Article: Emma Tennant on the Influence of the 1970s British SF Scene

emma tennant.jpg

(Candy Amsden’s cover for the 1978 edition of The Crack (variant of: The Time of the Crack) (1973), Emma Tennant)

As I recently procured a copy of Emma Tennant’s The Crack (variant title: The Time of the Crack) (1973) in which a fault line appears under London destroying half the city, I decided to research her work.

William Grimes describes Emma Tennant’s fiction—in a New York Times retrospective on her life and works—as blending “fantasy, science fiction and social satire” that “explored the borderland between daylight and dreams, anatomized contemporary Britain.” Grimes quotes Gary Indiana’s 1990 The Village Voice article: “a startling procession of novels unlike anything else being written in England: wildly imaginative, risk-taking books inspired by dreams, fairy tales, fables, science fiction and detective stories, informed by a wicked Swiftian vision of the U.K. in decline.”

 I thought I’d share her reflections on the profound influence of the 70s SF scene, and other verboten (according to the UK literary establishment) magical realist authors, on her fiction. Here she describes a transformative moment in the early 70s:

“It became gradually clear to me, after meeting British science-fiction writers — J. G. Ballard amongst them — that a way to the center for me lay in the fantastic; and despite the very deep loathing of the British literary establishment for any writing that could be so described, I set out to read as many Latin American and Central European writers as possible, finding confirmation in such works as Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’ and the writing of Bruno Schulz that there was nothing inherently ‘silly,’ as the English would have it, in showing the world through lenses both fantastic and real: that the English were indeed limited by a creative feebleness and love of irony which left them out of the most interesting writing, all going on in other parts of the world.”

Soon after meeting the UK SF crowd, she published her novelette “The Crack” (a 31 page version of her later novel) in New Worlds Quarterly 5 (1973), ed. Michael Moorcock. Often we grasp onto the notion that genre, like some human sponge, mops up in some ham-fisted less articulate way the shreds of the mainstream. Here, Emma Tennant’s comments suggest a more porous boundary of genre and non-genre and how they influenced each other (hardly surprising!).

Her editorial work highlights this porousness: “In 1975 she founded the influential literary journal Bananas, which published new work by Mr. Ballard, Beryl Bainbridge, Angela Carter and the science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock.”

Here are a few more words on Tennant’s relationship with SF from Susanne Schmid’s article “Fantasy and Realism in Emma Tennant’s Wild Nights and Queen of Stones” (2001) in Engendering Realism and Postmodernism: Contemporary Women Writers, ed. Beate Neumeier, Postmodern Studies 32:

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As readers can surmise from my reviews, I am rarely interested in debating genre and tend to advocate an expansive definition encompassing many speculative directions. For very obvious reasons, we can’t ignore the New Wave in creating our grand narratives… And I too, am a postmodernist through and through.

As always, thoughts/comments are welcome!


(Keith Roberts’ cover for the 1973 edition of New Worlds Quarterly 5 (1973), ed. Michael Moorcock)

Note: “Fragment(s)” is a new category of post. Short articles, quotations, slight ruminations… I’ll archive them in the article INDEX.

43 thoughts on “Article: Emma Tennant on the Influence of the 1970s British SF Scene

  1. Had completely forgotten about Bananas or that she was connected with it. Used to read odd issues of it back in the late 70s.

  2. Hi

    A good post. I am interested in the way various types of genres of literature ( the pulpier the better ) intersect with each other, less so with their intersection with the mainstream so I enjoyed Tennant’s comments.

    Happy Reading

  3. Her eclectic stuff seems to resound with shades of the magic realism school,that Angela Carter’s wrote within.If she’s at least as good as her,she must be truly excellent.That you’re a postmodernist though,I find no surprise from reading your posts.Like me,you regard the written genre and related works just outside it’s borders,as having developed as a natural literary tradition,that includes modernism,which rejected orthodoxy such as realism,and science fiction can perhaps be seen as beng on the cutting edge of this.It says as much about the author you reviewed,above.

    • Tangent: I don’t know how much you listen to experimental classical music but I have long conceived of the SF that I enjoy as some textual parallel to Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977).

      First, at a glance it operates within the “appearance” of convention– in this case the baroque Concerto Grosso with many of the standard baroque instruments (a harpsichord for example). And despite its peculiar engagement with convention, it is in no way conventional yet relies on the listener knowing how convention is being reverently fooled with for full effect. Second, part of his music is comprised of quotations from other musicians and some of his pieces, the early ones especially, take on elements of musical theater. When you listen to it you can identify fragments of the past refashioned in his distinctive musical idiom. Third, I return to the notion of reverence — Schnittke, despite the dissonance, despite the profoundly postmodern/iconoclastic take on music, is inspired by and operates in dialogue with what came before.

      I am definitely not expecting you to enjoy the music (it’s rather avant-garde and it has to be your thing). But, hopefully my parallel is clear.

      • Well yes,I suppose I can see the comparson you are trying to make in regards to the literary linage that modern science fiction has developed from.The best example is the science fiction authors associated with the New Wave,who dabbled with the traditional tropes without changing the original appearance.

  4. I dug out my central library’s copies of “Bananas” almost 20 years ago because of the Disch / Sladek connection. I remember much of the magazine being poems, most notably from Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. There were regular little contributions from Angela Carter, JGBallard and Lorna Sage, tying it to a particular milieu in literary London.

    Sladek’s contributions:
    Scenes from Rural Life, 1975
    Undecember, 1976
    The Rebus Version of Mein Kampf, 1976
    After Flaubert, 1976
    The Future of John Sladek 1977
    Goodbye, Germany? 1977
    Breakfast with the Murgatroyds, 1978
    Some Mysteries of Birth, Death and Population that Can Now Be Cleared Up, 1979

    Thomas M. Disch’s contributions:
    How to Know What You Like: A Philistine’s Guide to the National Gallery, 1977
    How to Fly, 1977

    If they hadn’t met in person before, there was a 1982 UK sf convention where Sladek and Angela Carter were guests of honour.

    • Thanks for the comment Matthew!

      I think it’s easy to retrospectively easy to detach these authors from their milieu. One reason I’ve tried to demonstrates the linkage via the figure of Tennant.

      Did you read any of her work?

  5. Nice find! I’m ashamed to say I’ve never encountered her name before, despite her recent death (the news may have been buried by the current political nightmare), but she sounds right up my alley. Just ordered a copy!

    • The other novel of hers I want is Hotel de Dream (1976).

      Here’s what Clute says about it: “Some sf devices figure in Hotel de Dream (1976), set in a surreal Keep whose obsessively nostalgic residents begin to find themselves in each other’s dreams: the nostalgia they share – for a cleansed and triumphant royal Britain, the kind of land Edwardians might have anticipated, but which World War One destroyed any chance of – somewhat resembles in detail and ironical import the proto-Steampunk Edwardian futures ironically promulgated by Michael Moorcock in his Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable series and elsewhere, intensifying a lifelong practice of self-consciously rifling through existing texts.”

  6. I have all of the copies of Bananas edited by Emma Tennant plus a fair number of the issues edited by her successor Abigail Mozley. Bananas was designed to look like a tabloid newspaper and, consequently, these copies are now fragile. Tennant’s editorial bias was towards prose, not poetry, although some poetry was published. When Mozley took over, the tabloid style was abandoned for a more conventional magazine look and better quality paper. The editorial emphasis changed from prose to poetry and the magazine suffered, in my opinion. There was a terrific issue dedicated to Russian writing which included Mandelstam’s Fourth Prose – a travelogue which anyone interested in speculative fiction should read. The first stirrings of Carter’s “Bloody Chamber” were published here and plenty of Sladek, Disch and Ballard, as already noted. I have a great affection for Bananas. It was published when I was a student and hoping to lead the life of a Bohemian poet and SF author. Then I left university and ended up in local government! As to Tennant the author, her 70s work is of real interest to speculative fiction readers. “The Crack”, as it appeared in New Worlds is only the first few chapters – the published novel carries the piece forward to a much more satisfying conclusion, as I recall. I let a friend borrow my copy and haven’t seen it – or her – since! “Hotel de Dream”, “Wild Nights”, “The Last of the Country House Murders”, Woman Beware Woman” and “Queen of Stones” are all superb. She later grew more realistic and ended up penning sequels to Jane Austen novels. Oh and her novels are short!

    • Thanks Neil for your discussion of Bananas as I knew little about the publication. And for your elucidation about how exactly “The Crack” appeared in New Worlds — I didn’t know whether it was a section of some earlier incarnation expanded for the novel. I have the Penguin edition rather than the first novel edition which was published under the title “The Time of the Crack” (1973).

      I want a copy of Hotel de Dream — the premise sounds superb.

      And I’ve never heard of Mandelstam….

      Thanks again!

      • Yeah, I got it wrong about Mandelstam – the piece in Bananas was called “Journey to Armenia” but it is a travelogue like no other. Mandelstam was a major Russian poet who is most famous for a poem about Stalin. See this link for a discussion and some translations. Not surprisingly, Mandelstam died in the labour camps. He is not an SF writer but his imagination soars in his prose and, as I say, a thoughtful SF reader will get a lot from it.

        As for Hotel de Dream, it is probably my favourite of the Tennant novels. The premise is superb but the execution is even better.

      • Speaking of odd yet imaginative travelogues, as I am a medievalist by profession I’ve read quite a few historical ones — the pre-Marco Polo journeys to see the Mongols are highly recommended.

        John of Plano Carpini’s Ystoria Mongalorum (1240s) and the Franciscan William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium (1253) come to mind. The former was sent by the pope to assess the Mongol threat — he comes back with wild tales which no one believes (and he states that the West is doomed unless they copy the Mongols). Wonderful stuff.

        Both are available in a nice and easy to find translation (with other documents): Mission to Asia (1980)

  7. Emma Tennant has always been a bit of a cult, relatively ‘unknown’ (to the mainstream) literary figure in Britain. She was more well known in certain sociopolitical factions of the Left-wing, specifically the Feminist movement. In this sense, she is from the same ‘stable’ as Angela Carter. I have only read one of her books, so far, and I was deeply unimpressed with it, unfortunately; it was the aforementioned Hotel de Dream, which I found to be far too whimsical, fey, cosy and self-consciously ‘zany’ – in other words, reeking of ‘Surrealism Light’ – as if J.G. Ballard, or even Angela Carter, had written a Magical Realist fable for more ‘general’ readers of Cosmopolitan magazine.

    This may also be due to my own personal aversion to magical realist fables which wear their ersatz sentimentality on their sleeves, and I still intend to read what seem like her more mature and darker novels, like The Bad Sister, Wild Nights, and Faustine, etc.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      She’s new to me — I look forward to exploring her work. Perhaps you should read the one I nabbed, The Crack. It seems on the dark side so far… but there’s a black satire/comedy about it all which highlights the horror.

      I recently read Carter’s magisterial The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman — I still plan on reviewing it although I do not have the mental strength to put together a cohesive review of that novel at the moment.

      • I’ve read that novel by Ms Carter.It was the second novel of her’s I’d read,and it was very good,but rather less so I thought than her excellent “Heroes and Villians”,but was probably too harsh in my view of it at the time.

      • Richard, what a great way to characterize the novel! I will touch on a few of the things you bring up in addition to other issues (ones that I always gravitate towards) in my review but DEFINITELY bring these themes up. A good dialogue about the meatiest bits of the novel is on the horizon!

        Thanks again.

        • It was only a simplistic description of it and it’s themes,since I haven’t read it for so long.I have it in mind to read it again soon,and will probably be a race between me and you,to read it before your review eventually appears!

    • Going back a couple of comments, I have an edition of Osip Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia. It’s the Redstone Press edition, which is a small hardcover in a box with postcards, etc. Like this one: Beautiful little edition.
      I don’t think I ever know it had appeared in Bananas.I know just where my copy will be but that means I doubt I’ll be digging it out any time soon!

      • That edition looks lovely. Bananas No. 11 was a special edition devoted almost entirely to Russian Literature – the Mandelstam was the highlight but there was, I recall, Tsvetayeva, Pasternak and Akhmatova along with some later writers. Then there was a large and, to my mind, pointless story by Ted Hughes which has no relevance to the rest of the issue. Like your edition of Journey to Armenia, my edition of Bananas 11 is not easy to dig out! However, Quartet published a selection of Mandelstam’s prose called The Noise of Time, in the late 80s. They were translations by Clarence Brown mainly from the 60s and includes Armenia and Fourth Prose which latter is inexplicable and memorable. Lots of editions on AbeBooks UK.

  8. I have Tennant’s The Crack, as well as Carter’s T.I.D.M.O.D.H. (so much easier to abbreviate!), and intend to read them asap. The Carter novel sounds amazing, and I have most of her stuff, but have only read The Bloody Chamber, so far, which was excellent.

  9. You mean The Crack? Or The Bloody Chamber? I think I have read your review of the latter, already, but will check the new one on The Crack, in a little while, and maybe comment then. Keep up the great work!

  10. That was the magazine Bananas…I have written extensively on Ballard on my site…I will send you some links… as well as on Henry Gteen who though not SF in any way (apart maybe from the mildly dystopian Concluding), whose son was married to Tennant I believe. I like magical realism and the site’s main focus is on Surrealism (hence Ballard).

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