This week, the indefatigable Charles Tan interviews Jared Shurin and Anne Perry about their new literary award, The Kitschies (won last year by Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City). Anne and Jared also run the Pornokitsch blog of book reviews and have recently edited the anthology Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse.
An Interview with Jared Shurin and Anne Perry
By Charles Tan
Hi Jared! Hi Anne!
First off, how did you first get acquainted with science fiction and fantasy?
J: Linda, my mom’s hairdresser. While my mom got her hair done, I would sit quietly in the corner, studiously plowing through stacks of Roald Dahl, Lloyd Alexander, Joan Aiken – all the greats. Linda spotted my reading habits and suggested the Dragonlance series, as something her nerdy teenage nephew was into. And that’s it. All her fault.
A: Sci fi was pretty much a way of life in our household. My dad was a geek of the old school – he grew up reading Black Mask and Amazing Tales and followed all the authors he liked into pulps. So my house was bursting with crumbling paperbacks, all lurid covers and crazy titles, just ripe for the casual picking.
What made you decide to start Pornokitsch? For those unfamiliar with the site, could you tell us more about it?
A: We call ourselves a geek culture blog, though we’re primarily reviewers. We focus almost exclusively on genre-inflected books and movies, because that’s what we like best: not just sci fi and fantasy, mind you, but noir and westerns and romances and anything else with a sordid pulpy past. Our aim is to take seriously books and movies that people haven’t traditionally taken seriously, and to hold them to account just as we would any vaunted work of lit fic – and to make fun of them, just as we do those vaunted works of lit fic.
What’s it like collaborating together? What’s the process like?
J: Noisy. Also, tasty. Most of our major editorial decisions or crazy projects are schemed at the local tapas restaurant.
How about the Kitschies? What sets it apart from the other awards and what’s your goal towards the award?
A: Our line is that we’re trying to “elevate the tone of the conversation” about genre. When we conceived the idea for the award, we set a series of criteria (progressive, intelligent and entertaining). We’re not aiming to award the ‘best’ book, but the book that we can argue is the most progressive, intelligent and entertaining book of the year. We pick a shortlist from the year’s publications that best meet our criteria, then we the judges discuss the books transparently (i.e., online), with an eye toward getting as many other people involved in the conversation as possible. Then we chose our winner and give the author a hand-made tentacle. Thanks to The Kraken Rum, this year we’re also able to give out cash prizes (and, better yet, rum).
What’s your criteria when judging for the Kitschies? How is this different – or the same – when it comes to your personal biases and reading preferences?
J: We take “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” very seriously. Even within our small panel, there’s plenty of discussion about what those terms mean and how they are best represented within genre literature. The intimacy of the panel allows us to check one another to make sure that we’re all keeping the criteria in mind throughout the process.
Not that we’re not all reading intelligent, progressive and entertaining stuff anyway (well, maybe just the latter…), but I find it amazing how the award opens up our own reading lists and introduces us all to new authors and titles. We hope it has the same effect for others as well.
Could you tell us more about yourselves? How did you end up in London? Did this affect the books you ended up reading? How different is the reading market and community in US vs UK?
J: I moved to London over ten years ago, Anne not that long after. We fly back and forth all the time for both work and play.
It is a guess, but it seems like the market – especially in fantasy – is cycling towards the very traditional. Economic factors, cross media success, even generational timing all adds up to a lot of big bricky epics and melodramatic comfort reads. However, on both sides of the ocean, I think some of the most interesting work is coming from authors that are reinterpreting the nostalgic standards. Lev Grossman, Sam Sykes, China Miéville, Maurice Broaddus, Sophia McDougall, Richard Morgan… lots of folks are using recognisable genre tropes and aesthetics, but are playing with them in brave and unusual ways. They’re stretching the reader’s expectations of what SF/F stories “have” to be. I don’t think this is the sort of mold-breaking New Wave all over again, it is a more careful sort of evolution, but one that’s taking place in the commercial spotlight, rather than the fringes.
With everything that’s happening in YA, SF, fantasy, paranormal romance and horror, that’s just one generalisation (and there are a thousand counter-arguments). But debating about the state of genre literature is one of the great joys of life.
In previous years, what is it about Zoo City and The City and The City that appealed to you to warrant it winning the Red Tentacle Award?
A: The easy answer, of course, is that they met our criteria best. But, without being glib, they’re both smart books and they’re both fun books. They do what we think genre does best: they say something meaningful about our world, and they say it in a really, really entertaining way. The City and The City is a wonderful mindbender, and Zoo City is a stonking noir. And both have quite a lot to say about politics, perception, and the politics of perception.
A consideration in judging is obtaining a diverse selection – whether it’s titles from female authors, writers outside of the US/UK, etc. What’s your stance when it comes to that and how do you address those concerns?
J: The books are submitted to us by the publishers. Perhaps it is the prominent use of “progressive” in the criteria, but, on the whole, we get a very diverse list – both in terms of gender and geography. We’ve tried to prod as many publishers as possible to submit, and made an effort to seek out a wide variety of imprints. The books themselves are the thing, and “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” fiction could come from anywhere.
One criteria in the awards is that the novel must first be published in the UK. What made you decide on this requirement? Are there any allowances for works not published in the UK? (A book published first in the Philippines or Australia for example.)
J: The requirement is that the book be first published in the UK during the calendar year. This isn’t meant to make the Kitschies an Anglocentric award, although that’s an unavoidable side effect. We had to draw a line in the sand somewhere, else we’d spend more time trying to puzzle out eligibility than actually reading the books. We try to be as accommodating as possible with books that have overseas publishers as the goal isn’t to discourage entries. We need some sort of method to our madness.
We also actively encourage publishers to submit books upon their translation into English. This year has brought with it some amazing titles from Haruki Murakami, Umberto Eco, Ryu Mitsuse, Pierre Pevel, José Saramago and many others. These are all familiar names to the Anglophone reader, and all have proven track records in the UK market (and rightfully so).
That said, we really want to encourage more translations of authors popular in their native countries but not known (or, at least, well known) outside of them. Every year at the London Book Fair we hear about the genre fiction that’s selling like wildfire in places like Poland, Russia, China or India, yet still isn’t available in the US and the UK. We want more of those books.
What are you reading now? What titles are grabbing you as of the moment?
J: Reading lots of 2011 titles, of course, but I’ve been mixing them up with a healthy dose of pulp. Blood and Hate (Ward Langley) is a 1950s Western written by an expat American (Langley served in Australia during WWII and never left). It has an interesting sort of naivete about it – there’s racial harmony, intelligent women, and lots of surreal conversations between gunfighters about the “rules”. It reads as a Western written about Westerns rather than about the West.
A: I’m not well versed in more modern genre fiction, particularly books from the ‘80s and ‘90s, so I’m scrambling to catch up on them. I just finished the Song of Ice and Fire series (…to date) and I’m going to read David Eddings’ Belgariad next.
What other projects are you currently working on?
J: We published our first book, Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, in November. It contains eighteen original stories by some of our favourite authors, including Lauren Beukes, Sam Wilson, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, S.L. Grey, Chrysanthy Balis and Charlie Human. The collection is themed around the end of the world and inspired by the art of John Martin. There’s a special exhibition of Martin’s artwork at Tate Britain right now, and they’ve been incredibly supportive of the whole project.
A: We have two or three more books planned for next year, as well. The first up is a second Pandemonium anthology, this one called Stories of the Smoke. Smoke will celebrate London, as inspired by Charles Dickens, from a global perspective.
Anything you’d like to mention?
J: I think we’re overjoyed with the response to this year’s award. We’ve had great backing from The Kraken Rum, our judges and partners like Blackwell’s and SFX. Also, the publishers – large and small – have been overwhelmingly helpful. Seeing the award mentioned places like Ansible, SFX and here means that we’re getting the all-important reader support as well. Thanks!