The Gray Tradition

I think – I’d go as far as to say that I know – that there is a strain of literature that is extremely influential, extremely well-read and represents a tradition that straddles genre. So far, it’s been pretty well confined to the printed page. It’s a type of science fiction – although it’s not always marketed as such – that borders on fantasy, borders on satire, borders on philosophical enquiry. The books tend to be quite subversive, quite experimental, but often have a surface that appears straightforward and unchallenging.

Here’s a by no means exhaustive list of the sort of authors I’m thinking of: Douglas Adams, Ballard, Iain Banks, Roberto Bolano, Borges, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, Phillip K Dick, Umberto Eco, Alisdair Gray, David Lindsay, CS Lewis, HP Lovecraft, David Mitchell, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Philip Pullman, David Foster Wallace.

Hmmm. OK. I need to say something here:

Just about all of those are writers who’ve written books I love. I am at risk of taking authors I like and lumping them together, imposing my own hang ups and bugbears on them, discerning a grand secret history of literature that looks remarkably like my Library Thing catalogue.

We can’t help but connect up the books we’ve read, until we end up with an idiosyncratic working model of literature. Borges writes at great length about this, how he read a lot of Chesterton and Wells and Verne and Cervantes and ended up with an inflected, unique idea of European literature. We’re always finding out that some authors are influenced by others, either because it’s blindingly obvious from reading it, or because the author namechecks an author somewhere.

I’m also at risk at pointing out the rather obvious. That Philip Pullman read the Narnia books, or that Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore are aware of each other is not exactly a revelation.

And while I suspect a lot of people reading this have read and enjoyed a lot of the authors I listed, I don’t think many people have necessarily seen all of them as part of a tradition, or explored what the books have in common.

I’m going to give it a go. This time round, I’ll give a rough outline of what I think this tradition is about. In future posts, I’m going to take individual books and explain how I think they fit. If the grand unified stuff doesn’t work, then I hope, at least, to write something that’s an interesting slant on books I enjoy reading and re-reading. I’d love to hear what people think, and please don’t be shy.


These books tend to have protagonists who are thinking, independent men (I think it is quite a male genre – note that every single author I cited was male), who are of the Hamlet type – self aware, often quite literate, who know from the start they are in a world that does not reward the self aware or the literate. Their imagination encompasses more than their (often remarkably mundane, at least initially) everyday surroundings. Early in the story, they see the rules of the universe. All the characters in the know in these stories have acquired an esoteric form of wisdom that represents a modern merging of art and science, of fiction and fact.

We’re often told that ‘book learning’ is somehow inferior to direct experience. This isn’t the case for these characters. Deep down, like Hamlet, they’ve come to understand – or be shown – that they’re living in a story, and so book learning is direct experience.

The world of these stories is often a heightened version of ours. Pretty much all fiction takes place in a tidied up, heightened version of reality, of course. The stories I’m talking about take place in a world that is ‘hyper real’. Often, at first, a world that seems identical to ours, or at least the author’s attempt at depicting our world. There’s often some gateway to a more real world, though – a sense that we live in a simulation or within fiction, or that a particular type of drug can be genuinely consciousness-expanding, or just that exposure to infinity will inevitably shake you out of mundane concerns. In the stories, we often come into contact with a mind or a place or sometimes a book that represents the better world. Once we’ve seen the bigger world, we can never look at ours in the same way. There are often characters who are staggeringly better than we are, paragons of virtues we can’t even conceptualise. Our world is shown to be wrong. Time is out of joint.

But while Hamlet moped around wearing a black jerkin, suffering from weltschmerz, the protagonists of these stories rebel, in their various ways. They are at least trying to do something about it, kick against it.

There’s a utopian streak to this type of postmodern story, and that’s extremely interesting, because postmodernism ought to rule out the whole concept of utopias. Dystopias are fine. We can imagine dark futures where we can all agree everything’s gone wrong. One of the characteristics of a dystopia is that one ideology won and crushed all the others. In that world, even the winner understands it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Although recent world events have made us particularly gloomy, it always has been harder to imagine a bright future, one where we all somehow get what we want. Postmodernism tells us why: everything is relative. There’s no one absolute right way to set up a society.

And that’s what these books are all, ultimately, about: ‘what might a multicultural, postmodern utopia look like … and can we get there from here?’

I recently read a novel that I’d seen mentioned in a lot of interviews as influential. That’s to put it mildly. The book is Lanark, by Alisdair Gray, and it was published in 1981. I’ll explore why I think it’s a novel that represents an important archetype of the type of books I’m talking about.

Before that, though, I’m going to talk about a book where the main character’s world is shattered and he’s driven to manic depression when he’s exposed to the infinite. He travels with an alcoholic, a manic, a depressive and a rather nice young woman he completely fails to get off with and comes to understand that the entire universe is futile, the Gods are capricious and also non-existent. It’s a story in which billions of human lives are destroyed, where the universe is exposed as less than meaningless. It’s a dark, savage, vicious, nihilistic, angry book. It’s called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

8 responses to “The Gray Tradition

  1. I’m looking forward to this – if nothing else, that’s almost a list of my favourite authors.
    A few others who would fit the pattern – Bryan Talbot, Lewis Carrol, Neal Stephenson (sort of), Robert Anton Wilson, Lawrence Miles, Neil Gaiman…

  2. All names I think could be on the list. Bryan Talbot, definitely, and I feel a bit ashamed I didn’t think to mention him (I have original art from Luther Arkwright, I have Grandville Mon Amour preordered). Lewis Carroll raises an interesting question – I think he’s definitely a precursor to this ‘tradition’, and playing the sort of logic and metafictional games, packaging it up in candy coating. It’s not a coincidence that a number of people on my list that directly references Alice in Wonderland.

    Wilson … again, should have been on my list. Lawrence … hmmmm, I probably have to recuse myself from that one. I can see it.

    Gaiman should be on the list, too, but I think he’s probably a ‘sort of’ like Stephenson. I think the difference is that I don’t get that sense of the intensely personal, love-it-or-loathe it I do with them I do from the others. People are always called Alan Moore or Grant Morrison’s work ‘weird’ and ‘challenging’. You don’t see people queuing up to say that about Gaiman. They’re definitely in the same territory, though, and there’s definitely work by them that’s firmly within the tradition. Anathem, for example, is squarely in there.

  3. I see your point about Gaiman. I think his work fits the general pattern, but I suspect it’s because he’s actually gone out of his way to *make* it fit that pattern, rather than because it’s the way he necessarily thinks. Sort of like a tribute act or something.

    Anathem was what I was specifically thinking of when I mentioned Stephenson.

    You could probably trace all these people back to a very small number of precursors (Poe, Dunsany, Carrol, Twain, maybe Swift, maybe Blake). A lot of them seem to be Rationalists-with-a-capital-R who are hugely influenced by Romantics-with-a-capital-R. I suspect that their assessment of Newton vs Blake would pretty much match the 1066 And All That view of Roundheads vs Cavaliers (“repulsive but right” versus “romantic but wrong”).

    Sorry, I’m wittering now…

  4. I first knew Gaiman as a Douglas Adams biographer and the Alan Moore friend-and-heir (continuing Miracleman, those early issues of Sandman being very influenced by Moore’s run on Swamp Thing). And I was already a huge fan of Moore and Adams. So that muddies the waters for me, a little. I’ve got pretty much everything Gaiman’s ever written, I hasten to add.

    With Morrison, I think I’d read a couple of Borges stories, I must have read some PKD, but I didn’t know about Svankmajer or Lanark or any of those other things. Joe the Barbarian is (1) superb and (2) clearly very influenced by Svankmajer’s Alice. If I’d been a huge fan of Svankmajer first, I might not be as big a fan of Morrison. Every writer is a ‘tribute act’ to some extent.

    As for the history of this ‘tradition’. I think you’re right, I also think you have things like Voyage to Arcturus. People like Machen. Crowley, I suppose. Blake, definitely, I love Blake. So there’s an English mystic tradition, and that’s a part of it.

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  6. Is it over-reaching to suggest Paul Auster?

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  8. Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book would seem to fit perfectly here, aside from the part where she’s not male (though that novel’s protagonist is); likewise her two semi-autobiographies, The Woman Warrior and its sequel China Men.

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