Writers' indignation: Kazuo Ishiguro rejects claims of genre snobbery
Author Kazuo Ishiguro has hit back at accusations of genre-based snobbery surrounding his new novel The Buried Giant
, which is set in a semi-mythical Britain inhabited by ogres, pixies and dragons.
At a Guardian event held at the Royal Institution in London on Sunday, Ishiguro said that veteran author Ursula K. Le Guin was “a little bit hasty in nominating me as the latest enemy for her own agenda,” after she had written a blog post accusing him of “despising” the fantasy genre.
“I think she wants me to be the new Margaret Atwood,” he said, referring to the criticism the Canadian author and poet has received from Le Guin for distinguishing her writing as “speculative fiction” and for saying science fiction was about “talking squids in outer space”.
“If there is some sort of battle line being drawn for and against ogres and pixies appearing in books, I am on the side of ogres and pixies,” he said. “I had no idea this was going to be such an issue. Everything I read about [The Buried Giant], it’s all ‘Oh, he’s got a dragon in his book’ or ‘I so liked his previous books but I don’t know if I’ll like this one’.
“[Le Guin]’s entitled to like my book or not like my book, but as far as I am concerned, she’s got the wrong person. I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons.”
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ishiguro voiced his concerns about how readers would receive his new novel, which is his first in a decade. “Will readers follow me into this?” he asked. “Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
Le Guin quickly responded in a sharply worded blog post: “Well, yes, they probably will. Why not? It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.
“No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it,” she wrote. She went on to say she found reading The Buried Giant
“painful”. “It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”
Ishiguro compared the reception of his new novel to his 2005 dystopian parable Never Let Me Go, which had critics and readers alike debating its genre classification. “I think genre rules should be porous, if not nonexistent. All the debate around Never Let Me Go
was, ‘is it sci-fi or is it not?’”He said The Buried Giant
’s fantasy setting served as a neutral environment to explore the idea of collective memory and how societies heal after atrocities by forgetting the past. He revealed that he considered Bosnia, America and post-second world war Japan and France as potential settings, but worried that sort of a recent historical scenario would make the story too political. “I always feel the pull of the metaphorical landscape, I am not a straightforward realist,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, I am trying to make a universal statement.”
Ishiguro said he was excited about “the younger generation of writers” using traditional science fiction tropes, such as dystopian settings and alternate realities, “with relish”. “I think any stigma around sci-fi and fantasy is fading,” he said, naming the author David Mitchell as having found success within the genre.
Mitchell himself appeared in Ishiguro’s New York Times interview, telling the newspaper by email that he hoped The Buried Giant
would “de-stigmatise” fantasy. “Fantasy plus literary fiction can achieve things that frank blank realism can’t,” Mitchell wrote. “Bending the laws of what we call reality in a novel doesn’t necessarily lead to elves saying ‘Make haste! These woods will be swarming with orcs by nightfall.’”
In response to an audience question, Ishiguro – a screenwriter as well as a novelist – compared The Buried Giant
to Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth
in its use of fantastical tropes as a means of distraction from realities too painful to face. He also confirmed that Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin had optioned the film rights for The Buried Giant
and said his ideal cast would include Gary Cooper and Bette Davis playing the lead couple and James Stewart as the aging Arthurian knight Sir Gawain.