Monday, 16 March 2015

Monday Musings: What is 'literary fiction'?

The US cover. Less pink, arguably no
less 'chick-lit'.
Having just reviewed Katherine Heiny's debut collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow, I noticed that it had fallen victim to that familiar debate: what is 'literary fiction'? In Is Single, Carefree, Mellow Literature or Chick Lit?, Aimee Levitt sums up the story so far, and argues that neither sales, humour, nor what Jonathan Franzen terms 'moral complexity' sets 'literary fiction' apart from 'chick lit'. In reference to the last point, she convincingly argues 'does that mean literary fiction is less fun to read but good for you...? I don't believe that either.' Her conclusion is that these labels don't matter: 'we could just say there's good writing and bad writing.' I had a crack at a similar debate myself in an old blog post from 2011, 'The debate on readability versus literary merit'. And although I agree with much of what Levitt says in her article, especially her criticisms of Franzen, I find myself still in the same position I argued for in 2011: that it is important that we have a category called 'literary fiction', even if many definitions of what that category is are insufficient or simply wrong.

I agree with Levitt that literary fiction shouldn't be seen as something you have to choke down to become a 'better' writer or reader, and that 'moral complexity' is not a sufficient description of what it does do for us. As I argued in 2011, Marian Keyes's wonderful piece of chick lit, The Other Side of the Story, presents three very complex and flawed female characters who are, to one degree or another, at odds with each other, but who are all sympathetic. There is no easy answer to the questions Keyes poses about adultery and loyalty, although the novel contrasts with Single, Carefree, Mellow in considering the moral implications of its characters' actions much more carefully. But then, if a deep concern with morality was enough to tip a novel out of the literary canon for being too simplistic, Middlemarch had better be thrown out as well. Moreover, I would suggest, engaging a reader deeply with your text is something that a writer must accomplish if they want the vast majority of their readers to care about unpicking anything more nuanced or subtle that is going on. I have read so many novels where I suspected that the writer was doing something clever - Butterflies in November being the most recent example - but I simply didn't care enough to accomplish the necessary analytic work. In contrast, I have spent many, many words (over-)analysing George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, because he made me care about the story he was telling. If I hadn't been much bothered about what happened to Sansa or Arya, I would never have appreciated the subtleties of some of the symbolism he uses to refer to these two sisters.

The top search terms used to find this blog are 'What happens
to Arya Stark in Game of Thrones?' I wish I knew!
I also dislike the cheap value judgments made about 'readers of chick lit' or of 'YA novels' or 'fantasy' or really any genre you could name, although I agree with Jennifer Weiner that the scorn and distaste heaped on chick lit is disproportionate when compared to the relative respect afforded to 'male' genres such as the political thriller. (YA also suffers from ageist assumptions, such as the frequently-expressed opinion that it is infantilising for adults to read books intended primarily for children and teenagers, as if all adult novels were great literature, and as if it's OK to fob children and teenagers off with rubbish.) Firstly, how ridiculous to assume that because I am reading chick lit now that this is all I ever read. Secondly, frankly it is much better for me - both in terms of enjoyment, and intellectually speaking - to read a well-written romantic novel, or fantasy, or YA, than a failed attempt at literary fiction, of which there are many. The problem with bad literary fiction is that the reader tends to get nothing from it at all, whereas I've enjoyed some truly awful thrillers with exciting plots, for example. (This is not to say that literary novels cannot have exciting plots - but bad ones rarely do.)

Not literary fiction, still brilliant.
Why, then, do we need literary fiction? I think it comes back to the idea that I gestured towards in my 2011 post: the reader's expectations. While this may not be true of all readers, I do think that we usually work with a different set of expectations when we open a literary novel than a popular one, with all the appropriate caveats about how difficult the line between the two is to draw (my literary novel might be your popular one, and vice versa). And I don't think that these expectations should simply be dumped, so we toss away Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant because it is not as immediately gripping as A Game of Thrones. This does not mean that novelists who write literary fiction can be as self-indulgent as they want, safe in the knowledge that their readers don't expect to be gripped. Indeed, it is up to them to be clear about the type of reader that their novel needs. By 'type of reader' I don't mean that they are writing for certain individuals and not others. I would suggest that we all become different readers when we engage with different types of books, that the type of reader I am when I'm racing through a fantastic thriller like Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard, for example, is a different type of reader from the reader I am now, reading Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is equally gripping, but in a totally different way. Writers need to signal what the reader will need to do to make this book work for them (which should never include 'be bored and soldier on') and readers need to be prepared to slow down, to think differently, to adjust. And although I am not suggesting that all literary novels need to be slow-paced, I think it makes perfect sense that most of them are, at least, slower-paced than popular fiction, because they are usually grasping after something that cannot be said easily if read too quickly. (Sarah Waters' fantastic The Paying Guests does, I think, suffer from the intense pace of its second half - with the result that many reviewers felt that the latter half was shallower than the first.) This also helps to explain why readers care if a novel is 'literary' or not; not necessarily because they think literary fiction is more worthy or because they can't deal with anything that doesn't have a category, but because they genuinely want to know how they should be approaching it.

So while there are no absolute rules about literary fiction being slower, more complex and more challenging, I would suggest that the existence of a category that tends towards creating such expectations in readers is not a bad thing at all. And although regarding genre fiction (the question of 'is literary fiction a genre' is one to tackle another day!) as automatically inferior is both foolish and wrong, there is something about literary fiction that demands, I think, a greater investment, simply because it's more at odds with our idea of how we ought to be entertained. This, of course, only makes it more disappointing when that investment is wasted. Authors, be warned.

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