers get together and, after all the vicissitudes, triumph.
I thought, “That’s actually a way to view all literary genres,” because there are things that people who like a genre are looking for in their fiction: the things that titillate, the things that satisfy. If it was a cowboy novel, we’d need the fight in the saloon; we’d need the bad guy to come riding into town and the good guy to be waiting for him. A novel that happens to be set in the Old West doesn’t actually need to deliver any of those things – though it would leave readers of genre cowboy fiction feeling peculiarly disappointed, because they have not got the moments of specific satisfaction.
KI So we have to distinguish between something that’s part of the essence of the genre and things that are merely characteristic of it. Gunfights are characteristic of a western, but may not be essential to making the story arresting.
NG Yes. One of the things that fascinated me about The Buried Giant is there are several places in it where people fight with sharp blades, and people are killed, and in each case it happens at the speed that it would have happened in real life and ends as abruptly and, often, unsatisfyingly: the character falls to the grass with what looks like a red snake slipping away from him, you suddenly realise, “Oh, this is blood,” and you’re thinking, “This is not how a reader of fantasy expecting a good swordfight would have expected this swordfight to go.”
KI If I was aware of genre at all during the fight scenes, I was thinking of samurai films and westerns. In samurai movies mortal enemies stare at each other for a long time, then there’s one flash of violence and it’s over.
What do you reckon would have happened if I’d been a writer steeped in fantasy? Would I have had people talking while bashing swords?
NG You’d definitely have flashing blades. One of the pulp fantasy genres of the Thirties was “Sword and Sorcery”: there’d be mighty feuding warriors with large blades, talking, clashing, grunting . . . you would have got a solid half-page out of it, partly because the writers were paid by the word.
KI When I first came to Britain at the age of five, one of the things that shocked me about western culture was the fight scenes in things like Zorro. I was already steeped in the samurai tradition – where all their skill and experience comes down to a single moment that separates winner from loser, life from death. The whole samurai tradition is about that: from pulp manga to art movies by Kurosawa. That was part of the magic and tension of a swordfight, as far as I was concerned. Then I saw people like Basil Rathbone as the Sheriff of Nottingham versus Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and they’d be having long, extended conversations while clicking their swords, and the hand that didn’t have the sword in it would be doing this kind of floppy thing in the air, and the idea seemed to be to edge your opponent over a precipice while engaging him in some sort of long, expository conversation about the plot.
NG What we’re talking about here is jumping from one literary-slash-genre tradition to another.
KI I’m very fond of westerns, particularly the later westerns. From the Fifties onwards, the gunfights become much more meditative and deliberate. There’s a much bigger silent pause before the people facing each other draw their guns. The idea of the one-on-one showdown – which doesn’t really make much sense when you think about it in terms of practical combat: it’s much better to sneak up behind someone and shoot them in the back – became a genre tradition, that honourable guys, even bad guys, would prefer to face their enemy that way. The Iliad is fascinating on this. Its stand-offs are almost bizarre. There’s supposed to be this huge, wild battle going on on the plains outside Troy, and yet in this mayhem one warrior faces another and they start a conversation: they say, “Oh, and who are you? Tell me about your ancestry.” They swap stories about their grandfather, and one of them will say, “You know, my dad met your dad when he was travelling, and he gave him a very nice goblet.” So a strange bubble develops around the two combatants. And then they fight, or sometimes they discover they rather like each other and decide not to. Things like the final confrontation between Hector and Achilles are definitely on the side of Kurosawa, not Errol Flynn.
But let me come back to the theory about pornography and the musical. So, you liked this idea?
NG I loved the idea, because it seems to me that subject matter doesn’t determine genre. Genres only start existing when there’s enough of them to form a sort of critical mass in a bookshop, and even that can go away. A bookstore worker in America was telling me that he’d worked in Borders when they decided to get rid of their horror section, because people weren’t coming into it. So his job was to take the novels and decide which ones were going to go and live in Science Fiction and Fantasy and which ones were going to Thrillers.
KI Does that mean horror has disappeared as a genre?
NG It definitely faded away as a bookshop category, which then meant that a lot of people who had been making their living as horror writers had to decide what they were, because their sales were diminishing. In fact, a lot of novels that are currently being published as thrillers are books that probably would have been published as horror 20 years ago.
KI I don’t have a problem with marketing categories, but I don’t think they’re helpful to anybody apart from publishers and bookshops.
NG What was the reaction to Never Let Me Go? I think at that point the last thing anybody was expecting from you was a science-fiction novel, and that – although it was a novel about people – was quite uncompromisingly a science-fiction novel.
KI I felt that there wasn’t such an issue about science fiction as there has been this time about fantasy. Sci-fi ideas have been used in all kinds of fiction, and there’s always been this tradition of what you could call Nineteen Eighty-Four science fiction: Orwell, H G Wells and so on.
Even so, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to use the science-fiction dimension for Never Let Me Go ten or 15 years earlier. I actually tried to write that same story twice in the Nineties but I just couldn’t find a way to make it work. And it was only the third time I tried, around 2001, that this idea came to me: if I made them clones, who were being harvested for organ donation, the story would work.
Before that, in a more realist setting, I was really struggling: how can I get young people to go through the experience of old people, how can I contrive this situation? I was coming up with not very good ideas, like they’ve all got a disease, or they came across nuclear materials and so they were doomed to a shorter lifespan.
Some time in the Nineties I felt a change of climate in the mainstream literary world. There was a younger generation of writers emerging who I really respected: David Mitchell was one of them. Or my friend Alex Garland, who’s 15 or 16 years younger than me, who became famous for The Beach – he was showing me the screenplays he was writing, one of which was 28 Days Later, which became the renowned zombie movie, and then he wrote Sunshine, about a manned expedition to the sun. Alex told me about graphic novels. He said I had to read Alan Moore and Frank Miller and all these people. So from the Nineties onwards, I sensed that there was a whole generation of people emerging who had a very different attitude to sci-fi, and that there was a new force of energy and inspiration because of that. I may have had the crusty prejudices of somebody of my generation but I felt liberated by these younger writers. Now I feel fairly free to use almost anything. People in the sci-fi community were very nice about Never Let Me Go. And by and large I’ve rather enjoyed my inadvertent trespassing into the fantasy genre, too, although I wasn’t even thinking about The Buried Giant as a fantasy – I just wanted to have ogres in there!
NG What fascinates me is that at the time when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings it wasn’t regarded as in the fantasy genre, either: the first part was reviewed in the Times by W H Auden. It was a novel, and that it had ogres and orcs and giant spiders and magical rings and elves was simply what happened in this novel. Back then these books tended to be produced in exactly the same way as you produced The Buried Giant, in that you’d written other things, and now you wanted to do a book in which, for the novel to work, you needed a dragon breathing magical mist over the world; you needed it to occur in a post-Arthurian world; you needed your monsters and your ogres and your pixies. There were people like Hope Mirrlees – who wrote modernist poetry and profoundly realistic fiction and who was one of the Bloomsbury set, but produced a wonderful novel called Lud-in-the-Mist – and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote books like Kingdoms of Elfin. And these were simply accepted as part of mainstream literature.
KI So what happened? Why have we got this kind of wall around fantasy now, and a sense of stigma about it?
NG I think it came from the enormous commercial success in the Sixties, when the hippie world embraced The Lord of the Rings and it became an international publishing phenomenon. At Pan/Ballantine, the adult fantasy imprint, they basically just went through the archives of books that had been published in the previous 150, 200 years and looked for things that felt like The Lord of the Rings. And then you had people like Terry Brooks, who wrote a book called The Sword of Shannara, which was essentially a Lord of the Rings clone by somebody not nearly as good, but it sold very well. By the time fantasy had its own area in the bookshop, it was deemed inferior to mimetic, realistic fiction. I think reviewers and editors did not know how to speak fantasy; were not familiar with the language, did not recognise it. I was fascinated by the way that Terry Pratchett would, on the one hand, have people like A S Byatt going, “These are real books, they’re saying important things and they are beautifully crafted,” and on the other he would still not get any real recognition. I remember Terry saying to me at some point, “You know, you can do all you want, but you put in one fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.”
KI Maybe there’s a dimension we’re not really tackling. Is there something about books – as opposed to films and TV – that’s inextricably linked with a sense of class? Do you remember Educating Rita?
NG Of course.
KI What happens there is, when a working-class girl wants to “better herself”, she goes to college and studies literature. That’s what separates her from her class roots. She can’t relate to her family any more, but she seems to be equipped in some kind of way to move into the middle-class world. There’s always been that aspect to books. I’ve been very aware that is part of why some people want to read my work: they think it’s prestigious to be seen to be holding a book by a literary author in their hand. If they are trying to make their way up the class ladder, it’s not enough just to make a lot of money: you’ve also got to be able to converse well about culture, read certain kinds of authors and go to certain kinds of plays. I’m always very uneasy about that.
NG So we’re actually talking about reading for pleasure as opposed to reading for improvement. The Victorian idea of Improving Literature – people who want to somehow improve themselves or their mind; you can look at their bookshelves and know who they are – and the people who just read because they want to go into the story.
KI I don’t have a problem, necessarily, about reading for improvement. I often choose a book because I think I’m going to enjoy it, but I think also it’s going to improve me in some sense. But when you ask yourself, “Is this going to improve me?” what are you really asking? I think I probably do turn to books for some sort of spiritual and intellectual nourishment: I think I’m going to learn something about the world, about people. But if by “improving”, we mean it would help me go up the class ladder, then it’s not what reading and writing should be about. Books are serving the same function as certain brands of cars or jewellery, in just denoting social position. That kind of motivation attaches itself to reading in a way that probably doesn’t attach itself to film.
Many of the great classics that are studied by film scholars are sci-fi: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Kubrick’s 2001. They don’t seem to have suffered from the kind of genre stigmatisation their equivalents would have done in book form.
NG I remember as a boy reading an essay by C S Lewis in which he writes about the way that people use the term “escapism” – the way literature is looked down on when it’s being used as escapism – and Lewis says that this is very strange, because actually there’s only one class of people who don’t like escape, and that’s jailers: people who want to keep you where you are. I’ve never had anything against escapist literature, because I figure that escape is a good thing: going to a different place, learning things, and coming back with tools you might not have known.
I was book-reviewing a lot in the early Eighties, and it seemed for a while like all young adult books were the same book: about some kid who lived in slightly squalid circumstances, with an older sibling who was a bad example, and the protagonist would have a bad time and then run into a teacher or adult who would inspire them to get their life back on track. It was depressing. The wonderful thing about J K Rowling was that suddenly the idea that you can write books for kids that go off into weird and wonderful places – and actually make reading fun – is one of the reasons why children’s books went from being a minor area of the bookshop to a huge force in British publishing.
When I started writing Coraline, in 1991, and showed it to my editor, he explained that what I was writing was unpublishable. He wasn’t wrong. His name was Richard Evans; he was a very smart man, with good instincts. When he explained why writing a book intended for children and adults that was functionally horror fiction for children was unpublishable, I believed him.
KI The objection was what, exactly? That it was too scary?
NG It was too scary, it was very obviously aimed at both children and adults, it was weird, fantastic horror fiction, and they didn’t have a way of publishing it. They knew which librarians bought what and how things got reviewed, and this was simply not something that they could have sold. It wasn’t until much later, when I was in a world in which the Lemony Snicket books had happened, and Philip Pullman and Rowling were being read, and the idea of crossover books aimed at both children and adults existed, that it was published.
KI Perhaps things that deviated from realism were treated with great suspicion. But Coraline seems to be self-evidently a book that confronts all kinds of very real things. It’s about a child learning to make distinctions between certain kinds of parental love, to distinguish between a love that is based on somebody’s need and fulfilling somebody’s need, and what is actually genuine parental love, which may not at first glance look particularly demonstrative. I don’t see how anybody can mistake it for a kind of escapism: you’re not just taking children on some sort of strange, enjoyable ride.
NG I think the rules are crumbling and I think the barriers are breaking. I love the idea also that sometimes, if you’re actually going to write realistic fiction, you’re going to have to include fantasy. For example, having friends who are very religious and who live in worlds in which God cares about them, and their dead ones are watching them from heaven – these are normal, sane, sensible, 21st-century people, but if one were to write about their world, you would need to write in terms of something that would be recognisable as either magical realism or, possibly, fantasy.
KI My guiding principle when writing The Buried Giant was that I’d stay within the parameters of what somebody in a primitive, pre-scientific society could rationally believe. So if you don’t have a scientific explanation for why somebody dear to you has got ill, it seems to me perfectly sensible to go for an explanation that went something like, “A pixie came in the night and gave my dear wife this illness, and I only wish I’d done something about it, because I heard something moving around that night and I was just a bit tired and I thought, well, it’s a rat or something . . .”
If it was within the imaginative world of the people of that time, I’d allow it literally, in my fictional world, but I wouldn’t allow a flying saucer or a Tardis, because that was outside their realm.
NG We’re getting a lot of confluence now. Looking at people like Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, Emily St John Mandel, writers who are just willing to go and explore. They grew up in a world where science fiction and fantasy were around; they grew up in a world of good children’s books.
KI Yes, it’s almost become the norm, now, for new writers to think in terms of dystopian fiction or sci-fi.
NG It’s a good way to go. I don’t think there’s a human being on the planet who has not, in some way in the last 15, 20 years, encountered the phenomenon of future shock that Alvin Toffler described: the idea that it’s all moving a bit fast, that things are changing, thatthe world that our parents and grandparents knew is not the world we are living in now. If you’re in that environment, then science fiction is a kind of natural way of talking about it, and particularly dystopian science fiction, which always begins when a writer looks around, sees something they don’t like
and thinks, “But if this goes on, then . . .”
KI I think it’s interesting that the word “dystopian” has become so popular now. There’s something reassuring when I read that word, because it’s saying it’s some sort of dark, logical extension of the world that we know; it’s going to be a commentary on our world. And so that the fear of irrelevance isn’t there. If I sense that a writer is just weaving some sort of self-referential alternative world, that will not tell me anything emotionally or intellectually about the one I live in, I would lose patience and say, “I can’t be bothered to go there; why do I want to go there?” Do you have any sympathy with that?
NG I am like you in that way. But I could extend this idea that escapism is simply good as a thing to include things like Mills & Boon novels, things that bring joy to people, a joy that will never be reviewed in literary pages, because it is simply – you know – the equivalent of eating an ice cream. I think that always gets viewed with suspicion, like the Victorian triple-decker novels that Miss Prism was writing in The Importance of Being Earnest, or the commentary in the Lady Chatterley case: “Would you let your servant read these?” – the idea that if servants are going to read things, they should read improving literature, not things that are simply distractions.
I’m not arguing that no book is better than another, I’m just saying that books have different purposes. Fundamentally, I’m all for the democracy of books, and for the idea that at least some of the hierarchy of books is artificial. There was a science-fiction writer named Theodore Sturgeon writing in the Forties and Fifties, who coined Sturgeon’s law. He said, “Well, 90 per cent of science fiction is crap, but then 90 per cent of everything is crap,” which is always a useful thing to remember.
KI I would like to see things breaking down a lot more. I suppose my essential position is that I’m against any kind of imagination police, whether they’re coming from marketing reasons or from class snobbery.
But maybe the stigma against fantasy is something much wider than in the fiction world. Since industrial times began, it’s sort of true to say that children have been allowed a sanctioned world where fantasy and imagination is deemed to be fine, in fact, almost desirable. But then when they get to a certain age, they have to start getting prepared to be units of the labour force. And so, society has to start getting the fantasy element out of the children, so that they can become factory workers, soldiers, white-collar workers, whatever, because it’s seen to be not useful to the overall economic enterprise to have children growing up maintaining that fantasy element. You don’t want people who are too dreamy or who are imagining things: you want them to accept this is the nitty-gritty of real life, that they’ve just got to get on with it.
I’m not suggesting we’re necessarily being manipulated by some sinister government or anything; it’s just there in society. Parents will naturally discourage children once they get to a certain age from continuing with the fantasy element in their lives; schools will, too. It becomes taboo in the society at large.
Maybe the reason it’s been loosening up, and the stigma is going away to some extent in the last 25 years or so, is that the nature of our capitalist enterprise has changed. We’re no longer factory workers, white-collar workers, soldiers, and so on. And with the advent of blue-sky thinking, the new tech industries that have led the way in the last two decades seem to require some kind of imagination. Perhaps people are beginning to think there is some economic use in actually allowing us to indulge in what was once deemed childish fantasy. I sound like some sort of Seventies sociology professor, but I feel there’s something in this.
Illustration: Tim McDonagh
NG You know, I was in China in 2007, and it was the first ever state-sponsored, Party-approved science-fiction convention. They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.
I took aside one of the Party organisers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.
KI That is so interesting.
NG Which actually articulates your theory exactly. It’s about the economy and the workforce of a society in which the act of imagining is as important as the act of toiling. We have machines that can toil, but we don’t have machines that can imagine.
KI Have you ever done an event at a Microsoft campus or Google?
NG I have. I’ve done Google and I’ve done Microsoft. Google was like going to a magical party held by nice people – it was a few years ago; I don’t know if they’re still quite as enthusiastic and filled with sweeties and so forth now. Whereas I turned up on the Microsoft campus and had half an hour of trying to persuade the person on the front desk that my name was not something else that also had an N and a G in it, and I was not here to give a lecture on cyber-security, and eventually managed to find some people who were in a room where they had been waiting for me for 45 minutes, and apparently cellphones didn’t work very well, so they hadn’t been able to get our message. It was a strange kind of contrast.
KI But the interesting thing is that you were invited to the Microsoft campus. Indeed, I was there last month. It is seen to be good for the company, and I suppose in a wider sense it’s good for the economy.
Moving on from the genre question, I’d be interested to ask you about these fascinating relationships which recur in your work, between somebody who has a normal human lifespan, and an immortal or very long-lived being. Do you know why you’re drawn to that relationship?
NG There are things I can point at that probably set me off, the first of which was probably watching Doctor Who as a very small boy, and starting to realise that this man in this blue box was going to be functionally immortal, but his friends were going to be left behind in time. And also pets. You get pets and your lifespans do not match. I remember realising that as a very small boy, and thinking it was absolutely tragic. You know, my mouse has just died of old age and he’s three.
The human lifespan seems incredibly short and frustrating, and for me, one of the best things about being a reader, let alone a writer, is being able to read ancient Greek stories, ancient Egyptian stories, Norse stories – to be able to feel like one is getting the long view. Stories are long-lived organisms. They’re bigger and older than we are. And the frustrating thing about having 60 years or 80 years or, if medical science gets fancy, 120 years, is that actually 1,000 years would be really interesting. You want to step back and go, “Where do you get this view?” and where we get it from is passing on stories, and handing down knowledge and experience.
You sit there reading Pepys, and just for a minute, you kind of get to be 350, 400 years older than you are. I’ve always loved the idea of making things longer, changing perspective. And part of looking at things in the long term is also, I think, in a weird way, worry about the future.
KI There’s an interesting emotional tension that comes because of the mismatch of lifespans in your work, because an event that might be tragic for one of us may not be so for the long-lived being. There’s an episode of Doctor Who that you wrote, called Doctor’s Wife, and one of the most haunting things about that was a passage where Rory and Amy are lost in some kind of weird time vortex thing. Rory ages enormously, he’s waiting like 70 years, while Amy is running around on the other side of the door . . . And she keeps getting visions of him grown really, really old and he’s been waiting for her, whereas for her, it’s just been like 20 seconds, and he’s saying, “Where were you, where were you?” Eventually he turns into just a pile of remains, human remains, and all you see is an angry, bitter piece of graffiti scrawled up on the wall, maybe in blood, for all we know. His love has turned to hate, because he just waited and waited for her.
Recently I’ve been interested in the difference between personal memory and societal memory, and I’m tempted almost to personify these two things. A society, a nation, goes on and on, for centuries: it can turn Nazi for a while and cause mayhem. But then the next generation comes along and says, you know, “We’re not going to make that mistake again.” Whereas an individual who happens to live through the Nazi era in Germany, that’s his whole life.
NG If you’re going to try and tell one of those stories, then the urge comes to start figuring out a way that you can have a conversation between somebody who can see the big picture, or is the big picture, and somebody who is in some way a brick in the wall. One of the most beautiful things about fiction is that you can have those conversations if you need them.
KI In those cases being able to resort to fantasy opens things up enormously. I’ve often done this, even if it doesn’t look so obvious, even if there aren’t things that look like mythical creatures. Creating an incredibly stuffy English butler in The Remains of the Day, I was very aware that I was taking something that I recognised to be a very small, negative set of impulses in myself – the fear of getting hurt in love, or that urge to just say, “I don’t want to figure out the political implications or the moral implications of my job, I’m just going to get on with my tiny patch”; those kinds of little urges we all recognise in ourselves – taking those and exaggerating them, and turning them into a kind of monstrous manifestation. The butler doesn’t look like a conventional monster, but I always thought that he was a kind of monster.
NG I love the idea of Stevens as a monster!
KI I’m reminded of something Lettie says in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.” I thought that last category was really interesting. What are the monsters that stand for things that we should be afraid of but we aren’t?
NG I think it’s very easy to not be afraid of slow things, and not be afraid of things that apparently have your best interests at heart, and sometimes not to be afraid of things that mask themselves in efficiency and humanity. I was reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, and his letters home are filled with talking about how his men were working hard, who was doing well, how they got an extra trainload of people in, and: “By the way, give little Willy the present I sent and the chocolate, and I hope you enjoyed the schnapps.” And it was so horribly human.
It is the monstrosity that waits there inside normality, that waits in humanity. I wish that all monsters could be serial killers, could be crazed, could be dangerous, but the problem is that they’re not. Some of them are, horrifyingly, people who in their own head have somehow got to the point where they think they’re doing a good job, doing the right thing. But they’re still monsters.
KI You wonder about Boko Haram, these people who shoot buses full of children, who believe girls shouldn’t be educated and so on. Do they actually believe that they’re doing good?
NG The tragedy for me of something even like 9/11 is that I do not believe that the people piloting those planes were going, “I am an evil person doing an evil thing.” I think they were going, “I am doing what God wants, I am doing God’s will; I am doing good, look at me striking against evil.”
KI I wanted to ask you a bit more about stories being very long-lived beings. You’ve said that some stories actually adapt and survive as society changes around them.
NG My favourite example of a story that mutates is “Cinderella”. The story may well have begun in China, where actually they care a lot more about foot size than they do in the west. But it reaches France, and you have a story about a girl whose dead mother gives her these fancy fur slippers, fur being “vair”, but somewhere in the retelling the V-A-I-R becomes V-E-R-R-E, and they become glass slippers. The homonym happens, and now you have glass slippers, which make no sense. You didn’t really have the technology in medieval France to make glass slippers; wearing them would be stupid, they would cut your feet, they would break. Yet, suddenly, you have an image that that story then coagulates around. And now “Cinderella” just spreads and spreads – it has a huge advantage over all the other stories about girls who are sort of dirty and sit by the fire and magic things happen to them. “Cinderella” is the one that survived.
KI Do you think that if stories are left in the hands of professional storytelling institutions, like film studios and publishing houses, they are less likely to mutate in an honest way? Do you think the commercialisation of storytelling could actually be interfering in the natural development and growth of this kind of long-lived being?
NG What a lovely idea! Where stories are concerned, I tend to be very Darwinian. Because I look at something like “Sleeping Beauty”. Disney retold “Sleeping Beauty”; one can assume that its “Sleeping Beauty” reached more people than any other version has. And yet, if people tell the story you won’t get the Disney version where she meets the prince that morning, you’ll get a tower of thorns growing up and a hundred years passing before a prince turns up. It feels like a much better version.
I think that there’s definitely the battery farming of stories out there, but I don’t think they take over: they simply indulge our craving.
KI Is fan fiction today an example of stories starting to mutate? Now you have this phenomenon, which involves both professional writers – P D James writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or Sebastian Faulks writing another James Bond – and amateurs making up things around their favourite books, and writing prequels and sequels.
NG It’s not a new phenomenon. I love the fact that, you know, in the early versions of King Lear, the story had a happy ending. Shakespeare turned it into a tragedy, and through the 18th and 19th centuries they kept trying to give it a happy ending again. But people kept going back to the one that Shakespeare created. You could definitely view Shakespeare as fan fiction, in his own way. I’ve only ever written, as far as I know, one book that did the thing that happens when people online get hold of it and start writing their own fiction, which was Good Omens, which I did with Terry Pratchett. It’s a 100,000-word book; there’s probably a million words of fiction out there by now, written by people who were inspired by characters in the book.
KI What do you feel about that?
NG Mostly I feel happy about it. But I think the happiest and proudest of people would have been, in those terms, the Stan Lees and the Jack Kirbys, the people who created characters in comics. Kirby was the artist, but also the creating, driving force behind the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, in the early Sixties. These guys created characters about whom people are forever inventing, spinning off, and there’s something very wonderful about that.
KI Yes, there is. I’m often asked what my attitude is to film, theatrical, radio adaptations of my novels. It’s very nice to have my story go out there, and if it’s in a different form, I want the thing to mutate slightly. I don’t want it to be an exact translation of my novel. I want it to be slightly different, because in a very vain kind of way, as a storyteller, I want my story to become like public property, so that it gains the status where people feel they can actually change it around and use it to express different things.
NG Yes, the moment that you have a live actor portraying a character, something exciting is happening; it’s different, and if it’s really happening in front of you live, then, again, you’re seeing something that’s new.
So I do love it when people grab my stuff and take it and do things with it. I love copyright – I love the fact that I can feed myself and feed my children with the stuff I make up. On the other hand, copyright length right now is life plus 75 years, and I don’t know that I want to be in control of what I’ve created for 75 years after I’ve died! I don’t know that I want to be feeding my great-grandchildren. I feel like they should be able to look after themselves, and not necessarily put limits on what I’ve created, if there’s something that would do better in the cultural dialogue. I loved Les Klinger’s legal case, establishing that the Conan Doyle Estate had basically been running a shakedown operation for the last 20, 30 years, where they’ve been getting people to pay money to license Sherlock Holmes when Holmes was out of copyright.
KI I didn’t know about that, actually. Since Sherlock Holmes went out of copyright, certainly, he has started to mutate and evolve in a very energetic way. I don’t know if it would have been possible, for instance, to have the Cumberbatch modernised series, had it been under copyright. And Holmes is a very interesting example, I think, of a figure who’s mutated over the years and evolved. I think if you did a big study of Doctor Who, you’d see that the essential story has actually changed to serve the different climates of the times. It’s clear that the Daleks started off as Nazis and the Cybermen were communists. But my daughter was saying that, for their generation, the Cybermen represent the people being turned into mindless wage slaves in the 21st-century workplace. Now the fear of the communist takeover of the world has receded, the Cybermen can become almost the opposite – something that represents a unit of the rampant capitalist culture.
I wonder if Doctor Who will turn out to be one of these creatures who live for a long, long time, as a story that will be a hundred-year-old being, a 300-year-old being. I love this idea of yours of stories being long-lived beings because it seems to have implications for what our ambitions should be, as people who sit at home and write them.
NG I know that when I create a story, I never know what’s going to work. Sometimes I will do something that I think was just a bit of fun, and people will love it and it catches fire, and sometimes I will work very hard on something that I think people will love, and it just fades: it never quite finds its people.
KI Even if something doesn’t catch fire at the time, you may find it catches fire further down the line, in 20 years’ time, or 30 years’ time. That has happened, often.
NG Exactly. There’s a beautiful essay by A A Milne where he says, “I want to draw your attention to a completely forgotten book that none of you have ever heard about that is one of the best books in the world, and it’s by Kenneth Grahame. And you’ve all heard of him, because he wrote Dream Days and The Golden Age” – two popular books – “but he also wrote a book called The Wind in the Willows, which none of you have heard of.”
KI Aha. Stories are interesting in that way. They sometimes just emerge, after some mysterious kind of hibernation period. You can never tell what is going to be one of these long-lived creatures and what isn’t. It would be interesting to think, if stories are creatures, whether some of them are actually deceitful creatures. Some of them would be deeply sly and untrustworthy, and some of them would be very uplifting.
NG There would definitely be bad ones. But how would we know? How would we ever find out?
“The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro is published Faber & Faber. “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances” by Neil Gaiman is published by Headline.