Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Literary Impulse

I’ve been going through something of a literary phase of late – by which I mean that I’ve been reading outside of my usual genre preoccupations – reading things like Camus The Plague, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (for the umpteenth time), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Patrick Suskind’s magnificent novel Perfume.

Apart from anything else, I think it’s important to have a varied literary diet. My usual reading consists of lots of heroic fantasy/ sword and sorcery, hard boiled crime (with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and, always, Jim Thompson being particular favourites) the odd western (particularly H.A DeRossa and the westerns of Elmore Leonard) and such gothic novels as Melmoth the Wanderer, The Castle of Otranto and Vathek. But every once in a while I like to take a stroll to the more upmarket side of the avenue and spend some time in the company of the literati.

One of the principal differences I’ve noted between ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ fiction has to do with notions of style, form and content.

A currently fashionable dictum for writers is the notion that everything needs to be couched in scenes, with the attendant preoccupation for description. Thus, for some writers, it’s impossible for a character to do something as mundane as drink a cup of coffee: we are told that the reader must know exactly what the coffee is like – too strong, too bitter, just right, have him/her swill the cup before tasting, only to discover that said beverage is too hot, too cold or, indeed, just right - in order to create the illusion on the page that coffee is being consumed.

To an extent, of course, this is perfectly correct… but only if said cup o’ java has any real significance, otherwise you run the risk of bogging the narrative down with extraneous detail that serves no real purpose other than to bulk out the word content of the story (and given the current proclivity for doorstep-size novels, it’s sometimes an easy option when your searching for those extra five or six thousand words in order to reach the publisher’s required word count). Similarly, the oft-trumpeted rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ seems to me to apply most strongly to genre writing. In Suskind’s Perfume, for instance, we are told right at the very start and in no uncertain terms that the principal character is an evil and murderous man, a statement which subsequent events and his subsequent actions bear out. Similarly, huge chunks of dialogue are rendered quickly by narrative jumps of the ‘they spoke for hours before X was finally persuaded’ variety.

And therein, to my mind, is one of the main differences between the literary and the generic – in a genre story, particularly a contemporary one, that licence to merely say ‘this is so and here’s why’, has been somewhat lost to us. Not only that, but there is a movement posited by certain writing gurus that the word ‘was’ has become somewhat redundant. So no longer is it possible to use the well worn – if bland – opener of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, now we have to fill every line with hyperbolic description: under the same rules it’s no longer possible to write ‘He was a tall man’, but rather now the writer must find a way of bringing the character through a low door-frame. Not so with the literary novel, where very often efficient rather than layered description is the order of the day.

In part, I think it’s to do with the need for continual action that pervades much genre fiction – the snake men must appear in chapter two, the man with the gun must come through the door every time the plot flags, the cattle need to stampede, or the aliens found to be hostile – something that is not necessarily the case in its mainstream counterpart.

Equally though, it has much to do with the intention of the novel or story in question. Literary fiction is often inward looking, concerned more with the internal rather than external life of the character, whereas genre fiction is outward looking, hence the need for action, for something to be happening in the story to propel it along.

This is not to say that genre fiction cannot or does not aspire to and on occasion succeeds in its own right as literature - after all, good writing is good writing regardless of the marketplace – but we, as genre writers, are very often hidebound by the rules that we impose upon ourselves.

There are exceptions, of course. Writers like Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Lucius Shepard, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and others of their ilk have deftly fused both the literary and genre traditions – simultaneously looking both inward and outward – to create their own singular styles.

Thankfully, writing fads come and go, but the bottom line of fiction, any fiction, is that of a good story well told. And when it comes to that tricky business of show vs. tell it’s perhaps important to remember that the word is ‘storyteller’ not ‘storyshower’.

1 comment:

  1. I truly enjoyed this post and think you've summed up literary fiction quite well. I found you via my google alert for literary fiction, my favorite reading. - have to laugh at another reference I came across tonight ...a book club member who referred to it as the castor oil of literature.LOL