In theory this ought to be a good day for writing blog posts. There is, after all, a whole extra hour that can be dedicated either to reading books or to writing about them. Somehow, though, it never quite works out like that. I get completely disorientated by the change in the clocks and although the autumn experience isn’t quite as disturbing as the one in the spring, when we lose an hour, nevertheless it will be the end of the week before my internal clock resets itself and life returns to something approximating normal. This doesn’t bode well as I have a lot to get through over the next seven days with a class on Love’s Labour’s Lost to develop and teach, the work for my Dickens class to continue and a book club discussion for the following Monday to prepare, on top of all the other normal weekly commitments. If I go under and vanish from view then it has been good knowing you all.
What do you think of, I wonder, when you hear the phrase literary fiction? It was bandied around rather a lot last Wednesday when the group reading that book I was finding so troublesome met for our monthly discussion. Only a third of the group had managed to finish it, although to be fair they had all enjoyed it. The rest of us, for one reason or another, had admitted defeat. I did try to battle on to the end, despite all your good advice, but when I found myself setting out to clean the kitchen for the second time in as many days just to avoid reading I knew that a line had to be drawn. The member who had chosen the book was severely disappointed in us and several times during the evening she commented on the fact that she really enjoyed literary fiction. The implication was obvious. This was literary fiction, and it was clearly not for the likes of the rest of us. The implied hierarchy in both books and readers was fairly obvious as well.
Literary fiction is a difficult thing to define. I’m fairly sure I know what the fiction bit means but after that I start to fight shy of anything concrete. On Wednesday it seemed to mean ‘books that you have to work really hard to understand and even then will only appreciate if you are very very clever indeed’. I tried to think of books that I would describe as literary fiction in the hope that I would find a common thread linking them which would offer enlightenment. My first thought was just about anything by Colm Tóibín, Jim Crace or Julian Barnes. When I read works by these authors I have a sense that every word on the page has been carefully weighted to account for what it adds to the novel as a whole before being allowed to stand. There is a rhythm to their writing, whether it is at the level of the sentence, the chapter or the entire book. I come away from a first read blown away, but knowing that there will be more to gain from a second, third or even fourth read. Crucially, I look forward to subsequent readings. I add that last thought because I suspect that my reading group colleague would argue that all that was true of her choice of book. The important difference for me being that I had to fight my way through it the first time and wouldn’t go back to it if I was paid.
I suspect that for some people literary fiction is defined in a negative way in as much as they would see it as that which is not genre fiction. Now that, I think, really does smack of literary snobbery. I will fight anyone who argues that Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction is not literary or what about P D James’ crime fiction, especially from her middle period. I first came across Katharine Kerr’s fantasy novels when one of them was included in a corpus a friend was working with and the quality of the writing stood out so strongly against the other data that we just had to break protocol and find out what it was she was reading.
So, what is literary fiction? If it is fiction I have to fight in order to even begin to understand it, then I will gladly admit to not being clever enough and let it pass me by.
I was going to report on how the Dickens course is going, but this post is long enough as it is. I will come back to that midweek, perhaps. I did just want to say, however, that those of you who commented on my entry about Deborah Alma, the Emergency Poet might like to know that Deborah herself came by and left a thank you message in response to your enthusiasm for what she is doing. You can see what she has to say here.