A couple of weeks ago, I ended up reading an article called “The Novel Is Dead (This Time For Real)” by Will Self. I think it was the melodramatic headline that drew me in and kept me reading – I mean, I love novels.
I love dramatic thriller novels, gory horror novels, mysterious detective novels, sizzlingly sensual erotic novels, imaginative sci-fi novels and occasionally even fantasy novels too. I don’t want the novel to die – the world would be a much more boring place without novels.
If the novel was dying out, I wanted to know more about why it was dying and how I could prevent this disaster from happening.
Then I actually read the article.
He wasn’t talking about the kinds of novels that I love to read and the kinds of fiction I love to write (on the rare occasions that I write fiction these days). No, he was just talking about one type of fiction – literary fiction.
In case you haven’t got a dictionary with you or can’t be bothered to work out the meaning of the countless obscure words Will Self uses from their context (seriously, he even makes my writing look clearly-written and concise by comparison! I’m not sure if I should feel proud or inadequate….), I’ll sum up what he has to say:
Bascially, he’s moaning about the fact that modern culture hates “difficult” books and that literary fiction is no longer revered as the “best” kind of fiction by most people. Yes, he also makes a lot of valid points about the tragic death of printed books and the sad fact that the internet is turning reading from a wonderful solitary experience into an *ugh* social experience, but I thought that I’d talk about his views on “difficult” literary books.
Until I was about twenty-one, I didn’t really know the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. I just read whatever interested me when I was a teenager – yes, I’d read some “literary” books if they seemed interesting enough or controversial enough (eg: stuff by Goerge Orwell, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs etc…), but I’d also read lots of wonderfully low-brow horror, sci-fi, thriller and detective fiction too.
And, of course, I’d also reluctantly read most of the boring set texts I had to read at school (like *yawn* “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles) and gladly read some of the few interesting set texts (like “Vurt” by Jeff Noon, “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson, “Dissolution” by C. J. Sansom and “The Beach” by Alex Garland) I had to read at university too.
So, I read both literary and genre fiction when I was younger and I didn’t even really know (or care about) the difference between them until I was twenty-one. When I was twenty-one, I was the student of an absolutely excellent writing tutor.
Although he was a very good tutor, he was a fan of literary fiction and he’d almost always make a point of saying that my stories were “genre fiction” whenever he critiqued them. Since I wrote the kind of stories that really interested me, I was surprised by this and I decided to do a bit more research into the differences between literary and genre fiction.
Basically, modern literary fiction is the kind of boring fiction which mostly focuses on the ordinary lives of ordinary (upper middle class) people. It’s a type of fiction which focuses on flowery and complicated writing instead of interesting storytelling.
It also covers things like *ugh* drearily incomprehensible modernist fiction from the early 20th century (and it’s no surprise that Will Self mentions [or at least implies] in his article that he’s a fan of writers like *yawn* James Joyce and Virginia Woolf).
Yes, there are some good literary writers (like J.G.Ballard, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood etc..) and not all literary fiction is terrible, but most literary fiction is – for want of a better description – dull and pretentious just for the sake of being dull and pretentious.
Once I knew that there was a difference between these two types of fiction and, once I knew what that difference was, I had to choose a side. And I chose genre fiction.
Because, dammit, genre fiction is fun. When I read a genre novel, I know that I’m in for an exciting and riveting story – rather than flowery three-page descriptions of wealthy middle-aged people drinking fancy coffee, or verbosely elegaic descriptions of how the narrator’s latest bowel movement is a poignant symbol of her dissatisfaction with the modern decline of courtly love and it’s associated rituals.
When I read a genre novel, I can just sit back, immerse myself in an interesting fictional world and enjoy myself, in the same way that I can when I watch a good TV show or play a good computer game. Good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless of the medium it appears in.
And good storytelling is the kind of storytelling which makes the audience want to know what happens next, it’s the kind of storytelling which makes the audience feel a whole range of emotions, it’s the kind of storytelling where the writing doesn’t get in the way of the story and it’s the kind of storytelling which welcomes it’s audience with open arms rather than trying to push them away (unless they’re over the age of fifty, have lived a particular type of “ordinary” life and have a PhD).
The fact is, for stories to be recognised as classics and for stories to live on in the collective imaginations of everyone, they need to be stories that most people actually like and care about.
To give you an example, quite a few people know who Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes are – because they’re characters in interesting and accessible (but not dumb) old stories that have stood the test of time.
Not as many people know who Stephen Dedalus is (he’s the main character in at least one of James Joyce’s *yawn* modernist literary novels that I had to read when I was twenty). Hmmm, I wonder why…
This doesn’t mean that all stories should be “mainstream” or that they should only go for the “lowest common denominator” (and they shouldn’t). But it means that they should not only provide a fascinating story and interesting characters for their readers, they should also be welcoming to their readers too.
They should be the kinds of stories that most people can either study intensely (and write essays about) or just read for fun if they want to. Genre fiction offers readers this choice, literary fiction usually doesn’t.
I mean, sci-fi, horror, detective, romance, thriller and fantasy fiction can deal with all sorts of intelligent ideas and still contain some very good writing, but they can also be read for fun too. They can make lots of interesting points about life, philosophy and humanity whilst also telling an exciting story at the same time. Literary fiction can’t quite do this.
Genre fiction can do everything that literary fiction can do, but it can do it much better. Purely because, as I’ve said a few times before, it doesn’t make looking at “intellectual” stuff compulsory. If readers want a fun story that anyone can enjoy, then they can get this from a genre novel. If readers want a story that makes them think, then can also often get this from quite a few a genre novels too.
In this respect, literary novels are inadequate. And this is why they are slowly withering away into obscurity.
Good riddance. Long live the new fiction!
Well, this article is only about 1300 words long 😦 I don’t think I’m quite up to Will Self’s standard yet….
Anyway, I hope this article was interesting 🙂