Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro Debate on BBC Radio 4

You don’t build a convention panel around a softball question like “Are genre labels like ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction’ pejorative terms, or labels to be proud of?” unless your participants bring a built-in drama to the topic the way novelists Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro did when they appeared in a 10-minute segment for BBC Radio 4 Today on May 28.

Gaiman reviewed Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, in the New York Times in February, concluding that despite the craftsmanship it is “a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.”

And a few days before that, Ishiguro was quoted in an NYT interview pondering, “Will readers follow me into this? 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?” – a line which made Ursula Le Guin livid. She made the news with her reply – “Well, yes, they probably will. Why not? It appears that the author takes the word for an insult. To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice, that I had to write this piece in response.”

Ishiguro subsequently explained, “[Le Guin]’s entitled to like my book or not like my book, but as far as I am concerned, she’s got the wrong person. I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons,” and Le Guin withdrew her criticism: “I am delighted to let Mr Ishiguro make his own case, and to say I am sorry for anything that was hurtful in my evidently over-hasty response to his question ‘Will they think this is fantasy?’”

However, the volatile history between Ishiguro and two fantasy standard-bearers doubtless inspired Radio 4 to match the writers on the air, although the show’s video feed establishes that while the discussion was good, neither combatant left his corner…

16 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro Debate on BBC Radio 4

  1. Sorry Mike, but is there more backstory to the Gaiman-Ishiguro drama? I’m having trouble seeing the volatility in Gaiman’s review.

  2. influxus, I suspect it was the one-two punch of LeGuin calling a remark of yours thoughtlessly insulting to fantasy whilst Gaiman says your fantasy novel does what “important books” do but is “difficult to love.” Taken together the two remarks form more than the sum of their parts.

  3. If the discussion had been Le Guin v. Ishiguro perhaps the boxing allusions might be more in the ring. However, the concluding paragraph of Gaiman’s review is:

    Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it. “The Buried Giant” is an exceptional novel, and I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist, telling us that no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them — of us — will always have to cross the water, and go on to the island ahead and alone.

    If that is part of a punch combo, please let me be so assaulted immediately. Given the current rounds of debate over the legitimacy of negative reviews, labelling Gaiman’s generous and engaged reading as somehow antagonistic seems to quash the very point of reviewing books.

    Which is why I am wondering if there is more history here, currently it seems a little beat up compared to Mike’s otherwise impeccable journalistic standards.

  4. Thanks, Mike, for the links to LeGuin’s and Ishigoro’s exchange. I understood her angry initial response and admire her gracious reply to a nasty remark about her “agenda” from Ishigoro.

  5. influxus, sure. Though did Gaiman really mean that he wishes Ishiguro’s book were more like Pilgrim’s Progress? I wonder.

    Gaiman and LeGuin could be SFF’s own Siskel and Ebert. At they very least they should have their own podcast.

  6. I don’t read Gaiman as saying it should be more of an overt allegory, like PP. I think that last long sentence is ambiguous between hoping there was no hidden allegory and disliking the content of its message. I would note the emphasised “us” and the age gap between Gaiman and Palmer.

  7. I would totally listen to a podcast featuring Gaiman and Le Guin reviewing SFF. If you could arrange that…

  8. influxus – I’m wondering what are Gaiman’s conflicted feelings about the allegory or lack thereof. I haven’t read Ishiguo’s latest yet but as I recall the only “ogre in the mist” in Bunyan was the Pope.

  9. The buried giant is on my TBR (thanks to Gaiman’s review actually), and I haven’t read Pilgrim’s Progress. Would you recommend PP beyond cultural capital purposes?

  10. Pilgrim’s Progress: um, it meets some of Kate Paulk’s Hugo criteria better than others, and don’t dive into cold without brushing up on your Bible and 17th century English history, but… yes, read it.

    Or at least, come to Spokane this August and catch our stage adaptation: The Puppy’s Progress

  11. Oh man, I have to read the Bible first! Can I crib it via The Greatest Story Ever Told?

  12. You’ll need the Old Testament too. “The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen… Oy, ten! Ten Commandments! For all to obey!”

  13. Brian Z on May 29, 2015 at 8:17 am said:

    Pilgrim’s Progress: um, it meets some of Kate Paulk’s Hugo criteria better than others …


  14. LeGuin, Gaiman, Ishiguro – like a battle of really polite giants.
    Or is it like that start of a super-hero team up story. First they have to fight before they join forces. In the sequel they all attack Baron Von Puppy’s secret base together.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the Buried Giant particularly as the revelation of what was being forgotten became clearer – hard to discuss without spoiling it.

  15. @Nyq Alternatively, they could be falsely accuse of trying to take over SF and have to fight both their enemies and the misled fans who now view them as evil.

    We could have one of those cover with Gaiman walking away with his head down and his leather jacket in one of those wire mesh trash cans.

  16. Jack Lint: We could have one of those cover with Gaiman walking away with his head down and his leather jacket in one of those wire mesh trash cans.

    Well I’m ready to hand over my money for that comic book right now.

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