Sunday, April 24, 2005

The gift of narrative: why genre fiction is the new literary fiction

There are always two books by my bedside. Never one or three. Always two. However, I only ever read one before switching off the light. This is always a novel that I can sink into, similar to the way one sinks into sleep, but not the same way. The two mentioned in the entry below were consecutive bedside books (although they never constituted both bedside books). The entry about them was begun with the intention of wondering aloud about that sinking into and how it is not like sinking into sleep. I’m not sure that I did write about it. Maybe I was distracted from writing about it because it really is closer to sinking into sleep than I am aware, because in writing about it I did actually sink into something enough to forget it, even if, at the end, I did remark on how both novels present that sinking into as part of the narrative or background to the narrative. But I wanted to do more than remark. Why is that presentation important to me?

The other book on the bedside, the one that lay under the two novels mentioned below, is volume five of In Search of Lost Time. When I run out of a narrative to sink into, I resort to Proust. Currently, I am resorting to Proust. Volume five is the only multi-book volume in the new Penguin collaborative translation. It contains The Prisoner and The Fugitive; books five and six of the novel’s seven volumes. I’ve scaled 500 pages so far. It’s a joy.

Virginia Woolf said that in the months the novel takes to read, one feels more alive. This is because Proust writes so lightly and fluently about what seems so heavy and entangled; it brings light to one’s own heavy and entangled life. Not that the light is always soft; it is often glaring. Volume five is particularly harsh for those trying to still the anguish of an unhappy love. Marcel, the narrator, seeks normality too: I tried to think of nothing, to pick up the newspaper. But I found it insufferable to read all those articles written by people who felt no real pain.

Reading that, I thought: so would reading something written by a person in real pain (and writing with it in mind) be sufferable? Is this why reading Proust does not seem like other novels in general, because he writes with the constant threat of real feeling overwhelming the palliative of a contained narrative? (I won't detail how this occurs in the novel as I don't want to spoil it for anyone).

Mark Thwaite, tireless editor of ReadySteadyBook (which is fast becoming Britain’s premier literary website) has just started the long climb and rather confirmed this when he told me that he finds In Search of Lost Time "eminently readable, very gentle [and] wholly anti-novelistic". Perhaps that is what defines literary novels; that they are not literary.

When I read novels in general (genre-al), what troubles me is not what I believed it to be in the recent past - a lack of concern with form and language – but an over-concern. It’s a concern that manifests in a denial of what it cannot accommodate - the real feeling beyond the local palliative of the narrative order. Once established as a popular retreat, the form of the novel has become a world in itself to be mastered and exploited with all the talent and ingenuity that we've come to admire and which seduces the industry of reception (though the latter seems to come before the former). Here, we think, is the gift of literature. But it is a gift the greatest writers do not receive.


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