The OF Blog: A few more thoughts on literary fiction

Friday, July 03, 2009

A few more thoughts on literary fiction

A few days ago, I read a blog entry by author J.M. McDermott that dealt with the falsity that he was encountering in the literary fiction that he was reading. At first, I found myself wanting to agree with the basic premise of his post, to acknowledge to myself that perhaps there is a bit of falsity to this literary fiction genre, before my inner skeptic began to kick the tires and wonder if there was something else to the matter.

Yes, I have read literary works where the authors seem to combat the ennui of their dreary lives in rather bizarre (and yet still ultimately mundane) fashion. In those twists, I do see too much of a Governor Sanford breakdown and not enough of the types of reactions that "my people," or my "tribe," I suppose (to make another allusion to a term that has more facets than I previously discussed). But I think there's a more varied forest than one would get from looking at one little cluster of elm trees.

Yesterday, I blogged about (and then translated) the latest Premio Alfaguara winner, Andrés Neuman's El viajero sel siglo. Over the past few years, I have found the Premio Alfaguara winners (and a great many of the books that Alfaguara publishes in general) to contain fresher elements of literary fiction than what one might find in staid Anglo-American fare. For starters, most of the Spanish-language lit fic that I've read is much more extrospective than the Anglo-American counterparts. While there are moments of introspective moodiness, the stories in general tend to turn to outside events. Take for example Edmundo Paz Soldán's just-released Los vivos y los muertos (The Living and the Dead). Set in a fictious upstate New York small town, Paz Soldán's short 206 page novel utilizes several point-of-view shifts of the town's teens and adult friends and relatives to tell the stories of several deaths and murders in that small town over a short period of time and how the residents coped.

Paz Soldán's attention to detail (his story is based on actual events near Cornell University, where he teaches, that happened several years ago), including things such as how the teens interacted with each other, how they had built their own self-protective bubbles before these bubbles were burst during the course of the novel, all this created an atmosphere in which I (and I would guess many readers) felt very connected to the characters. It was very "real" in reading it. It was that sense of veracity in a fictitious tale that I believe is a real strength of the best literary fictions. It's not a turning inward to explore an imagined person's reaction to a past that will capture readers in most cases, but rather that turning outward and including others, making them feel a part of the story, that tends to lead to more favorable reactions.

This is a topic that I'd like to explore more at a later date, but for now, I just wanted to introduce this and see if a good conversation could result out of it. Maybe this weekend, I'll have other stories to discuss that I think meet some of the criteria I mention above, as well as possibly exploring other reasons why for many (and myself), literary fiction is just as vital and as important as various other genre fictions may be for others.


Matt Keeley said...

One likes to think a Bolano blurb would be enough to get the book translated - I wouldn't be surprised if New Directions or a similar publisher picked it up.

Speaking of writers Bolano liked, have you read Cesar Aira?

Terry Weyna said...

I've found myself looking for more and more fiction translated from the Spanish of late. Seems like there's something going on in both South America and Spain that is pretty exciting in literary terms. I wish I could find more in translation; I'm hopeless at foreign languages, and my high school French and college Spanish are irretrievably intertwined in my head (and it gets worse with every year).

Chris Roland said...

Yeah I'm with you here (on inviting the reader in v's private meaning). It's something I'd like to do with my own (non professional) writing but need to work on.

If you want a look at something that's NOT what you're talking about (ie. fairly turned in on itself) I've posted a story on:

With regards to fiction in Spanish, I'm a huge Borges fan. I read him in both Spanish and English (I'm English but have been living in Seville and now Barcelona for quite a while). It works for me because his sentences are quite precise. I'm thinking now about how much Borges invites us in...

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