Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How is Literary Fiction Like a Porn Store in the Suburbs?

It's spring. The windows are open. And the cries of protest are in the air:

J. Robert Lennon, author of Familiar, in Salon: "Literary fiction is terrible"

Matt Haig, author of The Humans, on his blog: "Literary fiction must go"

These are not my exaggerated summaries of their ideas -- these are direct quotes from their own headlines. You can almost imagine the picket signs taped to yard sticks, clutched by the gloved hands of women in pearls, marching up and down a suburban sidewalk, determined to get that awful adult video store out of the building that used to house a perfectly respectable 7-Eleven. It's TERRIBLE. It MUST GO. March march march!

Lennon's point is just that literary fiction is mostly bad. Or as he put it: hackneyed, insular, terrible, mannered, conservative, obvious, mediocre, uninteresting, crap, boring and also "fucking boring."

Haig goes a step further to say that literary fiction as a genre damages our culture, imprisons the imagination, codifies snobbery (as he put it "book fascism"), and ejects people from the collective campfire of... reading?

To be fair, Lennon's broader point is that writing students shouldn't have to read everything on the IndieNext list. (I would argue they should at least know that there is an IndieNext list.) And Haig seems to be ready to do away with all genres entirely. (Even sci-fi post-punk supernatural upmarket women's true crime erotica? Yes, that genre is a STRAITJACKET.)

I've read both Haig and Lennon and I liked them both. Both of them are genre-busters. Lennon's most recent book, Familiar, reads like literary (yeah, literary) women's fiction but plunges its main character into an alternate universe bizarrely like her own, bending it sharply into scifi. Haig's The Radleys was a domestic novel with vampires. His new one (The Humans, coming to the US in July from Simon & Schuster) promises to be about an alien. The NYT called Haig "a novelist of great seriousness and talent." In his review of Lennon's Castle in the NYTBR, Scott Bradley said, "J. Robert Lennon’s literary imagination has grown increasingly morbid, convoluted and peculiar — just as his books have grown commensurately more surprising, rigorous and fun."

So obviously, based on that, literary fiction has all but destroyed books and writing. Literary fiction, with its tiny market share, its limited shelf space, and shrinking media presence MUST GO because it is TERRIBLE!  This reminds me of a blog post I wrote back in 2009 -- "How Twilight Killed The Wasteland." I wrote it after Lev Grossman announced in the Wall Street Journal that "lyricism is on the wane." Yeah. Must still be waning?

I'm honestly confused by the strength of the rhetoric in these articles declaiming literary fiction. Why would intelligent people crap on a genre where interesting things do happen, where boundaries are exploded, where formal experimentation is acceptable, where transgressive topics are allowed, and "newness" is encouraged. I read a lot of books last year including scifi, historical, 19th century, memoir, and yes nonfiction and even instruction manuals. My favorite books were the ones I could preface with this much-maligned and apparently dangerous adjective "literary." Literary scifi yes please! Literary historical thank you! Literary southern hello! "Literary memoir" tells me this is not a celebrity tell-all or political expose. "Literary thriller" tells me I can enjoy my sentences while I scramble through a plot.

And before we go, let's talk about that awful pit of "fucking boring" writing: the literary novel itself, the one without the saving influence of any other more acceptable genre.

YES PLEASE. Write more like that. Put it on every street corner in my neighborhood. I'll be breaking that picket line to buy it in hardcover. Make it strange and difficult and I'll buy two.

6 comments:

  1. Some of my favorite books are literary--strange and difficult, as you say, but in the kind of way that makes you think and haunts you even months later. In any genre/category, there are going to be great examples and not so great examples, but unfortunately it seems that critics will use the poorer examples of literary fiction to define all of it as novel-gazing, artistic masturbation (one of my favorite terms).

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  2. There's literary fiction and there's Literary fiction and I think J. Robert Lennon is ragging on the latter.

    At its simplest, literary fiction is defined as character-driven. (At least, as far as I know. Don't have an MFA and it's been years since I was in an English classroom.;-0 )

    On the other hand, Literary fiction tends to be highbrow. There are these deep, epic themes running through them. The characters, plot, structure, language, just about everything else kowtows to that theme.

    So, by those definitions, there are a whole lot more books that are literary, but not Literary. I, for instance, consider books by Joshilyn Jackson and Sara Gruen (since I know we've both read them and that's our mutual reading touchstone) literary, but not Literary.

    For me, Literary fiction tends to be exclusively written by upper middle class individuals who have never known a public school- K-12, Bachelor's and beyond. The "better" educated (the more exclusive their private high schools and the more Ivy League their colleges) the more Literary the books tend to be. And I could rattle off a dozen novels that fit the bill and you and J. Robert Lennon and probably a whole slew of discerning, but not snobby readers would find them "fucking boring" or pretentious or twee or any other label that would just as appropriately apply to Hipsters.

    At the same time, funny, quirky, genre-bending novels are, thankfully, changing the literary landscape. We need more of those, but we also need more novels that step beyond the line of "character-driven" fiction but stop short of being the type of book that takes itself too seriously and has writing that's too grandiose for anyone's good.

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  3. Thank you, most edifying. Now, I believe, I shall read your book. I hope it is strange, but not too. Difficult, but only to put down. I love the title and only wanted a reminder to read it since I read the Shiny title. Thanks to Barbara Claypole White (Book Pregnant) who pointed me at your thoughts.

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  4. I think that anyone who claims that something must go, should leave. I rarely watch sports on television. Still, I'm grateful there is sports on television, because while everyone is glued to their television to watch the World Cup, I'm out riding my motorcycle on deserted roads.

    I read the first page of Twilight and it wasn't for me. Should it go, when so many people clearly enjoy the books and the movies?

    Someone thinks that literary fiction has become boring and should go. Just who are Lennon and Haig that we should take their opinion seriously? Even if they were right (which I don't think they are), their opinions are not a call to action. At least, not for me. The books Lennon and Haig find boring or hackneyed or unimaginative are still read by thousands of people who derive pleasure from reading these books.

    I'm just glad people are reading.

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    Replies
    1. "I think that anyone who claims that something must go, should leave." A good way of putting it! And I too am glad that people are still reading.

      I have some sympathy fort the blog's premise, in that it is true that literary fiction has in the past been somewhere where over-privileged people drone on about middle-class marital difficulties. But to dismiss "literary fiction" as a single entity is sweeping. It's a broad category that holds everything that does not fit elsewhere; is that what one wants to criticize?

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