A few years back I binge-read China Miéville’s first seven novels straight through, in chronological order. The experience was an eye-opener, a mind-blower. Until then I had read little science fiction, and some J.R.R. Tolkien was the extent of my dabbling in fantasy. And now suddenly, this British writer named China Miéville had taken me to the place where, as one fan so nicely put it, “Middle Earth meets Dickensian London on really good acid.”
One of the most impressive things about those seven fantasy novels was that each one was very different from the others, yet they bore the stamp of a single, and singular, intelligence. That intelligence was not merely restless, it was ravenous — for new worlds, new characters, new stories, new machines, new monsters, new ways to embody good and evil. The novels teemed with human frogs, creatures that were half-human and half-bird, cactus people, human rats, giant squids, plus an assortment of cultists, magickers, talking tattoos, and stone-cold killers. There wasn’t a space ship or a space alien in sight. The stories unspooled in the sewers of London, in phantasmagorical cities, on floating cities made of roped-together boats. There was even a delightful children’s book in the mix, featuring a church made of cobwebs, flying double-decker buses, and trash bins that know karate. As I wrote here after my reading binge, a key to Miéville’s success is that he has chosen to work that fertile borderland where pulp meets the surreal, and his most persistent themes are highly pertinent to the world we live in today: the bogus nature of messiahs, the need for solidarity among society’s marginalized people as they fight prejudice, oppression, and state power. To top it off, he’s proud to be pegged a genre writer, and he writes knockout sentences.
Shortly before I sat down with Miéville’s new novel, This Census-Taker, I happened to read an essay in The New York Review of Books by Tim Parks entitled “A Novel Kind of Conformity.” It’s a tightly argued lament about one of the more damaging trends in contemporary book publishing — “the decision on the part of most large publishers to allow their sales staff a say in which novels get published and which don’t.” Parks quotes an editor who says that whenever he pitches a new novel at editorial meetings, someone from the sales staff invariably asks, “But what other book is it like?” As Parks puts it, “Only when a novel could be presented as having a reassuring resemblance to something already commercially successful was it likely to overcome the veto of the sales staff.” One result is that all novelists — from first-timers to denizens of mid-list limbo to established international brands — “tend to give publishers what they want.”
Yes, book publishers traded their tweed jackets for calculators a while ago, and since then most books have morphed from works of art into product that must be moved in sufficient numbers. That’s not news, and it’s not a sin for publishers (or writers) to want to make money. What is news, as Parks points out, is that the ascendancy of economic considerations over artistic ones has led to “a growing resistance at every level to taking risks in novel writing.” Parks adds that the attention to sales numbers has been dramatically — and, one could argue, disastrously — magnified by electronic media and its immediate, inescapable feedback loop. Novelists, like everyone else today, ache to be looked at, clicked on, shared with, and “liked,” if not loved.
“Hence,” Parks concludes, “the successful novelist is constantly encouraged to produce more of the same…Celebrity, it would appear, breeds conformity.” He cites two recent examples: Haruki Murakami’s “dull” Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Parks calls them “tired, lackluster attempt(s) to produce yet another bestseller in the same vein.”
That essay’s central lament — the dearth of risk-taking by today’s novelists — was on my mind as I dipped into This Census-Taker. On the very first page it became apparent that this novel was not in the same vein as Miéville’s earlier work. The first two sentences establish the central narrative ploy: an unnerving switching back and forth between the first and third persons, a way of establishing the indeterminacy of everything that is to follow. Unlike its predecessors, this novel’s world is claustrophobic, not expansive. Its characters are made of cardboard, not flesh and blood and scales and feathers. Monsters are hinted at but never seen. The maddeningly vague story amounts to this: a boy living on a remote hillside above a town may or may not have seen his father murder his mother; the father may or not be a serial murderer; the mother may or may not have fled the home before the father had a chance to kill her. Hunh?
A rare flash of Miéville’s trademark ingenuity surfaces in the father’s profession as a maker of magical keys: “His customers would come up from the town and ask for the things for which people usually ask — love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly — and he’d make them a key.” Far more prevalent, unfortunately, are murky descriptions like this one of a derelict bridge where homeless children live as squatters:
Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants to not be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, an unspace to link One-place-town to Another-place-town over a river or a road or a tangle of railway tracks or a quarry, or to attach an island to another island or to the continent from which it strains. The dream of a bridge is of a woman standing at one side of a gorge and stepping out as if her job is to die, but when her foot falls it meets the ground right on the other side. A bridge is just better than no bridge but its horizon is gaplessness, and the fact of itself should still shame it. But someone had built on this bridge, drawn attention to its matter and failure. An arrogance that thrilled me. Where else could those children live?
Even as my unease and disappointment increased with each passage like this, I began to feel a strangely pleasurable tingling. There was no escaping the fact that I was reading a bad book by a very fine writer, but it occurred to me that this was actually a good thing. China Miéville, a writer with an international cult following whose commercial success is every bit as secure as Murakami or Franzen’s, had dared to do something that they, so far, have not. He had dared to take risks, he had dared to leave his comfort zone, he had dared to fail. And that’s precisely what he did. I find a failure of this kind far more admirable, if not more satisfying, than another safe commercial success.
Even so, I can’t help wondering why Miéville wrote such a book. I have a theory, though it might be far-fetched. In the Acknowledgments, Miéville writes, “Much of this book was written during a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, N.H.; and then as a residency fellow of the Lannan Foundation, in Marfa, Tex. I am profoundly grateful to both organizations for their generous support.”
Here, maybe, is the devilish paradox. The publishing industry is set up to minimize risk-taking by novelists and to ensure that novels will be safe, saleable commodities. Yet it was when he stepped away from the grubby demands of the marketplace — when he took the MacDowell and Lannan money and was suddenly free to write whatever he chose to write, without regard for its marketability — that Miéville stumbled. In this case, the freedom to take risks led not to something fresh and new, but to a disastrous disconnect with readers.
That said, I still applaud China Miéville for daring to fail. I hope he realizes his earlier novels were successful precisely because they were ablaze with risk and they avoided the novelist’s cardinal sin. They never lost sight of the fact that the writer’s primary responsibility is not to himself, but to the reader.