A Clarification: Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

In last night’s post, I cited a comment by dirt armature on the Culture Mulcher blog. “The dichotomy between genre and literary fiction,” he or she wrote, “relies on concepts of literary value that few people share.” The inference here is that the dichotomy between genre fiction and literary fiction is a false one. I disagree with that, so I dismissed the comment out of hand. But I didn’t elaborate on my reasons for that dismissal because I simply didn’t have the time. Those reasons, I wrote, “ha[ve] been outlined elsewhere, and in greater detail than I am able to equal at present.” But I have a few spare moments this morning, so I’ll take a shot at it.

Literary fiction, as I conceive of it, is manifestly not what bookstores or the book review pages of the broadsheet newspapers mean when they use the term. For them, “literary fiction” is essentially a genre of fiction defined against all other recognisable genres. When a work of fiction does not recognisably belong to the mystery genre or to the fantasy genre or to the romance genre or to any other genre, it is identified as “literary fiction.” Of course, unlike mystery fiction, fantasy fiction, romance fiction, and so on, the success or failure of a work of literary fiction typically does not rest on the extent to which it either satisfies or frustrates the norms and conventions of the genre to which it belongs. As James Bradley wrote of Peter Temple’s Truth, it is “a piece of genre fiction” because it recognisably “operates within the conventions and constraints of [a] genre,” and, as such, it is judged a success or a failure not on its own terms, but on the terms set by the conventions and constraints of the genre. Continue reading

The Dickensian Canard

Here in Australia the nation’s most prestigious literary award has just gone to Peter Temple’s Truth: a crime novel. James Bradley at city of tongues offers an intelligent and articulate response to the subsequent controversy:

Truth is basically a crime novel, and therefore a piece of genre fiction. That’s not to say it’s not an extremely good crime novel, but it’s still a crime novel, and operates within the conventions and constraints of the genre. And that, in turn, makes it an unusual choice for an award like the Miles Franklin, which has traditionally been reserved for literary fiction.

Less articulate is the response on offer at Crikey‘s Culture Mulcher blog, and particularly the responses to that response in the comments section of the blog. For example, Lucy Sussex:

I have been saying for ages that the best crime novels are about the only novels that depict modern society well — they are Dickensian in a way so-called literary novels are not. In fact, if I have a novel for review by someone I have never heard of, it is most likely to be good if it is crime. The percentage of quality is just higher.

Of course! “Dickensian” — that’s how novels are supposed to be, isn’t it? “Depict modern society well” — that’s what novels are supposed to do, isn’t it? I mean: if you crave an accurate and multifaceted depiction of modern society in all its complexity and intricacy, what better place to find it than in a work of imaginative fiction? Continue reading

What Not to Do

In an interview with John Self, David Mitchell explains how he approached the unfamiliar territory of the third-person voice while writing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:

I’d never really attempted this commonest of forms before because I never knew what to leave out — the third is the infinite voice, whereas the first is the limited one — [but] a few years ago I asked A.S. Byatt how she decided what to put into third person narratives, and her answer was as simple as it was helpful: what you think the reader will want to hear, that’s what you put in.

That is possibly the worst fiction-writing advice I have ever heard, and I’m not surprised it came from Byatt because it cuts to the heart of what makes her work so radically unsophisticated. It’s a recipe for pure storytelling with an overbearing emphasis on the telling-ness of the story; it’s an excuse for using the form of the novel to spell out a fictional tale without exploiting of any of the particular aesthetic and rhetorical properties of the novel in order to artfully shape the tale in the telling. It’s not a blueprint for a way of writing a novel that works as a novel; it’s a way of throwing the garb of a novel over an impromptu but strung-out campfire yarn.

The Answer is “No”

Writing at The Nervous Breakdown, J.E. Fishman asks: is the New York Times Book Review still relevant? The simple answer, of course, is “no,” but the very simplicity of the answer suggests that Fishman is not necessarily asking the most pertinent question. A better question would be: why is the New York Times Book Review relevant no longer? Continue reading

On That Note…

Picking up from where I left off with my praise for Dan Chiasson, here are four more of the best and most memorable book reviews I have read in the last year:

I don’t mean to suggest that they’re all excellent reviews in and of themselves; but, for reviews specifically targeted at a mainstream readership, each one does a fine job of contextualising the work under consideration, of proposing a way of reading it profitably without prizing verisimilitude above all other literary qualities, and of evaluating the book on its own terms with solid logical reasoning and in-text evidence to justify any evaluative conclusions.

No Evaluation Without Justification

Two weeks ago, while I was at Sydney airport awaiting a flight back down to Melbourne, I opened Dan Chiasson’s review of Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories on my iPhone. I read it on the spot, then I read it twice over; and for two weeks now I have left it open on the iPhone so that I can pull it out at a moment’s notice — or in a moment of boredom — and read it over again. It’s arguably the best book review I have read in about a year, maybe more. It hits all the right targets. It contextualises Davis’ work, it quotes liberally from the Collected Stories, it identifies her overall aesthetic purpose, it illustrates the ways in which particular stories advance that purpose, and it evaluates the extent to which Davis makes an engagement with that purpose worth her readers’ time — that is, the extent to which she makes her book worth reading. Continue reading

The Aesthetics of a Congealing Artform

In the latest New Yorker, James Wood challenges David Shields on some of his assumptions about the tension between authorial intentions and the representation of reality in fiction:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? … Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity — both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions — the basic narrative grammar — of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, Harriet the Spy and Disgrace.

So even if it’s hard to decide whether the novel can really progress it’s easy to see that it can congeal — that certain novelistic conventions grow steadily more conventional, and lose some of their original power. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes called this “the reality effect.” He was talking specifically about fictional detail (the kind that pretends to be quietly “irrelevant,” like Bob’s mole, in one of my hypothetical examples); his larger argument, made elsewhere in his work, was that realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine per cent right. His rightness is felt every day by any novelist who sits down to a blank piece of paper or a computer screen and tries, despairingly, to think beyond the familiar grammar of narrative. All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word “novel”?

Avant-garde anti-realists probably err in assuming that realist novelists are just complacently or venally recycling convention; my experience is that many intelligent novelists are painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties, and look with writhing admiration at writers like Beckett or Saramago or Bernhard or David Foster Wallace, who seem to have discovered new fictional languages.

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