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Reading Double, Writing Double: The Fiction of
Iain (M.) Banks

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The Wasp Factory Phenomenon or ‘How I Broke into Writing’

In an interview with The Guardian, Banks revealed that he submitted The Wasp Factory novel to McMillan because they had also published Martin Amis and Ian McEwan and ‘I thought my work was in a similar vein to this’.14 Significantly though, Banks' and James Robertson's comments regarding The Wasp Factory and its shift in status from 'popular' to 'literary' are revealing in their perceptions of responses to contemporary fiction:

JR: There's also a division between what's literary and what's popular—the same sort of idea as cutting off science fiction because it's to do with engineering or something. Even the books that get published nowadays in paperback, the crap stuff is in A format and the snooty stuff is in B format.
IB: The Wasp Factory actually went from one to the other! 15

The Wasp Factory's status as a novel which garnered its place in the canon over a long period is significant because even the earlier reviews noticed dimensions in the text which are present in Banks' later writing. The movement from much-maligned to re-assessed brilliancy is indicative of the then pejorative attitudes of the British book reviewing community and the imposition of their own value system in relation to 'non-literary' fiction. Positive observations emerged from The Irish Times who stated that 'there is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author's imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness'16 but, as well as highlighting the problems and erratic qualities which one associates with Banks' writing, a substantial amount of the critical attention, indicated by the excerpts from reviews printed in the 1990 paperback edition of the book, does acknowledge the talent and originality of the novel. Praise comes from The Daily Telegraph who enthuse that '[H]is study of an obsessive personality is extraordinary, written with a clarity and attention to detail that is most impressive' and Punch claim that '[T]here is something foreign and nasty here, an amazing new talent.'17

The marketing strategy plays upon the idea that a novel this poor must surely have been misjudged or misread. When questioned by John Mullan, Banks wryly admitted that friends who purchased later editions of the novel (from which the negative reviews were excised) asked 'where all the reviews had gone'18—but there are also perceptive comments which have been levelled at novels written throughout his career. The Scotsman shrewdly states that 'it could not be said that the violence is casual or unnecessary' and the Mail on Sunday notes '[y]ou can hardly breathe for fear of missing a symbol'.19 This is vital in understanding Banks' cultivation of his profile as a self-fashioning novelist, whose construction of his populist novels is informed by a ferocious intelligence and conscious awareness of the technical aspects of his authorial practice.

cover image for The Wasp FactoryBrian Aldiss suggests in his view of science fiction, which I feel can be applied to Banks' more mainstream fiction as well, that 'the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.'20 The 'Gothic' quality of Banks' science fiction is similar to the tone of many texts, including The Wasp Factory, Complicity, Song of Stone and The Crow Road, which—with the narrative clashes between primitive and civilised, social and barbaric, decadent and conservative—are redolent of the ongoing conflicts between the Culture and its neighbours. With this in mind it is worth noting that, when Banks' oeuvre as a whole is considered, there are forms of Gothic or Victoriana that are consistently being transformed or reconfigured from existing paradigms into a contemporary context.

To locate Banks within a cultural context, it is necessary to return to 1969, when David Lodge proposed that the 'English novelist' stood at a crossroads, with the choice of fabulation or experimental metafiction. He suggested that the novel remain faithful to realism and a liberal ideology.21 It is significant that Lodge identified this choice as being that of the 'English novelist' as opposed to the 'British novelist'. The 'realism' and 'liberal ideology' suggested by Lodge has been thankfully corrupted by a focus on the more challenging deviances, addictions and dirty realism emerging in the context of the late 1970s Thatcherite culture. As Alan Riach comments in his essay ‘Orphans and Their Ancestors in Popular Scottish Fiction’, 'Banks's oeuvre is entirely the era of Margaret Thatcher and John Major: Conservative Party rule in the United Kingdom'22 and this firmly locates the political context for a novelist whose own left-wing invective has also become a prominent aspect of his writing.

In his assessment (or assassination) of the writing of the 1970s, The Situation of the Novel, Bernard Bergonzi claims that 'in literary terms, as in political ones, Britain is not a very important part of the world today'.23 In his more recent survey of contemporary literature, Modern British Fiction, 19502000, Dominic Head claims that:

Bergonzi's appraisal set the tone for critical discussion throughout the 1970s, the decade that is generally held to embody the nadir of British fiction, since the deleterious effect on publishing, and on the range of fiction that found an outlet; but from the longer perspective of literary history (and we may just be able to glimpse this now) it is hard to see how even the 1970s will go down as a period of suppressed creativity. On the contrary, this was the decade which saw the publication of important novels by Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, J.G. Farrell, and David Storey, among others. It also witnessed the first books by Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. 24

The contrast here is between the immediacy of Bergonzi's withering and pessimistic assessment and the longer, arguably more considered critical reception that has been afforded and to the early novels of Amis and McEwan. Head's use of the term 'suppressed creativity' also draws attention to the co-dependent relationships between the publishing industry, the writers emerging during the 1970s and the political intervention and influences at work which led to the varying pronouncements about the effects on British 'culture'. Head argues further:

It is, consequently, possible to overstate the importance of Thatcherism as political philosophy, since the state of the nation, as well as developing global trends, facilitated its success. Nevertheless, the changes to British society and culture were dramatic, generating a spirit of either adventurous entrepreneurship or deplorable avarice, depending on your point of view. Novelists tended to take the latter view, lamenting the imminent collapse of the welfare state, and a new era of inequality and social division. 25

These dramatic changes were reflected in equally startling developments in contemporary fiction, where innovation and experimentation became prominent and the political conditions of the time proved incredibly fertile for the next generation of novelists to thrive in and, like Banks himself, respond to with immediacy and urgency. Significantly, Head's survey does not make any reference to Banks' work and his omission from a substantial number of other scholarly surveys in contemporary writing makes this more noticeable. [...]

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14 John Mullan podcast interview with Iain Banks for The Guardian, 18 July, 2008.

15 James Robertson, "Bridging Styles: A conversation with Iain Banks", Radical Scotland 42 (December 1989/January 1990), p. 26

16 Ibid. x.

17 Ibid. x.

18 Mullan, 18 July, 2008.

19 Robertson, x.

20 Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), p.8.

21 Dominic Head, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction 1950-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2002) p. 6.

22 Alan Riach, ‘Nobody's Children: Orphans and their Ancestors in Popular Scottish Fiction after 1945’ in Susanne Hagemann (ed.) Studies in Scottish Fiction: 1945 to the Present (Peter Lang, 1996) p.68.

23 Bernard Bergonzi, The Situation of the Novel (Macmillan, 1979) pp. 56-7.

24 Head, p. 7

25 Ibid. p. 30.