Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Over the weekend, in addition to losing that contest that shall never be named again, I stumbled on a column about the nose-in-the-air hoity toity-ness of literary fiction vs (I guess) the rest of English letters. One theme statement implied, or said outright, actually, that literary fiction is only considered good because certain arbiters of taste say it is. The implication, when I read between the lines, is that it really is not very good.
Now and then we get these philippics against literary novels. They seem to derive from a sense of guilt or inferiority, explaining why the speaker doesn’t write or read literary fiction. All of the elements of literary writing are present in Druid Erotica or Space Pirate Whodunits, so why do we need to read Saul Bellow or Susan Sontag? They make your brain hurt.
The writer of the piece had a problem with the way books are labeled, and frankly so do I. But the business side of things requires it, just as — if you’ve ever seen hot dogs being made — meat packers need a way of moving pink slime from a big tub through different flumes for hot links vs kielbasa and into their respective skins. See, publishers actually tell writers that they don’t know how to sell books that don’t fall into one of the popular categories. They-simply-don’t-know-how. I think that’s partly because they don’t really know how to sell books of any variety (except maybe celebrity memoirs); what they’re actually selling are the categories. Paisley might be the new black, but Steampunk Time Travel is the new Young Adult Vampire. It doesn’t matter what titles are in those bins. Just so those titles support the popularity of the category.
Literary fiction, of course, can be about anything at all. It can be in the point of view of a child or of a horse. It can take place anywhere, any time. It can have a well-marked storyline or it can meander around like fireflies in your front yard on a warm night in July. Writers of literary fiction have more freedom than any other kind of author, with the small inconvenience that if they go too far afield, a publisher will tell them, “I have no clue as to how to sell this book — good as it is.”
That’s because there’s no bin for one-of-a kinds.
I don’t have a beef with anyone who prefers to read only Game of Thrones books, but I’ll tell you what I do have a problem with: the notion that there’s no objective difference between literary novels and genre fiction. I suppose if you stacked up the very best of a particular genre, say, a really good detective novel, against the very best in lit-fic you’d probably see some overlap in technique. But — and here’s where it gets tricky — if you match the average genre book with the average literary novel, the qualitative difference is huge. Come on. Admit it. With the genre piece, you might be happy with the plot but the writing is clumsy or full of cliches and the formulas show like the bones of a skinny dog. With the literary novel, you might not entirely appreciate what the author attempted to do, but the writing is sharp and usually fresh-sounding, the characters are three-dimensional, and the only formula you noticed was the old reliable beginning-middle-end shape, perhaps with a cathartic denouement.
It’s true, I haven’t read enough of a variety of genres, so you can’t go by me. I’ve read a lot of literary fiction, though, and usually it doesn’t fail me like a popular thriller can. (I’m talking to you, Dennis Lehane — who shared my editor at Morrow long ago.) For instance, I just began reading Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love, and he has me eating out of his hand on p. 10. I have no idea where it’s headed, but I trust him not just as a storyteller but as a master of technique to lead me somewhere profound. I never get that from a police procedural, a spy thriller, or high-end chick-lit. Where they lead can be entertaining or surprising but rarely do they open doors to universal truths.
In my view, this is what literary fiction can do even if it doesn’t always succeed.
So by all means, have reading preferences. Build yourself a TBR stack that pleases you. Enjoy it. Knock yourself out. But face a perfectly reasonable fact: the great books that will be remembered in the future (if the novel survives, that is) are going to be literary novels, not Bigfoot Erotica or Sensitive Zombie Romance.
(This prediction doesn’t apply if the zombies do eventually take over…)
By the way, since we’re on the topic, see my guest post at Seamus Gallacher’s blog and join in the discussion there: “Yes, Literature Is Elitist…thank God!”
Oh, PS. Here’s a line from the Baxter book to highlight what I’m talking about: “But at that table I could smell her soul and I wanted it.”
There you go.