Saturday, March 09, 2013

In Praise of...Literary Fiction

"Literary fiction" is a genre like any other; invented in the 80s as a marketing ruse to sell more serious/more difficult books. It is this that Paul Magrs, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, lashes out at in his perceptive blog post yesterday. "Many years of reading, teaching, workshopping, writing, studying and more reading have given me a kind of checklist of the cliched features that Bad Literary Fiction often boasts" he says before giving us a list of 13 pet hates. Its all good fun, especially in the weeks leading up to Granta's next set of "best 20 novelists" under 40.

My problem is, as I mentioned on Twitter to him, is that such shooting of fish in a literary barrel can sometimes be mis-read as an anti-intellectualism that is, after all, pretty rife in British culture. It's not a long walk from saying we don't want pretentiousness to saying "just give us a story." It's there in the regular calls for genre fiction to be prize-shortlisted, from John Le Carre down; or the over-defensiveness of Booker judge Stella Remington in the year she presided over a "readable" shortlist and then gave the prize to the one(weak) purposefully literary novel on the list. Like the ill-advised New Puritans with their calls for a Dogma-like list of simple rules for fiction, the last thing English fiction needs is less pretentiousness. For if "literary fiction" is something more than middlebrow fiction (I'll come to that), a novel set in a post-Bloomsbury world of over-decorated drawing rooms, then of course it will occasionally leave itself open to ridicule.

Magrs, who teaches creative writing as well as writes for adults and teenagers, has probably seen "literary fiction" develop with a wry smile as his own books have increasingly embraced genre. The problem is with lists like this is that they could be equally applied to good or bad books: I quickly came up with a list of great books that does each thing on his list.

I'm actually puzzled - genuinely - as to what we now mean by "literary fiction" - and its interesting that an ex UEA lecturer should be questioning the genre, given that if there is a contemporary equivalent to Bloomsbury it is probably the UEA alumni list. I like novels that reach, and even occasionally over reach, as well as well-done genre books; whilst steering clear of novels that seem, on the surface, to be too much watered-down Virginia Woolf. Yet it's hard to know what the target is nowadays. The Barnes-Amis-McEwan-Rushdie generation have written some shockers, but with books as straightforwardly pleasurable as "Talking it Over", "The Innocent" and "Night Train" in their back catalogue are these our "literary" writers? For the record the only three terrible novels I've read over the last couple of years were, respectively, by a poet, an acclaimed SF writer and a peer of those middle-aged giants; and they suffered, but from bad writing and an adolescent prurience not from literary pretension.

For me, the Booker, as an example, has always had a bit of a prediliction for leaden histories, self-indulgent memoirs and over-written psychological novels but I've also found that books that wouldn't have appealed to me from their "literary fiction" description, such as "The Gathering" by Anne Enright or "A Long, Long Way" by Sebastian Barry, have turned out to be little marvels.

And, like Magrs, a lifetime of reading literary novels next to so-called pulp fiction means that I've never been too sure where the genre lines run anyway - a path that spans from Burroughs to Mieville and Peace. I do believe there's a tendency to (small c) conservatism in both the content and form of fiction, and it might be this that Magrs is circling, but that battle's mostly over, I think: or maybe I've just been lucky and reading for pleasure rather than for reviewing or similar, I've somehow managed to avoid, with a few exceptions (hello, "Anil's Ghost") the terrible literary novel.

It's perhaps a generational thing: for who of Magrs age and younger are we talking here? Bright sparks like Thirlwell perhaps? The Brookners and Byatts are of a different generation; and with the majority of bright young things coming through the university system and finding berths there, what surprises me is how little adventure we find in the contemporary novel - so that even a writer like Tom McCarthy is recognisably in a tradition of the well-written English novel.

My description of the literary novel would find room for acclaimed writers like Nicola Barker, James Scudamore, Gwendoline Riley and Joe Dunthorne and there's not much pretension there. I suspect the kind of overwritten "literary fiction" that Magrs is talking about is withering somewhere on a soon-to-be-axed midlist. This battle is already over, I think, and what we actually could do with are books as sparkily pretentious in their own way as Jennifer Egan, Michel Houllebecq and Joshua Cohen.


Jim Murdoch said...

One of the big questions I find people asking new writers is: What genre do you write? It’s a question I never gave a second thought to until it came to promoting my first novel. What genre was it? It wasn’t any damn genre. It was just a book I’d written. What’d genre got to do with it? I started off describing it as a cross between Douglas Adams and Kafka, which is still not a bad description, but the best so far came from a reviewer: “[T]his is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not 'hard' enough to be spec fic, not 'weird' enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic.” There’s actually some sci-fi in there too actually and a bit of romance. I’ve always thought of it as a serious novel (the term I prefer rather than ‘literary’) despite its irreverent humour but the only real home for it has to be on the General Fiction shelves. I’m not completely against genre but, as with most good ideas, it’s got a bit carried away with itself. Now no one seems to want to just write books and let the chips fall where they might and yet if you walk into any of the big bookshops that are still hanging on by the skin of their teeth the General Fiction shelves dwarf all the others. So, who’s writing all this General Fiction? I sat down to write a book, not a kind of book, just to say what I had to say and it puzzles the hell out of me that others feel the need to start off with agendas. I actually doubt many literary novelists set out to write literary novels. They sit down and write books and leave it to others to market them.

I’m one of the least pretentious people you’re likely to meet. I abjure snobbery in all its forms. And yet I call my third-published novel, Milligan and Murphy, a literary novel because it’s basically a pastiche (although I never set down to write one) of an existing literary novel, Mercier and Camier. It doesn’t make it a hard read but it is a book that pays a great deal of attention to language and symbolism. All of that clever stuff is there for those who can be arsed looking for it. Or they can just read it as a funny novel a bit reminiscent of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon.

If I have a choice I go out of my way to read serious novels—I’ve just started Kōbō Abe’s The Box Man—I like books that stretch me and I’ve always been a huge fan of Beckett who, I would imagine, would’ve shrugged off the appellation ‘literary’ in the same way he did ‘absurd’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘postmodern’ and ‘minimalist’; I think though he could’ve lived with ‘serious’. Real writers write the books they need to write and leave others to worry about how to classify them. Clever writers like Ian Rankin write the books they need to write in a style that will sell.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I kind of think genre comes into it over a career rather than just a book. So Stephen King, whose best screen adaptions are from "The Body" and "The Shawshank Redemption" is always pre-eminently a horror writer. He'll always be shelved in horror regardless. Magrs is a writer of young adult novels and Dr. Who adaptions amongst others, and both of these are clearly genres, which are marketed the same way with similar covers. McEwan's one SF novel, "Child in Time", is unlikely to be shelved next to the Moorcock (and Moorcock's non SF novels are almost impossible to find in bookshops as they don't "look" like fantasy, but he's classed as a fantasy author! Iain Banks use of a middle initial begins to make some kind of sense in this context.