Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Aftermath: Grumpy Old Bookman and The LitBlog Co-Op on Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

It is evident that Grumpy Old Bookman (aka GOB) loves reading. He gets great enjoyment out of prose narrative. He also knows where it is guaranteed. "The genre writer" he says "is required, by both publisher and readers, to make the book interesting, exciting, accessible, and rewarding." One can rest easy then. This is why he reads genre fiction and not "literary writers". These people "apparently feel themselves under no such obligation, which is why I, for one, don't bother with them much."

Evidence for this last point is his response to Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. He finds it hard going. In the end he does see virtues: "if the material had been organised differently [it] could have been an impressive novel indeed. But it would have been an impressive crime novel. And that, I suspect, is something that Kate Atkinson and her publisher would rather die than admit."

The puffs he quotes for the novel suggest he is right. The publisher (if not the author) seems to want to attract the ready audience of crime fiction with its statutory interest, excitement and accessibility. Yet it also wants the obscure rewards of Literary Merit. GOB is rightly contemptuous. The author, he says, should "just put aside all fancy-pants notions, stopped believing what the critics say about her, and concentrated on doing a good professional job for the reader."

One could unpack GOB’s assumptions until the cows come home. I would like to. But it would be futile. His definition of what is "interesting, exciting, accessible, and rewarding" is definitively circular. I could not make him recognise a literary novel. Yet his blindness usefully reveals the problems of the taxonomy of novels. What is it about literary fiction that is specifically literary?

ReadySteadyBook tells us that Case Histories is "as interested in the after effects of violence as in the acts themselves". This not usually the province of narrative. A review published today says of a new memoir that "[it] is rare to read about the aftermath". In another, older review, I write about my fascination with the subject and how it has manifested in literary form in one particular novel.

Of course, those concerned with "doing a good professional job" will not be troubled by what proceeds from the events they describe let alone what proceeds from writing itself. This is the reward of genre fiction. The moment you are distressed by what you're reading or writing, the moment you realise that instead of telling a story it conceals it, that instead of revealing truth it buries it in lies, that instead of expressing an emotion it kills it, is the first moment of the aftermath. Literature proceeds from here. It takes as many forms as there are great writers. For example, it is the revelation of Kafka’s The Judgement. One can understand why this is resisted: it seems to destroy literature. Resistance is part of The Judgement, but it cannot ignore what is beyond.

Case Histories is also featured by the Lit Blog Co-Op. The encomium from Old Hag displays the repression of distress at the predicament of the aftermath: "Each paragraph, each page, each chapter unfolds with perfect precision, the prose and pacing fully shaped. There's nothing flowery about the words, but no stripped-down drama either." So is this what constitutes the literary element - mere shapeliness? If it is, don’t worry: "The reader can also luxuriate happily in the plot." Apparently "there’s a distinct pleasure in watching someone handle what is essentially a stock murder mystery with expert literary precision". But where’s the difference? This is criticism that raises vagueness to a level of perfection. No wonder GOB thinks it is "fancy-pants".

PS: The Lit Blog Co-Op’s aim is to promote contemporary fiction "struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace". A necessary good! I look forward to it beginning.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:42 pm

    'Genre Fiction,' as a word appears on This Space. Well Fuck Me!

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're going to be well-fucked. It's mentioned in the title of the entry for April 24th.

    ReplyDelete

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