Simply serious

Is there any more cursed term in the modern critical lexicon than “literary fiction”? With a weed-like tenacity, it has established itself since the 1980s as the dismissive shorthand for anything that doesn’t look like straight-down- the-line “commercial” or “genre” fiction; long a convenience for the books business, it is now established elsewhere, too. We would beg literary to eschew the term – only now it seems to have become essential to the reviewing vocabulary.

Wikipedia will tell you that literary fiction is fiction that does not “fit neatly into an established genre”. It might dare to be “character-driven rather than plot-driven”; it might “examine the human condition, use language in an experimental or poetic fashion”; it might “simply” be considered “serious”.

“It”, in this context, is absurdly capacious. As Daphne Wright once wrote in the TLS (September 12, 1997), “literary fiction” may involve “self-referential games of metafiction, imaginative flights of magic realism, fragmented narratives of post-modernism, streams of consciousness, defamiliarization and so on”. “Popular” novels, however, are assumed readers to be the province of those who “do not care how the form can be extended and find no tyranny in the old rules of character, setting and narrative”. Perhaps, dare we suggest, the reason that “literary fiction” does not fit neatly into any single established genre is that “it” is just fiction – the realized possibilities of telling a story in words?

Hence the tendency previously reported in this column for the judges of literary prizes, say, to express surprised approval when they find that a novel is “a real page-turner, in spite of its literary heart”? (See NB, May 28, 2021; the novel in question is The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes.) We sigh to see the worm of inverse snobbery at work here. We weep, just a little, for the general undervaluing of those writers who are skilled in the art of writing “real page-turners” – literary-hearted or not.

This month’s newspapers offer some support for our heretical views on this point. The crime novelist John Connolly, for example, has asserted in the Daily Express that “there’s no reason [genre fiction] can’t be as well written as literary fiction, have literary allusions, challenge readers and acknowledge outside influences.” Then why pretend there’s a difference? John Maier has written in The Times, meanwhile, of “the lucrative intersection of commercial and literary fiction”. Cf. GD McLeod, cited in the OED (and this may be the only time that “literary fiction” is mentioned in the OED) for making this observation in 1982: “Popular fiction and literary fiction are not necessarily mutually exclusive forms of writing. A popular novel may have considerable literary merit.” It may? You’ll be telling us next that some novels are driven by characters as well as plots.

Even when it comes to questions of commerce, there is room for a contradiction or two. The past month’s papers give us the writer Amanda Craig testifying to The Times that, “As most of us earn less than the minimum wage, to continue to write literary fiction in Britain takes a level of resolve that approaches lunacy.” In the Herald, however, Barry Didcock has described Amor Towles as “possibly one of American literary fiction’s best kept secrets”. Amor Towles is reputed to have sold 1.5 million copies of his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. For a not-so-secret few, “literary fiction” ≠ “minimum wage”.

Leave it to the academics to settle the matter. As Literary Hub recently reported, a paper published in early July – in everyone’s favorite periodical, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin – purports to show that reading “literary fiction” is “associated with a more complex worldview in Americans.” Watching “crime procedurals or soap operas” on television “is associated with status-quo-enhancing cognitions” and may “reinforce a worldview that is narrower, less charitable, and less able to grapple with difference.” The same thing goes for, say, romance novels. The researchers believe that “literary fiction” is “characterized by its presentation of the difficulty of the world”. Readers of short stories come out on top in their account, followed by readers of “historical fiction”, then “literary fiction”. Squinting at Figure 1 in their paper, we see that growing up reading self-help books, essays, chick lit or romance isn’t found to be good for a person’s “attributional complexity.” The figures that ensue tell much the same story.

We don’t know anybody who grew up reading self-help books. But at least we may now rest easy, safe in the knowledge that “literary fiction” is good for you – and the world.

Is John Dos Passos unique? You could answer affirmatively for many reasons; one may be pictured above. As reproduced in Eric Robertson’s study Blaise Cendras: The invention of life (Reaktion, £25), published last month, here is the title page for the Dos Passos edition of Cendars’s globe-traversing poem Le Panama ou les Aventures de Mes Sept Oncles (1918), along with other poems by a writer he admired intensely, and with whom he felt a certain kinship. This is an edition of Cendras that is both “translated from the French” by Dos Passos and “illustrated” by Dos Passos. Isn’t this one of the rarer forms of compliment? Have many other notable writers translated and illustrated another one’s work? We would like to know.

Not long after meeting Cendars in France, Dos Passos boarded a transatlantic tramp steamer and got to work. The routine (according to his biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr) was translating in the morning “with a dictionary and French grammar at hand”, then switching to painting after lunch. Inspiration was to be found in his “immediate surroundings”: “ropes, funnels, decks, and deckhands … tiny fishing boats, schooners, freighters, and luxury liners hobbled to their wharves, awaiting a change of tide.” See above.

Robertson has much to say about the remarkable Panama; of the Dos Passos version, he merely notes that its publication, in 1931, brought Cendrars recognition in the US, even as Cendrars himself was hitting a creative “standstill”.

Correspondence. Renewing our search for collective nouns – meaning both odd but obsolete terms and fresh, waggish coinages (July 8) – we have found it easier to stumble across the latter than the former. Anyone may coin a term. Few may make it stick. George Crisp writes from West Kensington with an alliterative suggestion: “a penury of poets.” This is one collective noun, we reckon, with a shot at survival.

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