Adam Roberts in conversation
On Tuesday 12 May the audience gathered at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio were able to listen to science fiction writer Adam Roberts in conversation with Dr Caroline Edwards. The conversation was part of the University of Nottingham’s popular culture lecture series. Caroline Edwards is a lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birbeck, University of London with a particular interest in twenty-first century literature and critical theory, science fiction. As well as being a prolific science fiction writer, Adam Roberts is also Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Caroline began by warning Adam of the punishing questions she had lined up, then asked, with regards to his concept driven narratives, did he have a flash of genius on conceiving his novels or was the whole process more considered.
Adam said that she was talking about praxis. In practical terms, he has two children which is very time consuming and has no idea what he was doing with his time before he had them. So at the moment he is time poor and for that reason has to write to get down as much as he can.
Writing has two phases, getting it written and getting it right. Usually he begins by listening to music and drinking coffee to get into right mental state.
He has found that if he plots novels carefully the result seems to be stale and inert. On the other hand if he just opens up to a muse he may create rubbish. So there is a balance in that he needs to have a sense of where he is going, but there also needs to be enough elbow room to surprise himself. He writes in a linear fashion to get it down and then goes back in to edit.
Adam’s sense of humour and mischievousness came though as he declared his new book to be ‘monstrously pretentious’, because he is aiming to novelise Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Each chapter is one of Kant’s categories of conception.
Following on with this theme Caroline asked if Adam thought it was hard for writers who have a philosophical approach to get published.
Adam replied that if you want to be pretentious and bold with ideas, then science fiction is a good medium. For example, Philip K Dick’s work is associated with Descartes.
But in Adam’s view, writing has become a shrinking industry with advances dropping to a quarter of their previous levels. Even larger publishers are printing smaller runs because of e-books and downloads, to the extent that they have become similar to the output of small presses. As a commercial model, large presses are finding it difficult. However, small presses have found this situation helpful, particularly when comes to their writers winning awards. The science fiction market is also a healthier as a publishing prospect. But even so not as many people will have bought a science fiction book as those who have seen science fiction film.
Caroline said that some of her writing colleagues now have to become creative writing tutors. She wondered whether this move of writers into university courses is changing the type of contemporary literary or science fiction writing that is now being written.
Adam considered that working on creative writing courses is really the only patronage currently available. At the moment it appears the only people who can afford the time to write full-time are the wealthy. Universities used to be an arm of the state but are becoming private academies. When this happens the university becomes a business and it therefore becomes difficult to support what universities used to do. This does change the aesthetic style. The academic approach is a critical discourse, so the question that has to be asked as a writer is how is it possible to remove yourself as a university lecturer?
However there is a big shift to diversity happening to science fiction, in that it is opening to women, gay and transgender writers. Even so science fiction is still the preserve of the middle classes writing with middle class voices, whereas the working class voices are largely absent.
Caroline noted that class was an issue that came up regularly in Adam’s stories in By Light Alone the poor survive by photosynthesising through their hair and in Jack Glass they live in bubbles.
Adam’s view is that the English are tangled up with class. But his writing is also about absolute wealth and absolute poverty and how the two are separating. As far as Jack Glass is concerned there are three variables if you want to talk about economics, which are raw material, energy and labour. Raw material is scarce, but Labour cheaper because there are more workers, so they are more worthless. This means that those controlling materials become wealthier and the labourers poorer.
Generally, Adam has found that writing about dystopia is imaginative holiday for wealthy. Those learning creative writing usually have some level of comfort and some accept that and write about that, whereas others write overblown dystopias, because of their lack of experience and this does not nourish their imagination. But the fascination with end of world narratives not just part of a culture that we’re all going to die and that there is be a great gnashing and wailing to teeth, and then it all end. Dystopia touches on something major. If you examine Harry Potter series, the books Phillip Pullman, the Hunger Games and Twilight, there is a fascination with sex and death. It is a fascination that had everyone reading those books.
Caroline talked about the annoyance of Adam’s fans because they feel he’s been overlooked. Is it that his writing is so informed by his scholarship?
Adam felt his writing is psychologically personal. Bête is very personal and about being English. A friend who died was a model for the book that is about Englishness, wilderness and animals. He acknowledges that he writes in his own way, but feels he would write badly if he had to write commercially. That is the advantage of a day job. Most people he knows who don’t have a day job lead a very financially precarious life. As Adam has a day job he doesn’t have to worry about what he writes and can therefore indulge himself.
Caroline asked Adam about the scholarly reviews of his work talking about him as a Postmodernist writer of metafiction, drawing of different genres.
Adam felt this analysis of his work is correct and why he doesn’t hit bestseller list. He is a professor at a university and he has taught post modernism and critical realism, so as far as he is concerned everything is metatext. He loves the idea of a new Star Wars. But when he engages with it then it is in a metatextual way because he is drawn in by the story and its reinterpretation. But what also fascinates him is the way in which many people are interested in context. Take, for example, when James Bond in ‘Skyfall’ has to rescue M. He pulls out the DB7 he drove in ‘Goldfinger’ from a lock up. How is this car still there and in one piece, and all the gadgets still work perfectly? This is what caused outrage with the Bond fans, because they are only reading the film on the level of the text. The canonicity of the Bond series requires something in the text to explain this change. Really it is about stylistically quoting an earlier text and it’s witty. This is why he’s not worried about the fact that all the episodes of Star Wars are not neatly tied up. Samuel Delany takes up an argument that you can reproduce the world without slavishly reproducing it, because it becomes symbolic.
Caroline talked about Adam Roberts as the satirist referencing Yellow Blue Tibia, New Model Army and Jack Glass.
Adam loves to read and write irony. This all came to ahead after David Foster Wallace died. He hated irony considering it a disease that rotted society and that’s what he wrote about in Infinite Jest. There’s something about the nature of feelings, because often feelings are the last things we understand. The defining moment in science fiction for Adam is the moment at the beginning of ‘2001 Space Odyssey’ where the hominids in North Africa begin to see the world in a new way. A bone is thrown up into the sky and changes into a spaceship. That jump up is the moment in science fiction of the conceptual leap that is both beautifully eloquent and rational. The greatest science fiction is affective and the same thing that works in poetic imagery and metaphor. Adam said he felt that is how jokes work. The listener expects a particular trajectory, but then the joke suddenly moves in a different direction. The reaction to joke reveals person’s anxiety.
Adam made the point that if you want to write commercial of fiction you need to produce likeable identifiable characters in a linear narrative so the reader cares for the characters. Turning your back on that is cutting your own throat. The character has to have coherence and plausibility, but Adam argued that we are not coherent across time. We can change from one year to the next. When he read Proust, he discovered something striking about Swann. In volume one he has turned his back on the prostitute he was involved with and had to be conventional, but by the beginning volume two he’s married to her and she’s very different person. Proust identified that this is how people are. People are not rich and full of character, they are shallow and beyond a certain level of intimacy it would be oppressive. Anyone who tries to play around with established structure then becomes criticised. Proust and modern playwright Samuel Beckett have an extraordinary style, breaking up continuity and how subjective life can be.