Margaret Drabble's secret appreciation of Jules Verne
No, it isn’t her long fascination with jigsaw puzzles (which she writes about in “The Pattern in the Carpet,” which Richard Eder reviewed for us last Sunday) and its implication in the art of storytelling.There’s another subject that has fascinated her but that she kept secret for a long time: Jules Verne.
Jane Smiley mentions Drabble’s interest in Verne (Drabble first wrote about it for Time magazine) in an introduction to a new translation of “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” from Penguin Classics. Smiley writes:
It takes a change in definitions or an unexpected appraisal — like the French avant-garde’s affirmation of Verne, I guess — to ease some people over their prejudices. Hal Duncan at BSC Review has recently posted an excellent entry — hardly the right term for such a lengthy, detailed consideration! — on redefining science fiction and its evolution ... and he’s received plenty of feedback already from readers. At Culture Mulcher, W.H. Chong laments over the sci-fi ghetto in “If Sci-fi Is a Genre, Then so Is Literature,” which begins as a reaction to a new anthology of Australian literature. Chong describes what you might find on a visit to an idealized bookstore:
The English novelist Margaret Drabble writes of her love for “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” “I used to be somewhat ashamed of my love of Verne, but have recently discovered that he is the darling of the French avant-garde, who take him far more seriously than we Anglo-Saxons do. So I’m in good company.”
You might go there for a book by Kazuo Ishiguro about cloning in a dystopia (Never Let Me Go), but you wouldn’t go there for, say, real science fiction. Real science fiction would never be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, because that’s a prize for the genre called Literature. Sci-fi books win Hugos and Nebulas.
It’s a game...In our own pages, British sci-fi master Michael Moorcock recently talked about, among many things, how the very best sci-fi possesses the same modernist qualities found in the books on the “serious lit” shelf in a bookstore. Time magazine book critic and author Lev Grossman also talked about this in an interview with Ed Park for this paper on the occasion of his new novel, “The Magicians.” Grossman described how, in childhood, he was already aware of the stigma attached to sci-fi and fantasy. But as Park notes about Grossman’s new novel:
By exalting nerd-dom in his criticism, by exploring its tropes in his fiction, Grossman is pushing an agenda, reworking a grudge and (along with the myriad talented authors he champions) transforming our awareness of what these reality-warping narratives might mean. For all its entertaining attention to the nuts-and-bolts of wizardry, "The Magicians" is a big book that tackles the themes that so-called serious literature does. And it draws its emotional power from the idea of power itself.
How long is it going to take, though, before this debate is finally over? Will it ever end? Maybe we need the help of the French avant-garde.
-- Nick Owchar
Photo: Margaret Drabble. Credit: Jerry Bauer