Monday, July 07, 2008


Once again my good friend from California, Mr. William McCall, has forwarded an article of interest which deals with the subject and analysis of 'literary fiction'. I know this is not always the case with genre writers, but personally I have no real concerns whether what I do is taken 'seriously', as far as literary standards are concerned. It has always seemed to me that the most important thing in fiction is telling the story, and as I mentioned in an earlier blog, the simple matter of evoking an emotion in a reader seems always to be the most fundamental, and yet most important aspect of writing.

But, regardless of my viewpoint, there are those writers - toiling ceaselessly in the vineyards of creativity - be it crime, romance, history, science fiction or fantasy - who carry a basket of sour grapes when they are ranked, certainly in literary terms, beneath those who are viewed as 'proper writers'.

So this article piqued my interest, and I am posting it here for your amusement or edification, to confirm what you already know to be the truth, or simply as something to talk about.

It was written by Robert McCrum from The Observer, and is entitled 'World of Books Debate'.

"What is 'literary fiction'?
"To many, it's the titles on the short list for the Booker Prize. To some, it's those serious-minded novels of high artistic intent by writers with a passionate commitment to the moral purpose of fiction. To others, it's a slippery piece of book jargon. It's certainly a label that's attracted its share of critical opprobrium. 'Literary' can be synonymous with 'highbrow', but I've heard 'pretentious' and even 'unreadable'.

"Literary fiction is what many writers aspire to, though quite a few will also run a mile at the first hint of it, too. Every reader will have his or her idea of what constitutes such a category, but the acclaimed masters of Anglo-American literary fiction today probably include, among dozens, Michael Ondaatje, W.G. Sebald, Don DeLillo and Jeanette Winterson. Such are the names that sit at the top table, but below the salt you'll find an extraordinary galère, ranging from magical realists to provincial miniaturists.

"These are the footsoldiers of an empire of literary fiction that stretches across the English-speaking world, funded by massive advances and underpinned by thousands of column inches. Some of the writers whose entire careers have been devoted to this cause have tried the patience of their faithful readers but, for better or worse, literary fiction has kept its place at the top of the literary food chain. And the Booker Prize has remained the Oscar, Emmy and Pulitzer of literary fiction in the UK (and Commonwealth).

"Coincidentally, the lifespan of the Booker Prize, roughly 1970-2001, marks the generation in which literary fiction has flourished throughout European culture. Recently, however, this consensus about the desirability and importance of literary fiction has begun to show signs of wear and tear.

"One or two critics have begun, nervously, to point out that literary fiction has become just another genre, like humour, crime or adventure. Some have even gone so far as to observe that the label could simply be a way of describing a novel that places style before content, puts prose before plot, and subordinates character and narrative to nebulous aesthetic concerns.

"Such complaints have generally gone unheard or, at least, scarcely unnoticed. For good reason. Literary fiction has been supported by an awesome establishment of writers, editors, critics, agents, publishers and booksellers, all of whom have, in different ways, been unwilling to question the dominant orthodoxy.

"Nowhere has literary fiction been more fiercely entrenched than the United States. Here, the establishment I've described has been reinforced by a network of creative-writing communities, from Iowa to Yaddo, each devoted to turning out publishable examples of literary fiction.

"But every consensus carries within it the seeds of its own demise. This month's edition of the Atlantic Monthly, the venerable and influential Boston literary magazine, contains a 'Reader's Manifesto' by a certain BR Myers, subtitled 'An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose'.

"Mr Myers rushes out of the saloon into the noonday sun with both guns blazing: 'Nothing,' he writes, 'gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern "literary" bestseller. Give me anything as long as it doesn't have a recent prize jury's seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back. In the bookstore, I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose - "furious dabs of tulips stuttering", say, or "in the dark before the day yet was" - and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics.'

"If you were in any doubt that Mr Myers was in a mood to compromise, the assault that follows on 'literary' American writers like Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, and Cormac McCarthy, among others, indicates that he is in no mood to take hostages.

"Myers's argument is an entertaining and passionate lament for what he sees as the parlous state of contemporary American literary writing. If this manifesto was simply a bilious and near-reactionary broadside by one maverick, it would be of interest only to professional literary people. The evidence, however, is to the contrary. Already, I hear the Myers manifesto has made waves in the literary community of the East Coast. It will soon be recycled here. My guess is that its more measured judgements will find sympathetic ears in the British literary world.

"Cataclysmic change is often triggered by the random accumulation of apparently insignificant events. Myers is saying nothing that has not been said behind the hand, and out of the corner of the mouth. In years to come, literary historians may look back on this manifesto and realise this was the moment at which, like the little boy in the fairytale, that someone dared to say out loud that the emperor has no clothes."
Robert McCrum
Personally, I think the world of Annie Proulx, Don De Lillo and Cormac McCarthy, but I do appreciate the point that Mr. McCrum is making. Perhaps, very simply, all that is required is that space is made at the table for those who write within certain genres as well as those who write 'proper books'. But then, as is always the case in such scenarios, someone is going to have to lead the way by moving their chair so another place or two can be set.

Speak again soon.
Best wishes, take care,


mand said...

I used to subscribe to a very good small-press magazine 'Xenos' (sadly no more) that, correctly, called its content "literary science fiction and fantasy".

Just fyi.
mand 80)

Audiojoe said...

It's funny, I don't know exactly why, maybe it's a subliminal thing implanted by some comment from time before, but whenever I hear about literary fiction versus "transient" fiction, I always imagine Umberto Eco and John Grisham having a fist fight...

R J Ellory said...

I'm staying out of this one. Likely to get clubbed to death by someone wielding a Pulitzer...(Can you wield a Pulitzer, like you could wield an Oscar?)

R J Ellory said...

I just read the advice you have given to your son on your blog...the one about breasts...
I think you should start a company that produces tee-shirts with that on.

mand said...

T shirt idea filed for future reference ;0)