Monday, 1 February 2010

A non-genre mystery

In my last post, when I casually defined the literary novel as one which aims to 'reveal the true nature of things', I didn't realise I was stumbling into a live debate. PD James, who as a crime writer has a dog in this fight, remarks in this week's Spectator diary (not online) how she can't discover the definition of a literary novelist:
There are no sour grapes about this inquiry since only the most fragile egos would be bruised by omission from this mysterious category. Does the secret lie in the subject matter? It seems not, although a high proportion of literary novelists are apparently attracted to post-colonial stories, the recent or remote past, or fantasy. Does the distinction lie in literary style? Certainly a few literary novelists develop a style which makes demands on the reader's comprehension, but others write with exemplary clarity and grace. That aside, I doubt whether P.G Wodehouse has ever been regarded as a literary novelist. Today Mr Ishiguro is a literary novelist, and Mr Le Carré is not  - or so it appears. I doubt whether either writer is much concerned either way, but why does this difference arise and who decides? Once awarded the accolade, by whatever method, it seems that the distinction is never lost, and however disparaing or hostile the reviews of subsequent books may be, a literary novelist apparently remains so for life. 

I should have realised this before reading the thoughts of Thompson's Terror: I remember noting the peculiar way Ian McEwan was described in the list of the Bookseller's top-selling 100 books of the noughties (not available online). He was the highest 'non-genre' novelist (having sold a stunning 27 million books), an adjective that I now perceive was deployed to avoid debate. 'Non-genre'! What a cop out!

And although one senses PD James itches for inclusion, I suspect that in certain circles 'literary' - rather like 'upper class' and 'élite' - has become one of those terms that has edged into pejorative territory. I would also guess that rather like 'intellectual' it's a label that is only ever acceptably used by others, the praiseworthy British reluctance to adopt airs intervenung.

I would stick with my definition - a literary novel is one that sets out to 'reveal the true nature of things' - even if this seems a rather old-fashioned, pre-postmodern pursuit. Isn't 'literary' something of a close cousin to 'scholarly', both involving an informed search for the truth?

This definition is capacious enough to include the better elements of genre fiction: certain thrillers and crime novelists indubitably seek to 'reveal the true nature of things': Le Carré and Ian Rankin spring to mind. However, entertainments which take the world as it is, simply setting out to tell a good story (Dick Francis) or not seriously seeking to reveal the truth (Dan Brown) are excluded. I think the issue of style is dealt with along the way: how can what is true be described without deploying precise and reflective language?

And you can have bad literary novels as long as honest intention is evident. (This may explain why, as James notes, with literary novelists 'the distinction is never lost.')

I would guess I find it relatively straightforward to come up with a definition as I'm not scared of the word élite. And I'm a bit surprised the formidable Dame struggles - but then using literary as some sort of proxy for philosophical seriousness may put her in a bit of an invidious position (I can't comment not having read her books).

18 comments:

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, it's an intersting distinction, and I'd never properly considered it before. Maybe the best plan is to call all one's books "Entertainments", as Graham Greene did some of his, letting your public know that you are a literary writer and that your great literary masterwork is just around the corner :-)

worm said...

I read that PD james piece on the train going to London and pondered fairly lengthily upon it too! More specifically, I was wondering where James Ellroy would fit into any 'literary' description

Brit said...

Is it perhaps a very self-referential thing? ie. a literary novel is one that is first and foremost a novel within the context of the history and conventions of novel-writing, and seeks to be judged as such. Whereas a non-literary novel wants to be judged on its ability to thrill, amuse etc. A genre novel seeks to be judged by the standards of other works in the genre.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: You don't hear so much about Greene at the moment. I wonder whether he's become unfashionable.

Worm: Dunno, don't know him!

Brit: In a way, that's what I was trying to suggest. Genre fiction isn't concerned with any philosophical project, it just seeks to entertain. Whereas literary novels stand self-consciously in a tradition of truth-seeking through story telling.

worm said...

Gaw - James Ellroy writes unbelievably hard-boiled noir historical fiction set in the post WW2 america, with not much in the way of ideas expounded beyond the thrilling, so it is as Brit says, genre fiction - however, his writing style is so unbelivably sparse that it has a ferocity that makes it artistic and kind of literary. Imagine a steroid pumped Raymond Carver on speedballs and you get the idea...I thoroughly recommend either American Tabloid or LA Confidential

Gaw said...

Right. Loved the film LA Confidential.

ghostofelberry said...

The only genre fiction i really like is good Fantasy (which is rare) and spy thrillers, though i've recently branched out into police thrillers (Donna Leon).

i used to be snobbish about thrillers, and felt guilty about liking Fantasy books. However, when i picked up my first Le Carre in 2006 i was converted and read everything i could find by him, then Furst, Littell, etc. Spy thrillers tend to carry an implicit picture of the world, in which nothing is as it appears, most people can't be trusted, and the hero is pitted against massive forces with little chance of getting through alive. He must constantly analyse, study, investigate, look behind the apparent surfaces, into the depths - and always with the suspicion that the final depth is in fact just another surface.

Gaw said...

Tolkien is surely the only acceptable fantasy, and I would assume even that's a minority opinion.

Le Carre's writing was one of the unsung victims of the end of the Cold War (Constant Gardener). If you get a chance, catch the BBC Smiley (on DVD). It's terrific, as good as the novels.

worm said...

elberry - did you like the Furst books? I was recommended them by a bookseller in Germany - read a couple of them, I thought they were good ideas let down by lacklustre writing, I found them a bit second rate compared to Le Carre

Brit said...

It may support my theory that it is said of the best genre writers (Le Carre, Patrick O'Brian etc) that they "transcend the genre" - ie. that they can be judged in comparison with literary novels as well as other genre novels.

Gaw said...

Hey, it's my theory. Or at least I wrote it down first. I think.

ghostofelberry said...

i like "Dark Star" and "The Polish Officer" by Furst, very much - the rest are a bit lacklustre, competent enough but not first rate.

There are good Fantasy novelists other than Tolkien - Ursula le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy (she's now written 6 or so books in the series, but the first three are the best), Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence, and Katherine Kerr's first four Deverry books, beginning with "Daggerspell" (again, there's another dozen or so which are okay but not as good as the first 4).

i think these - all women, strangely - are, in their best works, flawless. Stephen Donaldson has many very powerful moments but also many flaws. Fantasy interests me in part because these writers sometimes seem, by their imagination alone, to get at things which are real - as far as i know none of them are interested in magic in "the real world", but le Guin and Tolkien kind of get it right, in spirit. Le Guin is especially close - not in the mechanics but in terms of "magical character", what it does to you to study it. Kerr is unusual in that she uses reincarnation as a plot device and she gets the gist of how it works quite well - the sort of patterns that recur, relationships, funny little coincidences, etc. There are also amusing oaths like "by the black hairy arse of the King of Hell!" which i have endeavoured to incorporate into my daily conversation, with some success.

i'm toying with the idea for a next novel that you, Garth Knight, suggested to me in London last summer - good potential there, and i do get more "details" every now & then, that i could use for it. If i did write it, and God forbid anyone read it, it would probably create a new genre: Schizophrenic Magic Irrealism or something.

Gaw said...

I read Earthsea when I was a kid, and I do remember it being quite good.

Regarding the 'real' there's a great paragraph in Tolkien's essay 'On Fairy Stories' where he argues how a dragon is more real than a car. One part of me finds him very persuasive, one of the reasons LotR exercises a perennial fascination.

Vern said...

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels are the peak of fantasy, superior to Tolkein, according to Brian Aldiss, Moorcock et al. Never read them so I don't know.

Moorcock's Elric books were good for a laugh when I was younger. And they have a nice subtext of imperial decline and entropy.

And Moorcock has likewise tried to draw a distinction between his literary work (eg Mother London) and his fantasy/entertainment work. But I think his heyday passed about 20 years ago.

Gaw said...

The TV version of Gormenghast put me off going near Peake's books. It was truly awful - obscure, expressionist, arch and very, very unfunny.

ghostofelberry said...

Forgot about Peake and Moorcock. Moorcock is actually quite good in his Elric and Hawkmoon books - silly but good. Peake's trilogy is wonderful, worth checking out even if the film was shite.

Brit said...

It's two-thirds wonderful. Titus Groan and Gormenghast are mad genius, Titus Alone sadly just mad. Calling them "fantasy" is a bit misleading though they are fantastical - there are no wizards and dwarves and whatnot.

ghostofelberry said...

Yes, the third one is patchy, though i liked the MILF Juno. What about Steerpike - scariest pipe-smoking kitchen boy malcontent ever.