genre stuff reading pile

Climbers by M. John Harrison

Not a review, this – just some impressions. First I’ll be upfront: I’m a big fan of Harrison’s work. Nearly everything that he’s written is of superior quality. His descriptive power is second-to-none, and he can distinguish any environment with remarkable power. This is especially noticeable in Climbers, his non-SFF novel.

It’s the story of Mike, his recovery from a failed marriage, and his integration into the rock climbing community over the Yorkshire Moors. The culture of climbing, and the people involved, are discussed at great length – observing their experiences at the rock-face and in cafes and pubs. The story is presented as various reminiscences for the most part, so don’t read this expecting a simple plotted narrative. Like memory, it jumps around. These collections of images and stories build a picture of what is, ultimately, an obsession with climbing, the perfect climb, and how everything else in life seems to fade away amidst this lifelong yearning. I personally didn’t feel these collections provided the emergent properties of Light; which is to say that the collections remained mere observations, and you drew the weight of emotions from them yourself (this is perhaps a technique gleaned from Katherine Mansfield, of whom Harrison is a noted fan). The book was beautiful, that’s for sure. The depiction of the landscape is so accurate and vivid, and the prose… well it’s Harrison on perfect form.

What I find especially fascinating is observing how Harrison approaches his non-SFF novel. Much of the same level of alienation seems present; as does his way of making the texture everyday life seem utterly bizarre. Some of the rock formations which the characters tackled might well have been on another planet. I’d love to see him handle urban environments in a similar way – it would no doubt be up there with Iain Sinclair and J.G. Ballard.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder: how would other genre writers cope with writing mainstream fiction? Would the themes and nuances be the same? Do we rely too much on worldbuilding and wow-factor to carry us through? (Perhaps this is projecting my own concerns.)

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

8 replies on “Climbers by M. John Harrison”

To answer the final question, I do honestly feel that too many spec fic writers depend too heavily on their backdrops/settings, not trusting enough in the story itself. Too often an interesting story is interrupted with backstory dropped whole cloth into the narrative. It just ruins the flow for me. As inventive as he is, MiĆ©ville sometimes is guilty of sacrificing narrative unity for the sake of adding something “cool” to it. His latest novel suffers because of this, no matter how much I enjoyed his squirrel!

As for MJH, ever read Signs of Life or The Course of the Heart? Those are my two favorite fictions by him, although I certainly did enjoy Climbers as well.

It’s part of the problem, I think, when world-building – to show enough without compromising story, or even going too far and not showing much at all.

I’ve read Signs of Life, yes, and I enjoyed it a lot. I love a lot of his shorter fiction, too. I do own a copy of The Course of the Heart, but I’ve not really taken it seriously. I will rectify this at some point.

An interesting question – I note that the cover has a quote from Iain Banks (note not Iain M. Banks). I have to be honest and say that he is an example of what you’re talking about here. Don’t get me wrong – I like some of his “mainstream” fiction well enough – but I do feel that it is generally weaker than his SF stuff (and not in a “yah-boo-to-your-mundane-lit-fic” way, in an absolute there is better mainstream lit fic available).

And, thinking about it, a big feature of Banks’ SF is that it tends to have fantastic, well-developed worlds which do sustain interest. Hmmm… I wonder if some of the weaknesses that I’ve seen in his are masked by cool stuff? You might be onto something!

A part of me doesn’t really want to find out though, because it’d mean that my favourite genre writers wouldn’t have time to write genre fiction. :S

Hi Richard,

I guess Banks is a great example of seeing the two facets side-by-side. I’ve only read a couple of either of his works, but he seems as comfortable with the broad brushstrokes as well as the more detailed work.

But it isn’t to say that big and brash is not bad – I think it’s enjoyable immensely. I think it’s worrying about when it gets in the way of the important stuff.

Read this book soon after coming to London having spent previous three years sharing a house on the edge of the Peak District with two climbers. Harrison nails the particular ‘separateness’ of the dedicated (obsessed?) climber exactly. That and utterly gorgeous descriptive writing made the book a favourite. He really is a genius (with all that that entails).

On the whole mainstream/genre writing thing I think it’s fair to say that some genre writers ARE writing mainstream fiction and (vice versa) we are simply invited to read them differently because of how the book has been packaged and published. Themes and nuances are difficult to seperate from the expected experience that comes from the (sometimes) subconscious feeling that we been asked to read a particular sort of book.

Simon – you probably know better than most – do you think readers react differently depending on how the book is packaged? I know a lot of it is down to marketing, but if people are told before hand that something is/isn’t SF, does that determine the enjoyment of their read? I think I’m wondering if a good deal of such things are subconscious.

Difficult to be hard and fast on this but yes I’m fairly sure readers are influenced in the way they read or at least in the way they approach a text by the cover. Even if this is a temporary reaction lost once the book’s ‘true’ nature wins out. But the cover is not the only influence – knowledge of author, context of when book was written, context of book being read etc etc. And yes most of this works subconsciously. Always remember an old A level English teacher talking about this. Proposed that the only way to avoid influences outside the text was to receive the text with no accountrements at all. He used a passage describing a girls body in a river as an example: a profoundly bleak, discomforting description, morbidly detailed. Which came, iirc, from Three Men in a Boat. Not what you would have expected…

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