Good News! China Miéville Has Written a Bad Book

By posted at 6:00 am on February 4, 2016 13


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.

covercover“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.

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13 Responses to “Good News! China Miéville Has Written a Bad Book”

  1. Gary
    at 7:39 am on February 4, 2016

    On a parenthetical note, I would not take anything Tim Parks says about Jonathan Franzen too much to heart. He has a recurrent animus toward this writer that appears almost like a personal vendetta. This would certainly loosen his “tight argument” if only a bit.

  2. Jack
    at 8:20 am on February 4, 2016

    I really don’t care for any of Mieville’s writing. Like Murakami, he is a very intelligent and talented writer, but his stories never really seem to go anywhere. And, while I love Franzen’s work in general, Purity was just awful.

  3. heathercurran
    at 8:35 am on February 4, 2016

    Bill, just a short comment on Tim Parks remark about the publisher’s sales person asking “but what other book is it like?” How frustrating for the novelist that the publishers have such a lack of imagination.

  4. Tom B.
    at 9:25 am on February 4, 2016

    I just started Purity and am already asking myself WHY? As for Miéville, he wrote a book at the McDowell Colony? Really? I think he was hanging out with the wrong sort of people there.
    As for commercial considerations, even in the literary genre, it’s clear that readers won’t follow far out of their comfort zone. The most audacious American novel published last year — that I saw anyway — was The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann — he weds the Western doom of Cormac McCarthy with the linguistic prowess of William Gaddis, while telling a cracking yarn. But did readers follow? Except for his smallish cult, nope.

  5. Sham
    at 9:35 am on February 4, 2016

    Gary, perhaps Parks’ “animus” toward Franzen is because Franzen isn’t a very good writer? It’s okay to not like things, you know.

  6. bobbygatw
    at 11:54 am on February 4, 2016

    I was all for your article, save for a glaring error: you ruined it with your blatantly contradictory points that undermine your thesis:

    How can you argue that Mieville was with this novel and because of the fellowship and residency “SUDDENLY free to write whatever he chose to write, without regard for its marketability” — THEN go on to state — as well as acknowledge beforehand — that his “earlier novels were successful precisely because they were ablaze with risk”.

    In other words surely Mieville has from the outset, consistently, always written what he has wanted to. It seems to me his writing has never been compromised by decisions by sales staff or editors telling him what he could write or not. And I’m sure if they did, Mieville would tell them in a post-Marxist, polite sort of way to fuck right off.

  7. chiles
    at 9:30 pm on February 4, 2016

    ‘There wasn’t a space ship or a space alien in sight.’ surely the reviewer must – & should, given the sweeping statements he makes about Mieville & his work – be aware of EMBASSYTOWN? even if it wasn’t part of the reviewer’s reading experience, it’s a significant blindspot that should have been addressed. as for the quote from CENSUS, it isn’t murky at all. it’s as clear a discourse as any i have read on a theme familiar to readers of writers as diverse as popular fantasists such as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore; memoirists, poets, psychogeographers; ‘experimental’ writers such as Perec; Mieville himself: i.e., the ‘unplaceness’ of certain ‘unplaces’: roads, hallways, staircases, &c, w/c are not there for people to be, but to pass, to use in order to move from one Actual Place to another. the passage emphasizes the oddness, the cognitive disjunct/paradox of people *living* in such a nonplaces, w/c, btw, is thematically in keeping w/ Mieville’s earlier work, most notably KING RAT, UN LUN DUN – cited here – & THE CITY & THE CITY. as for Mieville leaving his comfort zone or whatever, a not very close look at the books the reviewer has read, at the author himself & his politics, should make it very clear that ‘marketability’ might be among the least of Mieville’s concerns, the chief of which is basically to write what he wants (providing a venue to examine his personal politics perhaps coming a close second). as such, the argument for CENSUS being a ‘bad book’ is, more than just unconvincing, barely an argument at all: it’s an assertion for w/c i see no evidence here.

  8. Gary
    at 7:41 am on February 5, 2016

    Sham, yes, totally OK to have opinions, even negative ones. But when you keep hitting the same note over and over, it goes a little beyond dislike into obsession mode. I suspect you share his opinion, based on your comment.

  9. Ryan Blacketter
    at 6:25 pm on February 5, 2016

    I just happened on Bill’s wonderful article on Henry Miller, and read a few more of his. Not sure how I’ve missed him, but he’s one of the best writers writing about books now. Can’t wait to read more.

  10. CCV
    at 8:12 am on February 6, 2016

    To suggest Murakami hasn’t taken risks, and risked failure, in his career is blatantly untrue. His career is filled with experiments, his most recent book notwithstanding. Franzen, however, will never write anything different than he already has because he’s an absolute bore and that’s all he knows how to do.

  11. Bill Morris
    at 9:11 am on February 6, 2016

    To Ryan Blacketter: Thanks for your generous words. The check is in the mail. Hope you’ll keep reading The Millions.

  12. Gert Loveday
    at 7:36 pm on February 7, 2016

    How interesting. I read the Tim Parks column too and I’m very familiar with publishers asking me to name a book that my books are like. It’s a kind of threshold question that determines whether your book will get past the gatekeepers. This seems paradoxical when new writers are often praised for being something completely different, but I understand it too given that publishing is a business and they want to be as sure as possible their product will sell. ‘

    What you describe in this new Mieville happened to Ishiguro too when he followed up ‘The Remains Of The Day’ with ‘The Unconsoled’. I’ve read that it was a deliberate choice to do something quite different from the earlier books and it certainly didn’t work for me. I’m a Mieville fan too but I can see how easily he could tip over into over-effort. Something I found very interesting in the early ‘King Rat’ was that you could see the later Mieville in formation, not quite working but still exciting.

    And I have a long-standing theory that many writers just write too much. This means either than they keep on writing the same thing (John Banville) or they write things that just don’t work.

  13. Weekend Links: February 6, 2016 | SF Bluestocking
    at 10:30 pm on February 13, 2016

    […] China Mieville has (arguably) written a bad book. […]

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