Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ and the Tyranny of Genre Fiction

ishiguroIs Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, a work of genre literature? Is Beowulf? In February, the author mortified genre fans everywhere by suggesting that the novel, which makes mention of she-dragons and ogres, is not a work of fantasy. “Will readers follow me into this?” Ishiguro wondered aloud for the New York Times. “Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Ishiguro knows what he is talking about: The Buried Giant is not a work of fantasy. To begin with, just read the thing closely. If you do — I’m not going to spoil it — you will notice something peculiar about the vast majority of its references to dragons and ogres and magic: they’re hearsay. The “elements of fantasy” within the novel work to usher its characters’ fears and superstitions to the page. And fears and superstitions and stories, for Ishiguro, are thickets of language that betray the memories we’ve buried.

But there is another reason why The Buried Giant is not a genre work: its inspiration predates fantasy literature. It would be inane, even absurd, to retroactively apply the fantasy label to Homer’s Odyssey because it has monsters. Why? Because fantasy had not been invented yet. Along these lines, Ishiguro has been forthright that his purpose was to examine amnesia and its attendant capacity for violence on a broad social scale. He resolved this conundrum after reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which, again, is not fantasy because it predates the genre. Anyway, The Buried Giant doesn’t even read like fantasy; if anything, its closest literary kin is the fabulist work of Jose Saramago.

So will his audience read the novel as fantasy? “Well, yes, they probably will,” Ursula K Le Guin wrote in a heated response to Ishiguro. “Why not? It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.”

So what if he does? Le Guin thinks that Ishiguro’s novel fails because it considers dragons and ogres “surface elements,” but in explaining this, it turns out that she’s explaining why the novel succeeds and precisely how she misread it. As I mentioned above, the so-called fantasy elements in The Buried Giant are literally surface elements; they hide what is buried in our hearts and minds. But Le Guin wanted more dragons, and she wanted an author who wanted more dragons. This is a familiar move, one that genre writers pull all of the time. Never mind that Ishiguro spends portions of the NYT’s piece talking about Westerns. Once a famous genre writer thinks you’ve disparaged genre fiction, all bets are off.

Many genre writers have conned themselves into believing that they are acting democratically when they’re being tyrannical. They fail to understand that it’s precisely the sort of thinking that Le Guin demonstrates that causes literary writers to lightly disparage them. Take this guy, who wrote about the Ishiguro problem yesterday for the Guardian. In one harebrained paragraph he displays the full range of the genre writer/fan’s pseudo-democratic, label-obsessed madness:

Kazuo Ishiguro has written a fantasy novel. He doesn’t want to call it fantasy. You know what? That’s absolutely fine. He can call it what he likes. Ultimately, it’s his readers who will decide what it is, whether they want to slap a label on it anyway. If you consider yourself a fantasy reader, then read it. Or don’t. Have your views on it – you’re entitled to them.

Let’s trace this back. First Ishiguro gets to decide what kind of novel he’s written. Then, actually, the reader gets to decide. But look closely, and you’ll see the author has already decided for you in the first sentence: “Kazuo Ishiguro has written a fantasy novel.” I encounter this twisted logic from “genre fans” all the time.

The truth is that the bulk of genre fiction is formulaic, constructed for a ready-made audience. The point of having dragons, in most fantasy novels, is that the readers and the author like dragons. So fantasy literature doesn’t get extra points because Ursula K. Le Guin is a genius. If anything, her best books come across as purely literary — there is no ready-made quality to them. This is plainly not true for most works of science fiction, fantasy, etc. To use some of Le Guin’s own logic: we still live under capitalism, and the concept of genre is still tied to marketing. The cold truth is that genre books often take the easy way out by appealing to formula.

Le Guin’s books don’t do this; neither do Ishiguro’s. But what do we call a book that transcends categories, confounds labels, and redistributes the way we perceive the world, a book like Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant? (Certainly the book is weird.) I, for one, would call it literature, but I’d also let the person who spent ten years writing it call it whatever he wants.