Saturday, July 26, 2008

What is happening?

Last month, there was a puzzling story summary in The Guardian: "Lisa Jewell wins top prize at awards set up to rebrand chick lit and bolster its literary credentials". How, I wonder, can a prize bolster a genre's literary credentials? No doubt the word is meant as a loose definition of serious fiction, and a prize surely affords that; yes, even the Melissa Nathan Award for comedy romance. "Serious" is also loosely-defined: serious subject matter, serious attention, serious sales. But shouldn't "literary" mean more than that? Or rather, don't those who use this troublesome word imply that it means more? Perhaps not. Yet, when ever I read such articles, I smell anguish; a hunger for elusive gravity. It is never far from the surface. "You feel undervalued when you write the kind of fiction I write," Lisa Jewell said after receiving the award. "So it's great to have this genre given its own night of appreciation and recognition. To win is just wonderful." One has to ask what else a comedy romance award is supposed to recognise? And what kind of value does she imagine writers of no genre feel? It's an odd situation all round as Jewell reckons her book is "neither particularly funny, nor particularly romantic." So isn't the prize instead bolstering its generic credentials; a rebranding that burns deeper into a shedding skin?

So many questions. This post isn't supposed to be another thimbleful of boiling oil against the barbarian hordes, so I'll come to the main question: what is going on? The Guardian presents perhaps the foremost literary coverage of any newspaper in the UK, and it has a formidable online presence. So perhaps this prominence contributes to the apparently disproportionate number of book news articles, blogs and reviews it publishes that smell of literary anguish. Every week you can read of writer's frustration at being excluded from literary society ("Chick lit is almost a derogatory term") or a pitiful reader dreaming of the golden age of Dickens when literary fiction was mainstream (though never as mainstream as the penny dreadfuls they themselves would never dream of reading let alone calling literary). US literary coverage does not seem to exhibit such concern let alone pain. Something, it seems, is happening. It's more than the externalisation of literary snobbery (i.e. the example-free accusations that Chick lit is "a term of abuse for some, a back-handed compliment for others") and other than playing up to a readership wishing to feel good about itself for sucking on pap: it's an increasingly fraught, self-blinding search for gravity.

While Guy Dammann's report above finds ballast in metal and moneybags, a previous winner finds it in a surprising location: "a novel doesn't have to be unremittingly gloomy to be true to life" says Marian Keyes. Perhaps explaining why she no longer reads Anita Brookner novels, she adds: "I was sick of reading about women in huge shoulder pads striding to the boardroom and having sex on the table. [...] This is not my life." So then: a work is literary to the degree that it is true to life? This would be a turn-up: the work itself must be literary! Keyes' life comes as a surprise:
"I'm a recovering alcoholic and suffer from depression," she said. "I wake up every morning frightened. Fear is a primary emotion for human beings. I haven't drunk for 14 years, but some days getting out of bed and washing my hair is as much as I can manage. I feel incredibly afraid of being alive."
Anita Sethi's blog reports that Keyes "draws on the dark periods of her own life" for her fiction. She has "also challenged the stigma of mental illness in our society: To have a mental illness is a taboo, which doesn't do us any favours. It is far better to embrace it than deny it." This is promising not because it suggests her novels "tackle" dark subjects but that they inhabit not just the sentences but the form. She seems to striving for more than fantasy wish-fulfilment: "[the genre] is about the 'dissonance between the self we present to the outside world and what is inside - the hopes, memories and longings that are rarely exposed.'" Would then fictional truth to life be this dissonant music? No wonder, as Lisa Jewells claims, "these are books that people don't just read, they devour them - they stay up into the early hours because they want to devour them." Real life might now be recognised as real only to the degree that it is like one of these books. However, we're told there's a boundary Keyes never crosses in her fiction.
Whatever horror, trauma and pain there is in her work, it is always balanced with lightheartedness, even in a novel that tackles domestic violence. [...] Keyes' sunnier view of life is just as realistic as the unrelenting misery of much contemporary literary fiction.
Now who's using derogatory caricatures? Where are these unrelentingly miserable novels? I know that many of them make me miserable but not because of their subject matter. It's because they lack dissonant music; a lack caused, I think, by that conscious act of balancing. The writer's eye is on the reader rather than the truth or the logic of the novel. This has led to the calcification of genre and the so-called literary novel; not in respect of their immanent qualities but as art; their kinetic energy; their gravity.

Evidence: Last week, The Guardian reported that Stef Penny won the Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year Award despite her novel's status as a mainstream literary novel. One of the judges explained that "the distinction between crime and literary fiction is becoming increasingly blurred and irrelevant". And that must be right, yet only because the literary fiction as she understands it - and how it is generally understood - isn't literary at all. Remember, Robinson Crusoe, often recognised - as it is here - as the first English novel, is not a novel by Daniel Defoe but an account told by Crusoe himself. Nowhere on the original title page does it say "novel". It doesn't even give Defoe's name. Among other things, this tells us the novel emerged from the rejection of genre - or, perhaps more accurately, the invention of a new genre. It explains VS Naipaul's recent expression of weariness with contemporary novels and his belief that the great writers who before might have written novels have now moved on to other, non-fictional forms. While this has been interpreted as the death of the novel, it might better be read as a herald of its rebirth.


  1. The term "literary" has become above all a status signifier, and as such provokes status anxiety. "Genre" novels that get a lot of critical praise are almost always considered to go beyond the genre, to "blur the distinction" between genre and literary fiction etc.; somehow the good genre novel can never be good simply on its own terms as a piece of genre fiction. That said, the very distinction between genre and literary is largely factitious. Contemporary literary fiction – loosely defined as the sort of novel that might end up on a Booker shortlist – is clearly a genre, albeit a baggier one than most.

    I'm interested that this distinction between genre and real "proper" fiction doesn't seem to apply so much in film criticism. Ask James Wood who the most important fiction writers of the 20th century are, and he probably won't mention any genre writers at all. On the other hand, many if not most of the 20th century's canonical movie directors worked within genre – Ford, Lubitsch, Lang, Kubrick, etc.…

  2. Hugo, I know enough about film not to have heard of Lubitsch.

    But the reason why there's the distinction is probably because, as my old boss announced with pride, film is the dominant art form. For that reason it's bound to "work with genre" (a phrase that makes me inordinately sad). Literature of note is always untimely (in Nietzsche's sense, I suppose). And that's what I told my boss; it's why it's more interesting (unless it's late Godard or Starship Troopers).

  3. Well, I just had to look up what the Nietzschean sense of 'untimely' is all about, so touché!

    Yes, literature of note always has an element of the untimely - although for me it's more a dialectical product of the timely and untimely. There has to be a structure there for a piece of literature to work with or against (or both). There already have to be conventions before anything can be unconventional. And literature has always trafficked between high and low. Cultural media "trade up" to become "art" (after all, the novel itself was considered a rather vulgar form until fairly late in its history). Camus's L'Etranger was inspired by James M. Cain's pulp novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which in turn was inspired by Zola's Thérèse Raquin. Beckett chooses Buster Keaton for his film - etc., etc.

  4. I saw this recently from a convention on sci-fi fiction as a literary genre:

    "Proust’s Recherche ... whatever critics have said about it, is actually a time-travel story deeply indebted to Wells’s Time Machine."

    This almost makes me weep with laughter and sadness. If this person had read and appreciated Proust, I'm sure he wouldn't feel the need to make such absurd claims. And even if Proust had read Wells, it doesn't tell us anything about what makes either work unique.

    So, I suppose, the issue is that perceived "trade up" - but this is cultural and nothing to do with the work itself. The novel was as much art when it was considered vulgar as when it was prize-winning; hence my point about the death of the novel is a promise of its rebirth. This may come in the form of writers trafficking in all forms - but it doesn't mean those parts are necessary for the whole.

    Beckett I'm sure didn't think of himself as A Great Artist. He just wrote what he felt (just as he said). I wish every writer did this rather than hiding behind the alibi of craftsmanship.

  5. Stephen, I'm with you on the absurdity of a Proust/Wells tie-up. And I'm certainly with you on what I perceive to be your main point - that contemporary literary fiction is perhaps an exhausted form, and this will eventually lead to renewal.

  6. Ingmar Bergman considered Andrei Tarkovsky in a separate league altogerther to all other film-makers, & I'd unhesitatingly agree. And he most certainly cannot be reduced to genre. Can life be reduced to genre? Though I don't think it a simple issue. Is tragedy a genre? Though and I read DH Lawrence last night, I think in an essay on THomas Mann, saying something( barbarically put here no doubt) that form in the broadest sense was an artificial concern, wereas what was within the form, the living art, was what mattered. Lawrence considered Mann an immensely intelligent but lifeless, poisoned soul. I can se his point after The Magic Mountain. A 'healthy' person's recoiling from the life within the the mountain should surely have dispensed with its sickness in a much more concise manner, and got onto more vital aspects of being. I did find Dr Faustus more satisfying, though a strange artificiality at key moments also. Mann's devil scene pathetically stilted compared to what must have been much of its model in Brothers Karmazov.
    I'd say this drink imbued post has shapelessly staggered all over the shop- whatever shop that may be- & in blind hope that somehow it related to the matter at hand, I send it into the public arena with an admittedly somewhat careless hope for its future.



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