The following interview with Graham Sleight was conducted at the Star Tavern in Belgravia on October 24th 2007, and transcribed by Niall Harrison.
Graham Sleight: I'm hoping to talk about the whole swathe of your career, but as a starter question what's the first thing you remember reading and being really entranced by?
Roz Kaveney: Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov, when I was 8. My mother bought it in a jumble sale. I'd already been reading the Narnia books, and quite liking those, but even as an obnoxious 8 year-old I was squicked by the Christian allegory. And I'd looked at WE Johns, and all those other things that were around if you were a child in the fifties -- Dan Dare, of course. But the point at which the real thing happened and it was the real true thing that stayed with me forever, that was Pebble in the Sky. Shoot me now.
GS: I'm sure there are worse taproots to have ...
RK: A second taproot text for me is The Silver Locusts by Ray Bradbury. Simply because Pebble was a Corgi book, I had gone looking for other Corgi books, and I got an odd selection. I was reading a bizarre selection of sf classics even before I was a teenager just because they were around.
GS: And did you stick in sf and fantasy for your teenage reading?
RK: Well, I never stuck in sf. I always read a lot, partly because I read ridiculously fast, and I had the extreme good fortune to follow my nose. So for example going to the Ps to look for Frederik Pohl meant that I read some John Cowper Powys, which was very good for me in some respects, and read Pynchon's V within a few months of it coming out. I must have been about 13. You have to remember that by that point my best friend at school -- this is Peter Ackroyd -- had developed extremely pretentious reading tastes that I never tried to keep up with. He was already reading Burroughs, and I don't mean Edgar Rice. So keep it in perspective. On the other hand, we were both reading Lovecraft.
GS: But everyone does that at 13.
RK: There was this wonderful moment once, I was at a London literary dinner party, as one sometimes is, and someone said, "well of course the great thing about Hawksmoor is that it joins in the great tradition of MR James and the classic British ghost story." And I said, "Yes ... but there's also a debt to stuff like Lovecraft, you know, the curse across time that forces him to form black magic". And they sniffed, "I know you go whoring after strange literary gods, Kaveney, but I hardly think Peter Ackroyd has ever even heard of HP Lovecraft." And I said, "As the person who gave him several collections for his twelfth birthday, I beg to differ."
GS: Next you go up to University, to Oxford -- do you have any intention at that point of being a writer, or being a critic, or just reading lots of books?
RK: I read English, and I sort of thought I'd probably be an academic, because it sounded like a good racket. And I tried writing ... I thought of myself as probably a poet rather than a writer of fiction, though. Most of the time I was at Oxford I was writing poetry, and going to poetry readings, and reading along with various people who became vastly more eminent than I ever did, despite in some cases not being very good. On the other hand, I wasn't very good either, and there was a point just after I'd abandoned my PhD -- which is another story -- when I just thought, "you know, this isn't getting any better. I need to stop doing this because it isn't going to work."
GS: Although you do still occasionally write things. I remember you wrote a poem when John M Ford died.
RK: I write occasional verses, and the best of my occasional verse is fine ... but if you're not making significant advances, if you're writing the sort of thing that's never going to get better, well, there are an awful lot of poets in the world, and an awful lot of them aren't very good, and why should I be another one? I've written one or two things down the years that satisfy me, the Ford poem being one, but mostly I stopped. And I sort of thought I'd write some fiction one day, but I was too busy with other bits of my life, so I didn't actually write any fiction until my thirties, by which time I was already writing a lot of criticism.
GS: And when did you start writing criticism that you were publishing? How does it fit into the chronology?
RK: Well, one of the key facts was that in my late twenties I realised that I was definitely going to transition, there was no way I was not going to transition, and I had to find a way of making a living. Which essentially meant I decided that writing for a living sounded like a good wheeze. So I started writing criticism, and one of the places I did that was Vector. Because at that point Mike Dickinson, who was an old chum -- Mike and I knew each other when we were not quite babes in arms, but toddlers -- said, well, why don't you do some reviewing for me? And so I did, and it meant I had a bunch of reviews from Vector to pimp round places like the Sunday Times and Books and Bookmen. It was one of those schemes that works. Plus, because I was a self-righteous 28-year-old, I really enjoyed some of this, writing for Foundation and so on. It's odd looking back across thirty years and realising how much grumpier I was then than I am now.
GS: So you drift off into your thirties and forties writing criticism. You also have various jobs in the real world throughout this time.
RK: Yes, one of the things I managed to wangle is working as a publisher's reader, which again doesn't pay very well but it beats working for a living. A mixture of publisher's reading and reviewing for places like the Statesmen, the TLS, the Independent meant that I could always keep the wolf just about from the door. One of the nice things about that was, although the first time the TLS ever used me was actually to review science fiction, because they got sent a Frank Herbert novel and thought they should review it and someone mentioned my name, in the mainstream I've not been best known as a science fiction critic.. Although I've never not been a science fiction critic in the mainstream, if you see what I mean, but it's always been "one of the things Roz knows about". I've been at the TLS now for a quarter of a century, and it's a case of -- "Book on the history of air hostesses ... Roz would know about that." "Book on Second Life ... probably Roz would know about that." Hey, there are worse reputations to have.
GS: Sure. This is one of those questions that I find very hard to answer, but -- why criticism? Why that particular impulse? I'm aware it's not the only thing you've done, but what satisfies you about it?
RK: It's partly because several of the writers I most admired in my twenties were critics. My becoming a writer on television and film is slightly less surprising if you know that I was a colossal admirer of the late Pauline Kael, and in fact I wrote the entry on Pauline Kael in the Cambridge Guide to Women Writing. And I was buying Pauline Kael's collections from the beginning. I admire Edmund Wilson tremendously ... and what I learned from those writers in particular was just this: that without having to be flippant in the Clive James way, you can make the act of writing criticism an artistic enterprise in its own right -- I mean, apart from the usefulness of your criticism, it's simply a discipline in writing good prose. And I've always felt very strongly that part of the point of being a reviewer is to write the best prose you possibly can. And part of the discipline, because I've never been a big-name reviewer, is concision. If people tell me, 300 words, I write 300 words, and they'll be the best and most informative 300 words I can write. As far as I'm concerned criticism is one of the arts.
GS: There's a question which you've touched on there, which is that at a certain point you take what looks like, although may not be, a left turn into becoming known also as a critic of stuff in the popular media as well as prose fiction. Whenabouts did that happen and for what reasons?
RK: It happened mostly in the eighties, and the reason was that I was already writing quite a lot for the New Statesman, and I saw the first few issues of Watchmen, and Dark Knight, and Cerebus, and Maus, and one or two other things that were about then, and went along to my editor and said, "Comics, graphic novels -- the time has come to start treating this stuff seriously." And so it was very much a matter of being in the right place at the right time to have an influence, because I was one of the first people to write about Watchmen as serious and important work, and I'm very happy about that.
GS: And movies and TV came along at about the same time?
RK: I was always a vast consumer of movies and TV. I've always been someone who would quite often go to two or three movies every week. I never particularly thought about writing about it purely and simply because so much movie criticism in this period was being dominated by cultural theory, for which I have no bent. Specifically because some of the leading cultural theorists in the film field were old chums who were ineffably patronising about my tastes.
GS: OK, but just looking at Teen Dreams, for instance, one of the central films there is Heathers, which was around at about the same time. And what I think of as the kind of sensibility that you talk about starts being explicit at this time.
RK: Well, I mean, it was there, I was always interested in writing about it, it just didn't get done until things moved on and changed. The climate changed, it became possible to write the sort of clear but incredibly allusive close reading in media criticism that is what I do. Because I don't actually believe that no-one except a blockhead ever wrote for money but you have to have an audience. And I didn't find an audience. There's also the fact that I've always done a lot of political activism of various kinds. In the nineties, one of the reasons I wasn't doing quite as much of anything except work was that I was busy being involved with feminists against censorship and then being deputy chair of Liberty, which pretty much took up a decade of my time. And at the end of the nineties I got very sick, and while I was recovering I watched a lot of television again, and decided that I wanted to write a book on Buffy.
GS: How conscious are you of crossover between the bit of you that has been and continues to be a political activist and the bit of you that writes?
RK: I don't compartmentalise myself, I've never done that. I've always been as up front as is relevant about anything in my life in my writing or my politics. One of the reasons I got so committed to anti-censorship work was the experience of having my comics collection destroyed. I was living in Leeds and very much involved with the Leeds Left, gay liberation and feminism in the early seventies, and I left the refrigerator box with my comics collection in it with my landlady when I moved my record collection and most of my books down to London. She said she'd store it until I could come and collect it. Eventually I had enough money for the return fare, went to collect it and on the doorstep she announced that she and her CR group -- consciousness raising group -- had had a discussion about this and decided that the presence of my comics collection in a refrigerator box in the attic was so offensive that they'd burnt it all. The point is, it's not even as if I don't see their point of view, because 1960s and 1970s comics have their dark side, to put it mildly. But bits of my life inform other bits of my life, and I think that's how it should be. Significantly, the people I admire are absolutely as political and moral as they are literary and artistic. I suppose it's partly the way I was brought up, because though I stopped being a committed Christian at the age of 19, I was a very devout Catholic throughout my teens, and I was very much brought up to believe that everything had to inform everything else, and it's not a bad principle as far as writing goes.
GS: I suppose the other thing to talk about here is you as a fiction writer, which you have done for a while. Is it fair to say that what's out there on the public record is the one-tenth that's above water?
RK: Say a quarter.
GS: You published a bit of stuff as part of the Midnight Rose collective in the early nineties, and apart from the fanfic you're working on a long-meditated novel, as I believe publishers say.
RK: Yes. That's again a synchronicity. During my critical career, particularly in science fiction, I did get very very browned off with certain people (no names, no pack drill) who would say, "yes, well, it's all very clever, and I know you think criticism is an art form, but it's not like real writing, is it? It's not like actually making things up, is it?" And then it came to be that in the late eighties I wrote what was going to be a fragment of memoir about my experiences in Chicago in the late seventies, which was a rackety time in my life, and I ended up turning it into fiction because it worked better that way structurally -- because in fiction you can lie, so what was a couple of trips separated by eighteen months could become a single trip and a single long story arc. So that was around, it nearly sold several times, it didn't actually sell. Lot of people have read it. I also wrote some non-genre fiction at that time. What then happened was that I'd done the first of the Forbidden Planet anthologies and Geraldine Cook, an editor at Penguin that I did some work for said, would I do some original story anthologies for her? And I decided that what would be most fun would be to sit around with my mates in a pub and invent some shared worlds, and co-edit them. One of the things about co-editing as opposed to editing is that if you co-edit you can write, because your co-editors will tell you if it's crap. Particularly if they're Mary Gentle. And thus it came to be that I wrote about 120,000 words of fiction, all of it genre, and published it, which are the five stories I wrote for Midnight Rose. In fairness to the unnamed people who'd sneered at me for being just a critic, one or two of them did come up to me and say, "well, er, I read that, you know, story of yours, and actually, it's quite good". So that was nice. But then I hit a couple of snags, one of which was the aforementioned political involvement, the other of which was that an editor, now dead, suggested that I write a novel for him. He was having career problems at the time and was in less of a position to commission than he hoped he was. So when I delivered the twenty thousand words and outline, of big widescreen space opera, a fragment of which is now on my website, he said "great, fabulous, I really need to see the final draft work you'd do, because I'm really having a tough time convincing people to let me take on new writers." So I made the huge mistake of going back and tightening every joint ... the final version is better, but it killed it for me a bit, especially when he then said, "terribly sorry, I'm not being allowed to commission new work by unknown writers at all." And because I have an infinite capacity for wandering off and doing other things when things get difficult, because I've always got a million things to do, I didn't think about writing again until I got too sick to do politics. At that point I started writing critical books, but I also started writing fiction again -- which is where fanfic largely came in. Fanfic was a way of easing myself back into it, and also a way of understanding the person on whom I was doing critical work. Almost all of my fanfic was Buffy related. Joss Whedon has lots of faults, but he does write some of the best dialogue out there -- and trying to write plausible pseudo-Whedon dialogue was terribly good for my writing and helped me understand how good he was, because it was such a bitch to imitate.
GS: When did you first run into Whedon? Was it when Buffy was first shown over here?
RK: Because of my interest in high school movies I'd actually seen the original Buffy movie, and thought, this is a mess but there's some good stuff in it. So when I read an article in the Guardian saying they've turned it into a television show I thought, oh yes, I'll watch that, and did, and was bowled over even by the first season, let alone by the second. As I say, this coincided with my having lost the internal struggle at Liberty to the New Labour hacks, and not being able to drink any more, and other things, and it just came along at the right time. Plus it was the point at which I started to pay serious attention to the net.
GS: At what point did you get online, then? Because people getting online coincided quite a lot with the period Buffy was emerging.
RK: I had an internet connection during the period that I was working with John Clute, Paul Barnett, Dave Langford and other people on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the idea being that we'd fire off emails to each other all the time. I didn't use it for much except email for ages, until I was working on the Cambridge Guide to Women Writers and was doing a lot of work on American novelists on whom there aren't many reference books. That was the time at which the British Library moved from the old building to the new building, and the number of books you could order up went down from infinity to eight per day. Now, if you're mostly summoning books in order to get dates, this is a bit of a nuisance. At which point I thought, hang on, there are these things called search engines, I bet I could use those, and light dawned.
GS: Had you been aware of things like fan fiction and slash fiction before this point?
RK: I'd been aware of them intellectually because I was around at the point when people started writing Kirk/Spock stuff, and Geoff Ryman wrote one of the first bits of slash parody, "Spock in Manacles" -- I found a copy of the novella of that play when I was tidying up the other week. So in that sense I was aware of it, but I never particularly came across it partly because I wasn't ever very interested in Star Trek. I didn't get involved in reading fan fiction until there were things around that I wanted to watch and therefore read fan fiction about. That was really Buffy and Farscape rather than Trek or even Babylon 5, though I did start to like B5 at lot at one point.
GS: I suppose the other difference between, say, original series Star Trek and Buffy is that what queerness there is is a lot closer to the surface.
RK: Yes, exactly. Plus of course almost all -- not quite all -- is femslash rather than boyslash, and with the exception of Voyager, who cares about anything in Trek from that point of view? But yes, Buffy was an important cultural moment. It was also a show that was rich and strange enough that you could do serious critical work on it and not have to patronise it.
GS: Where were you able to get serious critical stuff published on that in the early days?
RK: Ah, you see, I was vaguely talking about writing something for Foundation, as Farah will doubtless remember, and then in Private Eye, Pseud's Corner had a copy of the Call for Papers for Ronda Wilcox and David Lavery collection Fighting the Forces. I read this in Pseud's Corner and I thought, well, this seems perfectly sensible to me. So I fired off an enquiry and was told by a research assistant that it was too late, terribly sorry, and we've never heard of you, no exceptions. So I thought, ok, I'm not going to be in that book ... but then I thought, well, I know two or three really good other people, I bet I could put together quite a good critical book on Buffy. I talked to various friends and found some more people, and friends of friends, and talked to a couple of editors, and found IB Taurus, and talked to them about it. Ironically, Ronda in particular has become a very close and much-loved colleague, but there was an element of competition, and the fact that I got my book out significantly before theirs did not displease me. As I always say, I'm not as nice as people think I am.
GS: Since then you have generated the other books that we have fliers for in front of us, and Superheroes is out in a couple of months?
RK: Yes, we don't have an official launch date yet, I'll be launching it in the States in April but it'll be out slightly before that here.
GS: And what iterations of Superhero-ness is it about?
RK: It's ended up being mostly about DC and Marvel comics. There's a chapter on the movies, but I ended up deciding that frankly, the movies are secondary work. The best movies, with very few exceptions like Batman Returns, are the ones that adhere most slavishly to classic continuity. As I say, Batman Returns is a colossal exception to that because it makes up in an incredibly fertile way backstory for both Catwoman and the Penguin that has nothing to do with anything that ever happened in the comics, but that's because it was written by Daniel Waters, that seriously unsung great screenwriter, who also wrote Heathers -- and Demolition Man, which is why Demolition Man is an awful lot better than one thinks it is. Except for little problems like Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, at least. But it's a great script. Generally speaking, though, at a point where I was just finishing the book which unfortunately has the title From Alien to The Matrix -- which is not my title because although it talks quite a bit about the Alien movies it talks hardly at all about The Matrix, but there you go -- I was talking to Nick Lowe on a train. I always credit this to Nick, because he is probably our best science fiction film critic. We were both going to an academic Buffy conference in Milton Keynes, and he came up with a number of brilliant ideas in the way that Nick Lowe always does. I'd been talking about the way fandom teaches you skillsets. There's this thing I call competence cascades, whereby if a fandom encourages skillsets people acquire those skills and then the whole thing escalates -- one of the examples is monster makeups. And he said, "of course, one of those skills is the ability to navigate corpuses of work." Back in the early eighties I'd invented the concept of the Big Dumb Object, the setting that's also a plot macguffin and also creates the mood of the story, things like Rama or the Ringworld, so on this train journey he said, "oh, you might as well call them Big Dumb Narrrative Objects, like the DC and Marvel Universes." And then he said, "of course, I suppose by now the DC and Marvel Universes are the largest narrative constructs of human culture." "By George," I said. "I think you're on to something there. I might write a book about that sometime, unless you regard that idea as totally yours." He said he'd never be interested in doing that, so he was fine. And Superheroes is the book. You see, what Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything is crud fails to pick up on is the fact that the crud, that 90% is what the 10% grows out of, like manure. Good stories are often arguments with bad stories.
GS: One of the things that's striking to me, just thinking about this topic and not having read the final version of Superheroes is how much superheroes have leached into the culture at large over the past couple of years -- Kavalier and Clay, Fortress of Solitude, now of course Heroes.
RK: It was time. Generally it's part of the increasing geekification of the culture. It's not that there are that many more people who do all this stuff, there are just more people who are out and proud about it. When I started mentioning that I was working on Buffy, I was amazed by the number of people who said, "well, of course we watch it, but gosh, I'm a serious scholar of arabic culture..." People used to feel that they had something to lose by acknowleding low tastes and now they don't. This is especially because people are starting to catch on to what I've called the geek aesthetic, which is that passionate love and the pursuit of knowledge that comes from that love about anything is worthwhile, because it is not just the thing you're in love with that matters, it is the amount of energy and serious thinking you put into it.
GS: So when you say the increasing geekification of culture, you don't mean that more people watch these things, it's that more people talk about them.
RK: Exactly. I suspect more people will admit to watching things, but people will talk about them in a much more intelligent way. It's just very noticeable that the one or two bad reviews that Reading the Vampire Slayer got were from cultural elitists who really really hated the idea that popular culture might be worth that much of people's time, or that popular culture could address serious topics in a way that the main culture wasn't. Side-issue here but not really: I just read for my publishers a terribly good literary novel called Intuition by a woman called Allegra Goodman, a novel of character, contemporary set, but in an Austenian tradition, about people working in a laboratory that's developing treatments for cancer. It's a book about scientific fraud. And one of the things that made it stand out was -- how many good literary novels about people doing science are there that are not crossovers with genre fiction, in a way that this one actually isn't? It's the same thing. There are certain topics that are not "worthy," if you like, and that is less of a problem than it used to be with the "literary novel", but it's certainly an issue. One of the consequences of that is the genre fiction of various kinds has developed a vocabulary for writing about certain issues that the mainstream has not had the chance to develop. I think it's very interesting that one of the few good and subtle things that's been written about the political world of the war on terror is Marvel's Civil War event last year. Partly because Marvel made the quite interesting decision that they were going to write about the Patriot act and allied things, and in the bullpen at Marvel, the writer's conferences were hopelessly divided on all the issues, with the result that the ensuing event, which took place across almost all their titles, has a lot of different viewpoints. It's not just that it's a study of a moment in politics, it's a polyphonic study of a moment in politics. It would be nice that people found other ways to do it, but it's nonetheless interesting that comics were able to do it in the American maisntream, and climax with the assasination of the beloved Captain America.
GS: So what is next on your list of things to write about?
RK: I and a colleague are editing collections, one about Nip/Tuck, which if you don't know it is a melodramatic television show about a plastic surgery, and we're also doing a book about Battlestar Galactica -- the new one. I'm also going to do a second volume of readings in science fiction, a sort of sequel to From Alien to the Matrix. That will probably be in the second half of next year, so I probably won't finish it until 2009. And that's going to be called Hobbits, Androids and Dinosaurs, and will largely be big essays on Peter Jackson, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro and why Steven Spielberg should not be let near science fiction. And that's probably where I'll stick it for the moment -- I'll write essays hopefully for other people's collections, but I don't plan to do any more critical books for a while, because I want to concentrate on the novel which is 100,000 words and counting. And just endlessly expanding. I'd like to finish that before I die, you know?
GS: I think, if it's ok, I'll throw it open to questions from the floor.
Doug Spencer: Do you find intrinsic merit in stuff that you write for yourself, if it doesn't get published?
RK: "Doesn't get published" is now a bit of a movable feast, isn't it? The point is I write for myself, I write for my friends. I like the gift relationship of periodically sending friends material at least as much as I like the commercial relationship of publishing. Because after all, for large parts of human history the gift relationship, distributing copies to your chums, was what there was and what people did. One of the purest pleasures I've ever had was sitting with a couple of friends, swapping the day's thousand words with a couple of my friends who were writing novels and there's a purity to that which I really rather like. There is a particular pleasure in the text when it's part of a gift relationship. I've been fortunate, in that Tiny Pieces of Skull, my unpublished Chicago novel, has actually had its influences because people who've read it have found it useful to them in terms of how to write certain characters in works considerably more major than anything I've written.
Audience: I think some of the most important things you've written, in the critical analysis of the sf field, are those essays you wrote in Foundation on sf of the seventies, the eighties and the nineties. I know you consider those a complete sequence, but nonetheless, if someone was willing to pay you, and you had the time, to revisit the field, what avenues do you think you would now want to explore?
RK: Well, partly the not death but fading of science fiction as opposed to fantasy. It's alive and well but it's not as well as it was. Partly the rise of good material that is much harder to pin down -- you used to be able to say, well, that's this writer's sf, that's their fantasy. Now you can say, that's science fiction, that's fantasy, and there's stuff in the middle that's weird shit and good and not in either category but we read it and no-one else does. So the rise of sf and fantasy as a home for weird shit.
Farah Mendlesohn: I've read a fair bit of your work, and one of the things I'm interested in with critics -- as a species -- is the way a critic can develop an argument about both criticism and the literary world they inhabit over the course of their writing. I wonder if you're able to talk about the way you see the literary world and the way you see your criticism as a body of work. Is there an overarching argument you want to make?
RK: I think I'm not there yet. I'm always quite sceptical about that kind of grand narrative, if there is one in my work I think it's probably liable to fall apart as soon as I think about it. But certain things have always interested me. I'm fascinated by the extent to which all writing, but most especially genre writing, is an intertwining of a polemical discourse, in which people are arguing back and forwards either about ways of doing things or about actual issues, and a purely ludic echoing of other work, where we just echo other people's work because it's fun. The overlapping of those two things is fascinating. I'm also fascinated by process, by the way writers arrive at their mature artistic personalities, by the ways writers influence each other, by the ways that writers in the broader culture intersect. I couldn't really say more than that.