The OF Blog: Thoughts on this past week's "literary" controversy

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thoughts on this past week's "literary" controversy

Through M. John Harrison's blog, I was made aware of this quaint little article by John Mullan called "Twelve of the best new novelists."  It seems to have stirred up a faint bit of recycled controversy over its definition of the neologism "literary fiction."

I have no problem with the creation of such a term; in the increasingly-rigid structure of publishing nomenclature, it certain carries a ring of prestige and pedigree that several other new categories, such as paranormal romance or the latest iteration of "urban fantasy," just do not possess.  But what, pray tell, is Mullan (and by presumption, similar advocates in the UK, or at least the ones who voted with him on that list of twelve) considering to be "literary fiction?"

The first thing that I notice is the picture of the selected twelve.  They certainly are a glowing bunch, aren't they?  Perhaps it's just an anomaly or maybe the UK is less ethnic diverse these days than I had been led to believe, but it was surprising to see an all-Caucasian group there.  But let's just say it is an anomaly and move on to other thoughts.

What came to my mind afterward is that Mullan's definition of "literary fiction" excludes so much that what he seems to conceive of as properly belonging to that group would consist largely of bourgeois Bildungsromans.  Taking Mullan at his word that I must "attend to the manner of their telling," what I have gathered from reading several of the UK novels generally considered to be part of this literary fiction category, such as Howard Jacobson's 2010 Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, is that manner trumps all.  There is such a focus on experience that one begins to wonder which experience is being elevated.  When I read Andrea Levy's The Long Song, what I noticed is that once I dug beyond the surface level of detailing the late-slavery period on Jamaica is that she was not really saying anything new that other late twentieth-century works such as Alex Haley's Roots or Edward P. Jones' The Known World had not already stated.  The "experience" there was tied in so much with its "manner" that its execution felt perfunctory, partially devoid of that vitality and sense of horror and shame that one might expect from such a novel purportedly dealing with the cruel and wanton exploitation of a whole group of people.  It just seemed too sanitized, too much something that the bourgeoisie could read, go "tut-tut" about, and then move on, hardly questioning the casual exploitations of today.

There is a constraint that I've noticed in several works of "literary fiction, particularly that of the UK variety (the American branch I must admit, seems more willing to mix and match, playing more with palettes appropriated from other genres of literature).  The sense of class is more readily apparent in these type of stories, as the narratives largely deal with middle-class concerns (job and marriage satisfaction, self-identity in a changing world, other assorted mid-life crises, etc.) or with "good" working-class families who are struggling to rise up to join the ranks of the bourgeoisie.  Sometimes, other ethnic groups are mixed in, but the sense one gets from the reactions to these works is that the authors are praised more for the "exotic" qualities of their characters' situations rather than embracing the different cultural reactions these characters might have to their experiences.  This is not a universal case, but it does occur enough that some mention is merited.

Another element to literary fiction seems to be the reliance upon lists and external recognition to push a book into readers' homes, as Mullan himself admits:

The Booker prize became a passport to commercial success. "Literary novelist" started to look like a rewarding career path, not an after-hours occupation. Prizes and lists were ways on to this path. Jack, himself responsible for the 2003 Granta list, is blunt: "Literary novels really depend on prizes, and they depend on lists." 

Lists, categorizations, rankings - all hallmarks of an industrial organization schema.  It is so ingrained these days in Anglo-American societies that one just cannot escape completely this insidious development.  Stories are not judging on their own intrinsic qualities, but rather on relative position to another work.  "Author X's work will appeal to those who enjoyed Author Y or Author Z's work..."  The art of reading and writing is thereby reduced to something that can be jotted down in a ledger book or its modern equivalent, the spreadsheet.  Instead of being potentially subversive works, such fictions are now largely considered (with a few occasional exceptions, usually driven by competing commercial concerns) to be safe, tamed products which serve to reinforce certain social models.  Perhaps Harrison sums it up best in his conclusion:

So the good news is that, along with its liberal humanist programme, the Clapham arm of literary fiction can continue its project of watering down the linguistic fluency and technical agility of its genuinely interesting precursors from the distant past of literature–that great age of Picador, King Penguin, and the Virago Modern Classic, which saw not just the invention of women writers but of magic realism & the euronovel too; while the hipster arm gets a bamboo chip & lemon grass latte & tries out its new neighbourhood app.


The Spirit of Creative Writing said...

All this is very true. Paul McAuley and I commented on the odd ethnic narrowness of the twelve on Twitter when the list was announced; and the general view, I think, is that Mullan is simply incapable of seeing past his aversion to SFF.

Ian Sales said...

It's about 8% or 9% of UK nationals are BME (black and minority ethnic groups). So out of a dozen authors, you'd expect at least one BME. But then, literary fiction is mostly a middle-class genre...

Maureen Kincaid Speller said...

Fascinating commentary on the article. I think 'quaint' about sums it all up.

I've been trying to decide whether or not it was surprising that the women, for once, slightly outnumbered the men, but the whole enterprise seems so desperately flawed it's possibly not that significant. I'm not sure what the stats are for male/female on postgraduate creative writing courses,though I know that the further into higher education one goes, the greater the number of men (and indeed, the one creative writing Ph.D student I know is male).

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