Monday, December 17, 2012

And there are sword fights

D. G. Myers has written a post about the term "literary fiction" in which he reveals that his students equate that term with "boring books." This of course brings up the whole problem of how people who love "literary" fiction refer to and define the fiction they love. How do we talk about a type of art without naming it?

"Literary fiction" is a term popularized by New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. We all know that, right? Kakutani was as unsuccessful at defining the term as the rest of the world has been. I'm not going to attempt to define it either, I hope.

However, I might think that Dr Myers' students are onto something with their description of high-quality interpretive fiction (no, that's not a definition) as "boring." They just don't know what they're actually saying. I'm going to claim that the works in question aren't "boring," so much as they are in some way difficult. What's difficult about the works in question is merely that reading and understanding them requires an active reader who is willing to pay attention and examine the ideas put forth in the works, to be willing to work within narratives that differ formally from other narratives they've read, to read books that might defy their expectations as readers. In other words, the difficulty is that there is work--action--required of the reader, rather than passive reading. This can be, for readers not used to the activity, fatiguing, and I claim that particular fatigue is often mistaken for boredom. (This does not rule out the soporific effects of some books.)

I remember thinking, back in my youth, that a lot of the classics looked hard, impenetrable, difficult, etc. And they were, for someone who'd been reading a lot of light fiction and sci-fi. Good art requires effort on the part of the viewer/reader/listener/whomever. The thing is, though, that once a reader gets habituated to this active manner of reading, he sometimes becomes addicted to it and seeks out literature that engages the mind in this and similar ways, and literature that fails to do so becomes, well, boring. So that's that, all settled for everyone, right?

What I really wanted to say about Dr Myers' post but didn't want to clog up his blog with a long and half-thought-out comment, is that as someone who might be writing "literary fiction," I'm never sure how to talk about my own novels. I have two coming out next year, by the way. Buy them both. See sidebar. I digress. If it's impossible to talk about "literary fiction" as a reader, it's doubly impossible to talk about it as a writer (yes, I know, "impossible" isn't a matter of degree; it is or it ain't, and Wittgenstein would mock me for that "doubly"). So I claim.

"What's your book about?" people are asking me. I flail, unsure how to answer. "It's a riff on 'Hamlet,'" I say. "It's got sword fights and a trained bear," I say. "It's an examination of the idea of the cultural worth of geniuses and the worthiness of leader figures," I might add. "It's about a Renaissance astrologer who turns assassin, in Denmark, around Christmas," I tell you, "But it's not a Christmas story." My interlocutor's eyes begin to glaze and they turn up their nose at the perceived stench of Literature. "It's got sword fights," I say. "Buckets of blood, and ghosts, and comedy and sex." So it's historical fiction, they ask? "No, because I'm not really sticking with history. It's sort of alternative historical fiction. It's well-written," I say. "And there are sword fights." No, I don't know how to answer. I vacillate between the adventure-tale aspects of the narrative and the thematic ideas I was working with, and I know I daren't mention Shakespeare because, you know, the glazed eyes and it's not Shakespeare anyway.

But it's not just that book. I have no real way to discuss any of my novels, do I? And then I realize that "literary fiction" is, primarily, a marketing term. People who read and discuss literary fiction never use the term; they just say, "This is a good book. Have you read it yet?" So I'm apparently thinking of my novels in terms of marketing, which is annoying and difficult. Very likely, I write books that will bore some college students. But I'm not trying to pack them full of intellectual vitamins, or to somehow improve the reader. I think they're just cracking good books. But then I think Moby-Dick and Ulysses and The Ambassadors and The Iliad and True History of the Kelly Gang  and Lord of Misrule and The Sun Also Rises and Wise Blood are all cracking good books. I swear I had something interesting to say here today, but that something seems to have flown away while I stepped out for a meeting. Anyway, sword fights and psychic dwarfs and the rejection or acceptance of father figures as limits to one's own personality. How can that bore anyone?


  1. First, the second book is a done deal? Congratulations! Fantastic!

    Second, those were definitely not grad students.

    My first question about a book is rarely "What's it about" but "What's it like?" So your answers work pretty well for me. If only there were more of me.

  2. Yes, The Transcendental Detective will come out around New Years of 2014 assuming the world exists after this Friday. I'm pleased, and thanks for the congratulations.

    I read the article again and I don't know where I got the idea that these were grad students. Color me a bit relieved.

    Nobody ever asks, "what's it like?" Maybe I'll derail the "what's it about" question and say, "I can't tell you what it's about, but I can tell you what it's like." Yes, that's very useful. I can do that. I owe you.

  3. Tom is onto something with the What's It Like? question. I like that. I never know how to say about my books, either. I usually try to stick with the "hook", whatever that is. For Breakaway, I've landed on "a kidnapped girl falls in love with her kidnapper", but that's really not what the book is ABOUT at ALL. But it's what people apparently want to hear. It's what gets eyes to light up, so I stick with it.

    I liked this post a lot. I think you've written one of the best descriptions literary fiction I've seen in awhile. I should go read that post too, I suppose!

  4. Myers' argument is that "literary fiction" is a meaningless and harmful term and 'twould be best if we all stopped using it. I resist going on and on about how any novelist today needs to embrace the idea of genres, with "literary" being one of the many possible genres, and "genre" meaning "product category" and how if you don't know your "genre," you can't successfully pitch your book to an agent or publisher. Etc. Though Rhett, Emmaline and I have never had the "genre" discussion, which is nice. Still, they'll have to put my books into product categories to market them. Makes my head ache, all of it. But I think I'm going to stop using genre labels and just talk about books and writers I like instead.

  5. BREAKAWAY is more about the mother/daughter relationship than the kidnapper/victim relationship, no matter what the plot looks like. At least that's how I read it. But that's not sexy, right? And it's harder to explain in one sentence the experience of reading that book.

    THE TRANSCENDENTAL DETECTIVE is 14 unfinished short stories about relationships, wrapped in a murder mystery. Does that tell anyone what the book is? No, it doesn't. But it's still true. This is why I never read cover copy, and instead buy books based on reviews, recommendations, and pretty covers.

  6. Scott, yeah, I hate genres more than I can even explain, more than I can punch the daylights out of a punching bag, more than a lot of things. It's why my little motto is to write stories, not genres. It's just that when you start querying agents and publishers (and also when the dreaded Marketing The Book phase happens), genre seems to become horrendously necessary. Maybe it shouldn't be.

  7. Highly sensible...

    And as I always feel, why try to make a 300-page book into a 30-word sentence?