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« Me Waffling On At The Eleventh Hour | Main | First reviews are in! »

American Gods, and London literary novelists

I just read a book review, in Saturday's enjoyable and infuriating  Guardian Review, which throws some interesting light on what's wrong with the modern literary novel, and with modern literary criticism, and with the modern literary ghetto. (A ghetto that doesn't know it's a ghetto: a ghetto that thinks it is the world.)


The review is by Kamila Shamsie (author of Broken Verses, a literary novel, published by Bloomsbury). It is of The Opposite House, by Helen Oyeyemi  (also a literary novel, also published by Bloomsbury... but that incestuous connection isn't the main problem, thought it does reveal a lot about the tiny size of the British literary pond).


This is the first line of the review: "The Opposite House is not the first novel to suggest that migration is a condition, not an event; but it may be the first to contend that the condition afflicts no one so profoundly as the gods." 


Now, I couldn't quite believe that was her opening claim. But it was.  She really thought that her stablemate at Bloomsbury was probably "the first to contend" that migration "afflicts no one so profoundly as the gods". And editors and sub-editors had let this stand.


Which means that nobody involved in the whole process was aware that Neil Gaiman had spent nearly six hundred pages, in his novel American Gods (which is not "literary", nor published by Bloomsbury), writing about nothing but how migration profoundly afflicts the gods.


Now, American Gods is not an obscure book: It is recent (published in 2001). It was immensely successful (a New York Times bestseller in both hardback and paperback, a best-seller all over the world). It was very, very widely reviewed (my current paperback edition contains four densely-packed pages of rave reviews, which range from the Washington Post through William Gibson to The Independent).  And it has won about as many awards as a book can win. It lifted not only both of the biggest science fiction awards (the fan-voted Hugo, and the writer-voted Nebula), but also the main horror award (the Bram Stoker Award), as well as the Locus Award for best fantasy novel. A novel by a British writer, set firmly in modern America, it crossed genre boundaries. It found a huge readership.  It could not have made a bigger splash.


But American Gods is not a "literary novel", so it is perfectly acceptable for a literary novelist, reviewing a literary novel which is (among other things) trying to do the same thing as American Gods (but years later, on a much smaller scale), to totally fail to mention it. Not only fail to mention it, but to claim that the idea may well have just been invented by her fellow Bloomsbury novelist.


I  don't mean to pick on Kamila Shamsie by pointing this out. The fault is in the literary culture, it's certainly not Shamsie's. Her review is a perfectly honourable and fair-minded review from inside the literary tradition.  Anyone that the Guardian was likely to ask to review  The Opposite House would have done pretty much the same. And if Kamila Shamsie hadn't boldly said "but it may be the first to contend that the condition afflicts no one so profoundly as the gods," she wouldn't have revealed the limits of her reading (always a brave and dangerous thing for a writer to do). Most current literary reviewers are just as limited in their reading. (And most SF reviewers are also stuck in their ghetto: and most crime reviewers: but they at least know they live in a ghetto, and that what they read is a genre. The problem with the literary novel is that it is becoming a genre again, and doesn't know it...)


I am discussing Kamila Shamsie's single, revealing line in such depth, not because it is unusual, but because it exposes something absolutely typical. Literary novels are reviewed only in terms of other literary novels, by people who do not read outside that ghetto, and who are quite unaware of how tiny a world they inhabit. (Though surely a London-based, literary novelist, published by Bloomsbury, who finds themselves reviewing a London-based, literary novelist, who is published by Bloomsbury, must start to get the vague feeling that their world is shrinking alarmingly.)


If you don't know either book: Helen Oyeyemi's book (set in the modern world), in dealing with a troubled modern woman also deals with the Yoruba gods, including Yemaya, "who", according to the review, "has travelled with her believers to different parts of the world, including Cuba.." One of the most powerful sections in American Gods deals with exactly those Yoruba gods, coming with their believers to the Caribbean islands. But then, Gaiman's American Gods tries to deal with pretty much all the ancient gods, struggling to survive, as belief in them dies, in the modern Americas.


American Gods is an epic attempt by a British writer to write the great American Novel. It isn't perfect (a perfect novel is an oxymoron), but it blows almost everything in the literary pages of the Guardian Review out of the green water and high into the blue sky.


Helen Oyeyemi may well have written a wonderful book, I don't know.  Kamila Shamsie may well be a thoughtful reviewer, and a fine literary novelist in her own right, I don't know.  But a review of The Opposite House should at least mention American Gods. The contrast would be useful, interesting, revealing. An intimate story, in contrast with an epic. A woman's story, in contrast with a man's. But two books by ambitious writers, dealing with the same idea; displaced gods, struggling to adapt in our modern world. You can't  ignore the writer who did it first, just because he wasn't published by Bloomsbury.


A literary culture that can't connect these dots has serious nerve-damage.


References (28)

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Reader Comments (30)

I coldn't agree with you more, Mr. Gough. American Gods is a wonderful novel.
I came here becuase I saw the link on Neil Gaiman's blog. Excellent article you've written.
January 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPatricia
Thanks, Patricia. Very glad you enjoyed the article.

Yes, I noticed a wave of visitors from Neil Gaiman's blog. You're all very welcome. I feel I should give you all a New Year's gift. How about a free short story of mine?

Only the best for fans of Neil Gaiman. Let me see... (Rummages around in his files.) OK, here's my best two.

If you want a satire of the financial crisis, try The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble (which was the first short story ever printed by the Financial Times, and is being made into a radio play by the BBC):

Or, for the tragic yet comic story of an Irish orphan who accidentally urinates on a politician, causing an angry mob to burn down his orphanage, try The Orphan and the Mob (which won the biggest prize in the world for a single short story, in 2007. How a story about pissing on a politician won such a prestigious prize is still a mystery to me):

OK, enjoy. (If any of you like looking under the surface of a story to see how it works, you can have fun spotting the Wizard of Oz references buried in The Orphan and the Mob.)

And Happy New Year!
January 7, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian Gough
Read your article and I agree to the fullest! I can't remember who said it but litterary novels are picking up a lot of fantasy and sf characteristic and it makes the litterary genre richer. It doesn't do anything for the sf/f genere though.

Here in Sweden we have the same kind of reasoning- if a litterary book use sf/f themes it's never compared to the great works in that genre, thus witholding any recognition those works could've got.

Sad really.
January 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNene
Happy New Year. Thanks for the stories!
January 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy
Amy, you're welcome.

And Nene, I agree. The ongoing apartheid between literary fiction and science fiction is depressing. Literary critics see SF as a big, slightly frightening, undifferentiated mass. Not as individual books with individual flaws and virtues.

Ah well, the old critics will die soon, and the next generation will have grown up reading SF and literary fiction without noticing the "difference", and won't see a hard divide. Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem are already doing a lot to fix things.

Kiss Sweden for me, I'm fond of the country. My first book found a lot of readers there. (It was called Juno och Juliet in Swedish.) I had a great translator, I suspect her version was better than my original...
January 8, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian Gough
Hello Julian,
Another clickee from the Gaiman blog... thank you for the gift!

As long as we are talking about the effects on gods as belief in them dwindles, and the machinations they go through to gather more believers, Terry Pratchett wrote "Small Gods". This is an enchanting, funny, satirical look at religion from the eyes of the once great and mighty god Om. He returns to the "planet" to put the fear into people as a great flaming hundred foot tall bull... but only has enough power to manifest as a small tortoise.

Om's story of turning his one believer into a prophet, and eventually restoring himself to god-like power (and gaining an unexpected appreciation for humanity, to boot) is typical hysterical Pratchett... and preceded both Gaiman and Oyeyemi by almost a decade.

Not to nitpick, but it is one of my favorite books, and I like to plug it at any opportunity.

So thank you for the opportunity! :-)
January 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristian Jacobsen
An issue I take with Kamila Shamsie's statement is its denial of Oyeyemi's influences. Any honest SF or Fantasy writer could probably give you a list of other SF or fantasy books that inspired them. I remember reading Gaiman's Stardust for the second time, and appreciating the debt he had (which he himself acknoledges) to Hope Mirlees Lud-in-The-Mist and William Goldman's Princess Bride. This has become one of my favorite thingsd about the fantasy and science fiction worlds: the ackneledged interconnectedness.
January 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Lev
Thanks Christian. Yeah, Pratchett's great. One of the few decent crossing-points between SF and "literature" is A.S. Byatt's appreciation of Terry Pratchett. (Byatt won the Booker Prize for Possession.) She writes very well about Pratchett in her book of Richard Ellman lectures on stories, fables, and storytelling, Hang on, I'll link to it...

A good book, if you're thinking of writing stories that draw on folk-tales, fairy tales or myths. Thought provoking. Nice stuff on the Brothers Grimm, and the Arabian Nights.

And David, I agree with you that the interconnectedness of fantasy and science fiction, and the acknowledgement of influences, is one of the great things about those genres. It's one of the great things about the "literary" genre too (I'm currently knocking off Kafka, Lewis Carrol, and a bunch of almost forgotten Irish language poets like Aogán Ó Rathaille in my new novel.) Problem is the wall that has been built between them. I doubt Shamsie is "denying" Oyeyemi's influences; I don't think she's even aware of them.

And Oyeyemi herself may well have independently thought up the idea, without having ever read Gaiman. Ideas suddenly find their time, and bang! Suddenly they're floating around in the air. Sometimes they settle like thistledown on writers' desks on opposite sides of an ocean. You'll often get several books written independently on the same new theme all coming out at once, like the three books about Henry James in the theatre that came out a few years back... But at least the reviewers of each of those books mentioned the others...
January 8, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian Gough
What do we think of a hat tip to "Jitterbug Perfume," by Tom Robbins? Surely Pan's fade/Alomar's quest dealt with migration profoundly affecting the gods, and a god's struggle to survive as belief in them fades. And certainly Mr. Robbins falls into the "literary" camp, albeit on the fantastical end, no?
January 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJustin G.
Sounds good to me, Justin... A big problem with all of this is that so many books are published in so many genres that nobody can be expected to keep up with them all. I've had a copy of Jitterbug Perfume sitting, ever lower in the evergrowing pile of books I mean to read, for the past five years. And I haven't read it yet.

So you get to be the expert on this. I'll take your word for it, and tip my hat to Tom Robbins... and dig Jitterbug Perfume out of that dangerously tottering pile of books, soon.
January 14, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian Gough
Nothing interesting, buy thank you. azvpo124
May 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTwerenryneX
While you're at that tottering pile of books, see if you've got a copy of Little, Big by John Crowley which (to my mind anyway) is the last of the great fantasy novels and also obliquely explores the migration theme. You may also wish to have a look for any of the old Alan Moore Swamp Thing comics, God knows Neil Gaiman does - half of his ideas seem to originate there.

On the subject of literature vs genre novels, it seems to be that the lit fic pool is drying up. There really are only so many books you can write about Ham & High novelists/publishers with infidelity issues, first world war poets in hospital or guilty musings (with a sly, nostalgic subtext) on the effects of colonialism. Genre fiction is being raided mercilessly (without credit) for new tropes (Wolf Hall? Oryx & Crake?). Credit may be due but will never be paid as literary writers will insist on the pretensions to art rather than honestly admitting that they are first and foremost, entertainers.

But you often find that among the intellectual elite.


October 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHugh
There are way too many books for anyone to know them all indeed.

Gaiman is good, but I think that aside from his Sandman series, which was truly brilliant, his works (mostly his longer prose, American Gods included), are a bit overhyped. He's a wonderful remixer, but sometimes it seems too easy to find the ideas and characters he works with in previous literature (which, in turn, also often draws ideas from itself and from ancient mythology.) To mention just a relevant example: Gods dwindling upon sinking into oblivion, struggling to (re)gain their worshippers' faith and thus their power*? Ever read W.B. Yeats' account of Irish faeries, the old gods of the Celts?

Of course, nowadays it is highly risky to state (concerning literature) that a single idea is uniquely original. A (complex enough) combination of ideas may be that, perhaps, but there are few things under the sun that you couldn't find an example for in the ocean of already published novels, plays, poems and whatnot. You'd only have to spend a few hundred years reading.

*Which idea, btw, sums up the essence of American Gods as well, imo. The waning of the gods' power is not really the result of their migration - the primary cause is ppl losing their faith in them.
December 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commentera visitor
You have no idea how much I'm in love with the description of the "modern literary ghetto" as "A ghetto that doesn't know it's a ghetto: a ghetto that thinks it is the world." So terribly, terribly true.

If one can get over the largely class-based stigma of "serious literature," it doesn't take much effort to expose a good del of so-called "literary" work as stale and reactionary, and devoid of any true innovation. Indeed, if one's looking for fresh and daring uses of language, narrative and metaphor, it's probably best to steer clear of most literary fiction and a good deal of academic-leaning poetry, and look instead to speculative fiction, independent poetry and (gasp!) comic books. Those are where the seeds of our literary culture are germinating.
December 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVictor D. Infante
In fact, doesn't the Greek mythical canon claim that the entire Egyptian pantheon of gods were the Olympians themselves, in disguise, refugees from the invasion by the Titans?
December 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSomnopolis
As long as everyone is alluding to earlier titles, I'll bring up "The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul" by Douglas Adams, which also touches on the concept of gods (Norse in this instance) struggling to adapt in the modern world.
December 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArthbard
Blimey, about 2,000 people just piled over to my place... (ah, I see Neil Gaiman retweeted a link to this from the Interstitial Art organisation...) Welcome, strangers.

Thanks Arthbard, A Visitor, and Somnopolis for some good new examples of how the old Gods get reused... yes, Douglas Adams, W.B. Yeats, and the Greeks themselves, recycling their neighbours...

And I'm with you, Victor. The freshest language is not to be found in literary fiction right now. Some cute stuff, sure, but the real action is elsewhere.

Let's go find it. And if we can't find it, let's go make it.
December 13, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian Gough
Another one from Gaiman's tweet...

Also wanted to say thank you for a great article - I wish more people would recognise the importance of SF/fantasy in literature. I enjoyed the comments discussion too. I was glad to see that someone else mentioned 'Small Gods' as it immediately sprung to my mind when reading your blog. This has inspired me to seek out other books on this theme and read them too!
December 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie
I guess I'm part of the new generation you mentioned in an earlier comment, because I've been sitting here for several minutes trying to figure out what "literary novel" means in this context. I assumed it meant some kind of stylistic or genre divide, but my attempts to pin down what the actual definition of what that divide would be have been kind of comical. (I looked up "literary novel" on Wikipedia, and it describes it as a novel "written in literary prose." Which is basically the same as saying "written with words," and that sort of describes all books not written in binary code!) The comments here made it clearer, though.

I never really thought of "American Gods" as genre fiction. It had fantastical elements, but seemed, to me, to be much more in line with being a philosophical/metaphysical epic. But even so, I've never thought there was a merit divide between genre fiction and non. A story's a story; if it's written well, if it speaks to you, then what difference does it make if it takes place in outer space, medieval Europe or contemporaneously in a city you've never been to? They all require you to step into shoes you otherwise wouldn't, at least if they're doing their job properly.

Honestly, due to its lack of clarity and inherent snobbishness, I'd like to see the term "literary novel" done away with all together. (Along with the term "graphic novel," since its usage seems to largely fall into the hands of people who want to read things like "The Sandman" and "Watchmen" and the like, while retaining the ability to look down their noses at comic books. As if they weren't all stories told in pictures and panels. But that's a different rant.)

As for Ms. Shamsie's review, while a comparison between the two books would indeed be valuable and interesting, I'm not really sure what it indicates that she's never read "American Gods." Is it as popular and well-known in the UK as it is in the US? I remember reading once that the billing of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman on the cover of "Good Omens" is done differently in the two, because Pratchett's the more well-known of the two in Britain and Gaiman's the more well-known in the states. Perhaps it's just an issue of geography? (Heck, I only know who Ms. Shamsie is because I bought her novel, "Salt and Saffron", back in October off a shadowy rack located on the back shelf at my local dollar store while I was looking for Halloween decorations. The cover art caught my eye and the description on the back cover sounded interesting enough to spend a dollar on. But I guess she's more famous over there?)
December 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHeather
Hi, there, just trundled over here from Mr Gaiman's tweet, and after seeing the wonderful discussion I couldn't help but take part in the dialogue.

I certainly like your point regarding the modern literary ghetto; I don't think I've heard of many modern "literary fiction" novels spoken of in any circles, though, since I am at a university, it may just be that people here are looking further in the past than they are elsewhere.

In reply to Heather's query: Neil Gaiman is fairly well known over here in the UK; just a few years ago I noticed a big to-do regarding the release of Anansi Boys in Waterstones (a book shop over here), and once again with Fragile Things, and The Graveyard Book, not to mention the sheer volume of articles regarding my last example upon its release. London is, however, an interesting microcosm: so thoroughly international, yet so thoroughly insular and only interested in the affairs of Londoners.

Anyway, Mr Gough, I look forward to perusing your other musings on this site. Thank you for giving me something to think about.
December 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Schratwieser

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