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Rich Puchalsky, ‘On Learning to read Adam Roberts’

By Adam Roberts | March 9, 2011
Categories: Reviews

Typical: you wait for ages for an 'On Learning to Read Adam Roberts' post, then two come along at once! Go to Rich Puchalsky's blog and check this one out.

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8 Comments to-date;

8 Responses to “Rich Puchalsky, ‘On Learning to read Adam Roberts’”

  1. Adam Roberts Says:
    March 10th, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I'll add something else: obviously I don't have a privileged perspective with respect to my own writing (something the reverse, in fact); so if I say it seems to me that Rich is closer to the nub with his piece than Paul is, I could well be wrong. But I was struck when he describes my novels as "books with strong formal elements coupled with underdetermination of what those elements mean. In other words, they're wonderful toys, full of moving parts that don't do obvious things, made to order for a critic to play with and come up with a reading."

    Here, as a parallel, is a chunk from Lyotard's Postmodern Condition (1979), addressing the question 'what is postmodernism?':

    "The work of Proust and that of Joyce both allude to something which does not allow itself to be made present ... The literary institution, as Proust inherits it from Balzac and Flaubert, is subverted. ... Here, then, lies the difference: modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure. Yet these sentiments do not constitute the real sublime sentiment, which is in an intrinsic combination of pleasure and pain: the pleasure that reason should exceed all presentation, the pain that imagination or sensibility should not be equal to the concept. The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself: that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable." [Lyotard, 80-81]

    This is unlikely to endear me to SF fandom, for whom (by and large) postmodernism is a dirty word; but the 'sense of wonder' SF prizes seems to me closer to a Lyotardian postmodern sublime than it does to the Kantian or Burkean sublime with which it is sometimes equated.

  2. Adam Roberts Says:
    March 10th, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Hmm: in case that last comment is too elliptical -- I could add: it does seem to me that the traditional old-fashioned modes of novel-making are less and less well suited to representing contemporaneity; and that, more, where SF ought to have the jump on regular fiction in this regard in fact the aesthetics of SF are very often out of step with what Lyotard, there, identifies as 'modern aesthetics'. And that's one of the things I'm trying to address, for better or worse, when I write novels.

  3. Gav Says:
    March 11th, 2011 at 11:50 pm


    I hope you don't mind me chiming on.

    I've read a few of your books and I've enjoyed and not in equal parts. I wonder if I could ask a question... feel free to tell me "Go read the books again stupid person".

    1. In Swiftly I was expecting either a Swiftian pastiche or a satire but I couldn't get through the book because toward the end one of your characters develops a characteristic... of his illness that you seem to dwell upon even though it didn't play a significant part in either the story or plot. I read the last third of that novel twice convinced I had missed something and to this day I never accepted the end. Where you aiming for something specific?

    2. I enjoyed Yellow Tibia Sun right up until the last couple of pages. The end felt so sudden and contrived that I felt it ultimately detracted from a very good comedy of [soviet] manners (if that makes sense).

    Judging by the discussion of satire I've just read I get the impression there was some element within these books I was missing. Don't get me wrong. I am not asking for an explanation of each. Instead
    I'd prefer to just ask whether you were making an intentional satire and if that is case how should I approach it?

    I hope I am clear.

  4. Rich Puchalsky Says:
    March 12th, 2011 at 5:00 am

    Well, I think I probably came about as close as I could have without reading Lyotard, which I haven't. Something like this is what I was trying to express with the bit about how the books would be avant-garde if there were an avant-garde. There are intentional markers of aesthetic intention that rather jump out of a work. That's badly expressed, too -- what I mean is that one can read a work and tell that the author had an aesthetic idea in mind without very clearly oneself knowing what that aesthetic theory is. Perhaps even the author doesn't clearly know what it is. But there are markers within a work that show it, without the work necessarily trying to emulate a high-literary style. (Especially now that postmodern aesthetics has devalued the high-literary style).

    So when someone reads one of your books and sees a gap, they're puzzled. (Martin Wisse: "How do you solve a problem like Adam Roberts, a writer every book of which I’ve read I’ve disagreed with and/or disliked? Whom, despite this, I still keep coming back to every few years or so. ") Gaps are normally there because the writer is inexpert, and are surrounded by mush. But the gaps in your books are surrounded by structure. Why?

    I'm not saying that the people who read your books and don't like them are reading poorly, they just haven't looked with a different perspective, or something. Delany is a postmodern writer, with lots of gappy narrative, and I don't particularly like his stuff, so a good deal of it may just be individual preference for style. (Also, with Delany, I always feel like I'm being lectured to in some way. The underdetermination isn't quite there as much as I like.)

  5. Adam Roberts Says:
    March 12th, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Rich: that's quite right, I think. I've been having an email conversation with Paul Kincaid about some of this, recently; and one comparison that came up is the Picasso one. So, if an artist paints a portrait in a Picasso style and is then judged by a critic whose taste is informed, consciously or otherwise, by the belief that a portrait ought to aim for photographic verisimilitude -- well, then, the artist might feel a little hard done by. But by the same token: the mere fact that you have painted your portrait in a Picasso style does not mean that your portrait is necessarily good art. A hostile critic may be working from aesthetic principles orthogonal to your own and yet be right to be hostile. I think it is good and worthwhile to produce experimental art, but I also think we ought to take seriously the idiom, imported as it is from science, where most experiments fail.

    Gav: when you say 'characteristic of his illness' you mean all the shit, yes? It did put a lot of people off, certainly. I suppose I may have a different perspective on what's at stake, and what's involved, in 'playing a significant part in either the story or plot' than you do. Swift himself was pretty fascinated with all that sort of thing (if we're talking about Swiftian pastiche) and Swiftly seems to me -- though what do I know? -- largely about abjection: which is to say, psychologically about depression and eccentricity, and thematically about the marginalised and the despised (about science fiction, we might say). But the thing is: your reading is more trustworthy than mine, because you have a better perspective than I do. I'd certainly never say "Go read the books again stupid person"!

  6. Gav Says:
    March 13th, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I wrote my comment in a hurry but I see that you're teasing out where I was going. When I read Swiftly (yes it's the one I had the most negative reaction to) the sudden jolt of scat being tossed in really threw me out of the story.

    What you say gives me some food for thought and definitely a different way to look at that book. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    ps. I have seen an author tell someone to piss off. No not me - and no, I'm not mentioning any names.

  7. Adam Roberts Says:
    March 15th, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    All very interesting. In part it has, I suppose, to do with what 'we' (I mean SF Fans) come to SF novels for.

    There's an interesting Scott Sanders article called 'Invisible Men and Women: The Disappearance of Character in Science Fiction' (originally published in Sf Studies, 1977; reprinted in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, edited by the estimable Patrick Parrinder). Sanders argues that "in the twentieth century science fiction is centrally about the disappearance of character, in the same sense in which the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel is about the emergence of character." That seems to me broadly right (one is hard put to name half a dozen memorable characters in the annals of the genre; not because SF writers are any less skilled than regular writers when it comes to characterisation, but because the genre itself is not really about that) --but also it seems to me quite exciting, an opportunity for writers, not an obstacle. On the other hand, if the majority of SF Fans don't think that's right -- and the hunch I have is that they don't -- then, in a collectively performative sense, it isn't right. SF Fans want the satisfactions of traditional 19th-century novels in terms of rounded characters and readable, onward-moving plots; they just want a patina of future tech or sensawunda as well.

  8. Gareth Rees Says:
    April 6th, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Rule of three: here's my Roberts retrospective.