Hazel McHaffie

Mother’s Milk

Confessions of a heretic

Yippee! I’ve FINISHED the first full draft of my new novel about body image. Yeaaaaaahhhh!

The title has gone through about nine variants but is now set: Inside of Me. Copies are currently winging their way to my first raft of critics. Even yet – yes, after eight published novels – it takes a lot of courage to allow my baby to fly the nest. Perhaps just one more edit …..? Maybe polish up the language a tad more before …? But as the saying goes, perfection is always one more draft away.

Time then to distract my mind with other things. How about literary versus genre fiction?

What’s your view of literary fiction, I wonder? Are you a fan? Or do you secretly find such writing boring and so-what-ish? Someone once said ‘Literary fiction is just clever marketing’. Give that man a cream bun. A valiant attempt at nailing something rather elusive. What exactly is it? There seem to be few rules to define it.

Mother's Milk My mind has been idly juggling this question during the week because Edward St Aubyn‘s Mother’s Milk came to the top of my tbr pile. It’s categorised as literary fiction? But why? Well, I found five core qualifications:

1. It was shortlisted for a major literary prize – in this case the Man Booker Prize in 2006 (see how far behind I am here?!).

2. The author is openly described as amongst the cream of British novelists in the upper echelons of the book world.

3. He has a masterful way with words; a strong and distinctive style of writing, rich, and finely crafted.

4. Mother’s Milk garnered a wealth of superlative quotes from a range of very selective critics: fantastically well-written, profound, humane, brilliant, blackly comic, exhilarating, wonderfully caustic, elegant … the list goes on.

5. It’s very character-driven and precious little actually happens.

I confess it was only the writing that redeemed this book for me personally. Basically the narrative explores the relationships between Patrick and his wife Mary, their respective mothers, and their two infant sons. Apart from Patrick’s adultery, his mother’s declining health and alleged desire for assisted death, and the will-he-won’t-he help her to die element, nothing of any consequence or interest happens in their lives. I didn’t care about any of the characters. What’s more, the two boys are totally unbelievable: analysing life from the moment of birth, using sophisticated adult thinking and language from infancy, precociously psychoanalysing and mimicking adults. I have never met such a child, nor indeed would I ever want to!

BUT – the book is positively littered with literary pearls, gems that made me seriously envious of St Aubyn’s skill with words. I’ll share a few of them here.

After a traumatic delivery, longing to be back securely in the womb, one of the babies wanted ‘the bandage of his mother’s arms to wrap around him’.

Patrick says of his mother who’s passionate about saving the world: ‘Do you know what my mother told me the other day? A child born in a developed nation will consume two hundred and forty times the resources consumed by a child born in Bangladesh. If we’d had the self restraint to have two hundred and thirty-nine Bangladeshi children, she would have given us a warmer welcome, but this gargantuan Westerner, who is going to take up acres of landfill with his disposable nappies, and will soon be clamouring for a personal computer powerful enough to launch a Mars flight while playing tic-tac-toe with a virtual buddy in Dubrovnik, is not likely to win her approval.’

Patrick walks through the corridor of the nursing home and notes ‘a roaring television masked another kind of silence. The crumpled paper-white residents sat in rows. What could be making death take so long?’

When he tells someone about possibly helping his mother to die she replies, ‘There must be some special Furies for children who kill their parents.’ ‘Yeah’ says Patrick, ‘Wormwood Scrubs.’

He ‘hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them. They were all too often only the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions.’

Surely the mark of a writer at the top of his game.

So what about genre writing? Well, what d’you know? Disordered MindsThe next book in my pile was Disordered Minds by Minette Walters. Walters has won several prestigious awards (tick) and an impressive raft of reviews (tick), but she’s pigeonholed by her genre; she isn’t accorded the same kind of accolades as St Aubyn. Nor indeed is she a walking masterclass in well turned metaphors.

HOWEVER I was up to page 270 of her book at the end of the first sitting. Here is a psychological thriller that combines believable well drawn characters with a gripping plot; the kind that turns its own pages. Sheer escapism.

It’s a tale of a missing girl, a dead woman, a miscarriage of justice and two academics intrigued by the case thirty years later.  There are no beautiful sentences to pass on, but boy, I raced through it, really wanting to know if the gang rape of a thirteen year old is linked to the murder of a grandmother and the conviction of her grandson and his subsequent suicide.

So, there you have it: my take on the issue. If I want to delight in exquisite language, maybe up my own game, I’ll choose literary fiction. If I want to be entertained and lose myself in a good read I’m much more likely to go for genre fiction.

And as if to highlight the problem I subsequently came across a review of Steve Toltz ‘s new novel, Quicksand (which purports to be literary), but critic, Jon Day, slated it as ‘too pleased with itself to be properly satisfying.’ Ouch! He illustrates:

‘Nor do you feel Toltz is in total control of his figurative language. On the first page we get a lifeguard who looks like “a magnificent sea-Jesus” and a woman “riddled with breasts”. A shaft of sun is described as a “tumour of searing light”. Who is seeing this? Why a tumour? Someone else “looks like a taxidermy fail”; a room has “the quality of the inside of a wet cheek”; a pair of doctors swoop into a room “like a Mongol armies”. (Both of them?) It gets tiring. Sometimes Toltz is so pleased with one of his metaphors he’ll use it twice … There’s a lyrical absurdity and masculine swagger to the prose …’

Ouch, again. But you can sympathise with his quibble, can’t you? The ‘preposterous similes‘ and over-the-top figures of speech alienate the reader, stop you in your tracks, drawing attention more to the author’s  own (perceived) skill with words rather than what he’s writing about. A cautionary tale indeed which makes me feel marginally less heretical about saying what I’ve said. And further confirms my decision to avoid sophisticated similes and mesmerising metaphors myself.


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