A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
As a counterpoint to Clare Sudbery’s piece last week “In Praise of Popular Culture”, on the Soapbox this week we have the author of “The Mathematics of Love” and soon-to-be-released “A Secret Alchemy”, Bookfox Emma Darwin, putting the case for literary fiction.
Truffling Out the Riches by Emma Darwin
So, which way up is your literary snobbery? Of course it’s snobbish to assert that only the new-and-difficult is important in fiction, and anything easy and enjoyable to read is an immoral opiate for the masses. But it’s equally, if invertedly, snobbish to maintain that any book that’s hard to make sense of or which you, personally, don’t get the point of, is so much high-falutin’, deliberately obfuscatory nonsense. So how have we reached the point where both ‘sides’ look down on the other? In the genre wars the only thing the anti-chick-lit misogynists and the sci-fi-loathers agree on, is that literary writers are a bunch of w***ers, while the literati consider the end of the civilised world to be nigh because more people have always read formula thrillers than Booker winners.
There’s a whole other discussion about the emergence of fiction as a self-consciously literary form (blame Henry James and the Leavises, if you must), so let’s stick to now, and have a look at what’s going on. After all, what is any fiction but a story someone wants to read? Narrative – events and sensations arranged to have beginning, middle and end – gives us pleasure, and a familiar pleasure at that. And yet we also read stories to tell and show us new things: more exciting/funnier/more romantic versions of our own lives or, more radically, other worlds, other lives, other passions. And because humans are verbal creatures (it’s the thing which distinguishes us from the rest of creation) words give us pleasure too, beyond mere necessity, and newly arranged words give us new pleasures. If there were no new ideas or stories in a novel it would be boring at best and plagiarism at worst. If there was nothing familiar in the form or the way the words are used, then it wouldn’t make sense. All storytellers have to find the place on this spectrum, between originality and familiarity, which suits them, their story, and their listeners/readers best.
Commercial fiction satisfies the desire for new within a form that readers are familiar and comfortable with. That’s why ‘commercial’ and ‘genre’ are often used as synonyms, because those basic, classic story forms – thriller, romance, quest, whodunnit – are what much of the world wants much of the time, subdivided by the genre settings: contemporary, historical, space, fantasy land, foreign lands. There are rules – detective stories still need a body, romances are still about sexual love between two people – and the rules can be played with, but within those forms a book can be anything from tick-box banal to thumping good, thought-provoking read, to really original.
And the really original start being called literary, and suddenly the ‘rules’ of the genre begin to fray, because ‘literary’ is the one label that doesn’t define what a book’s about, it defines how the book goes about it. Some of that will be the unknown: new words in new arrangements; beginnings which ask us to keep going even when we don’t understand things yet; middles which don’t develop in familiar ways; endings we didn’t expect or don’t want; plot points and ideas that we have to put together from hints, and references which the author assumes we’ll get.
Most literary novels are more original in some aspects than they are in others, and the familiar things act as anchors while you work out the new. But arguably, the more that’s new, the harder it is to get the normal pleasures of story-listening out of a book that works this way. And yet, as humans we get pleasure from using our brains in the same way that we do from using our bodies, so working things out is entertainment. If you succeed, if you ‘get’ it, the pleasures are incomparable, because they’re new and exciting. If you don’t ‘get’ more than the most obvious things you’re either bored or frustrated. But the more you read that’s new, the better you get at doing what they need you to, just as you once got better at understanding grown up books. To borrow Francis Spufford‘s description of that process: “there seem to be no edges and limits to it, no sense of evolving shape, and so no urgency… [it needs] a retuning of your mind to those subtler, wider, but still ultimately decisive cues to meaning… an active, participatory judgement.’
It’s true that some of the most exciting things that writers want to do entail sacrificing ease of reading, and I think that’s where the snobbery comes in. Some exciting things don’t entail difficulty at all, but for some readers and critics and even a few writers, who are more concerned to make sure they sound superior than to look at a book on its own terms, difficulty has become the mark of literary merit, and ‘accessible’ a dirty word. This is nonsense: difficulty ought to be seen as a regrettable necessity if some exciting things are to be written. But I promise you, most writers don’t make it difficult on purpose to annoy the rest of us, or show off, or win prizes. They write as they do because that’s how they can best say what they want to say. As Nick Hornby says of Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead, ‘It’s not an easy book to read. She did it like that because she couldn’t do it any easier.’
Whether you think the new you’ll get in any given novel is worth the work is your call: it’ll depend on your nature, and how tired you are today, and how much practice you’ve already had at its particular kinds of difficulty. It’ll even depend on whether it’s a good or a bad book, because literariness as I’ve defined it is no guarantee of it being ‘good’ in the sense of doing what it does really well. It’s perfectly possible to set out to do new things, and do them badly. And if there’s more to be got in the end from a book, if the treasures need truffling out, the chances are you won’t find them all at the first read. Some people find that too frustrating to be borne: to me that richness is the chief test of whether a book’s worth reading at all.
So all that ‘literary’ means, to me, is that there’s more in the book that’s new and potentially exciting, so it might be harder work to get pleasure from, but that if I do, the pleasures will be deeper and more lasting, because I’ve been more involved in finding them. In the end you possess a novel you had to work out, in a way that you can’t a novel where everything’s served up on a plate. What’s so terrible, so pretentious, so obfuscatory about that?
About Emma Darwin
*Thanks to Ubookworm on Flickr for the image of the fox statue. Ubookworm says “In the Shinto tradition, foxes are considered to be gods’ messengers. This fox statue, just one among thousands silently sitting in the grove around the Sasuke Inari shrine, has a scroll in his mouth in which, supposedly, the message appears.” This image is covered by the Creative Commons license.