Wednesday, July 20, 2005

GOB Stopper: defining literary fiction

It's one of the major reference points of bookchat: the definition of literary fiction. There are as many definitions as there are litblogs. But there is a constant: evasion.

We all know what genre fiction looks like: there's romance, there's crime, there's fantasy. Sometimes there are even pictures. Yet some of my favourite literary novels contains these too: Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is nothing if not a romance. Peter Handke's Across contains a murder. Borges is fantastical. And WG Sebald's novels have all sorts of pictures. How are these distinguishable from genre fiction?

To seek an answer is itself a literary endeavour.

Unfortunately, this means those who perhaps most need to appreciate the answer are bound to avoid it. One can see examples everywhere. For instance, Grumpy Old Bookman sidesteps the issue with some bizarre accusations and assumptions. Take this entry beginning:

Just occasionally, you may come across comments in the more 'elevated' realms of the literary world which might lead you to believe that those who write in the 'lesser' genres - crime, science fiction, and romance - are, somehow or other, people of lesser intelligence, not so well bred

As is common with GOB, no examples are offered. There is a good reason for that of course. The inverted commas indicate the workings of an inferiority complex. Who is speaking here?

He goes on to insist that: genre writers are certainly not inferior when it comes to IQ and general knowledge.

Who would doubt this? Still, this time he provides evidence: the appearance of the Romantic Novelists' Association on BBC2's University Challenge. (Gert Hofmann wasn't among them.)

The subtext to all this is clear: why is genre fiction not taken seriously. Why is it not given the recognition it deserves. After all, genre writers are intelligent, their novels superbly-crafted, their prose elegant and precise, and the entertainment value second-to-none. No sane person doubts this. So why aren't they regarded with the same esteem as the literary writers?

Help toward an answer comes in an article by David Baddiel in The Times. He castigates prize judges for giving the top awards to books for reason extrinsic to literature. He cites Heaney's Beowulf getting the Whitbread over a Harry Potter volume as an example of snobbery. I'm sure GOB would concur, as I do, with this judgement. Only it isn't literary snobbery. It's that inferiority complex again. Baddiel remembers Rose Tremain - one of the judges - telling him the book was chosen for its relevance to the war in Bosnia. This is typical. Elfriede Jelinek got the Nobel Prize instead of Peter Handke for political reasons. In public discourse, non-literary reasons invariably take the place of the necessary literary endeavour. Otherwise an uneasy silence spreads across the public space. Alfred Nobel's stipulation that his literature award should go to a writer working "in an ideal direction" (as Handke does) is full of such silence. The esteem for literary writers is really esteem for their noisy avoidance of the literary.

I shall myself evade defining literary fiction right now. Let this entire blog stand for that endeavour. I will say this though: when I read a novel, it's not IQ and general knowledge I seek or admire, it isn't elegant prose, fiendish plots or psychological realism. It's not even entertainment. I seek an engagement at the deepest level. It’s not always the most comfortable of experiences, and if I had any intelligence maybe I'd avoid it by getting lost in some genre fiction.


  1. Anonymous10:49 am

    Excellent post may be!

    'I shall myself evade defining literary fiction right now.'

    Another evasion.

    One wonders why another evasion?

    Sometimes in while playing poker one has to put the cards on the table.

  2. Anonymous7:24 pm

    Bravo! indeed Jozef Imrich,esq.

  3. Steve, this post was excellent indeed, fresh and on.



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