Hazel McHaffie

Penelope Lively

Literary fiction: profound or sleep-inducing?

An essential part of a writer’s life is reading. Reading voraciously. Reading widely. Reading critically. Reading. Reading. Reading.

OK. No problem there. I love reading. I read every single day. My shelves are permanently stacked with books. And I owe my career to the authors whose books I’ve devoured. But some are indisputably more daunting than others, and so-called literary fiction is one category that I have to approach with determination; as regular visitors to my blog know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. But maybe I should rapidly mend my ways.

Researchers at Stanford University found that fiction helps readers to empathise more with other people, and the deeper the book delves into the characters the more the reader ‘walks in their shoes.’ So it’s official! Just as we always knew. Reading not only broadens the mind but it makes one a more empathetic human being. Well, but hang on a minute … maybe the conclusion rings true, but see here as to whether or not this claim can really be justified from this particular study.

But I digress. I do actually make concerted efforts periodically to try to get a handle on what’s acknowledged by the literati as meritorious writing. And the summer time seemed like a good time to soak up some healthy rays and dig into an acknowledged high quality piece of writing.

The Photograph

So that’s why Penelope Lively‘s work came under my microscope. Now in her eighties, Lively has yards of prestigious awards to her credit, including the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books. An OBE, CBE and DBE track her recognition from 1989 till she was made a Dame in 2012. So she’s indisputably masterclass level, right? Sit at her feet and learn.

What then of her 2003 novel, The Photograph? It opens with the discovery of an envelope buried in a mountain of papers in a cupboard in widower Glyn’s house. Lightly pencilled on it is an instruction in the unmistakable hand of his deceased wife, Kath: DON’T OPEN – DESTROY. Compelled by curiosity however, he ignores the instruction and finds a photograph of Kath holding hands with another man. And not just any other man; a man whom Glyn knows very well. Glyn becomes obsessed by this revelation and one by one he drags others into his relentless and reckless search for the truth about the wife he thought he knew.

Sounds like a fair enough plot, yes? It was attractive enough to make me buy the book anyway.

But as with most literary fiction the pace is very … very … slow. The characters are revealed very … very … slowly with attention to tiny… tiny … details. What’s more the revelation when it comes is hardly earth-shattering; I guessed from early on how Kath died (not revealed until P208 of 236) and what troubled her. So what kept me reading? Sheer obstinacy – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Plus an appreciation of the mastery of the author’s language. Undisputed. A couple of examples will suffice:

No people here; the insect-crawl of cars. Glyn’s house is lost now, digested into the urban mass, a tiny box in a row of similar boxes. And the mass itself, the inscrutable complex muddle, bleeds away at its edges, getting sparser and sparser until it is lapped entirely by space. Or rather, by spaces – squares and triangles and rectangles ad oblongs and distorted versions of such shapes, edged sometimes with dark ridges. Dark spongy masses, long pale lines slicing away into the distance. Here and there a miniature version of the city density, a little concentration of energy at the confluence of lines. And then eventually space gives way – there’s a spillage, seepage, a burgeoning unrest that condenses once more into city format: the enigmatic fusion of now and then, everything happening at once.’

Aged 4, Kath is ‘a local distraction on the fringes of my [her 10-year old sister’s] vision.

And then there’s the resonance with the essential truths about people which Lively recognises:

Behaviour that is engaging in someone of twenty-five becomes less so at forty, let alone at fifty-eight. Where once she was beguiled, she has for many years been exasperated, though exasperated in the tempered, low-key way of long-standing acceptance.’  … ‘He remained in a time-warp of feckless adolescence.

She is fragmented now. The dead don’t go; they just slip into other people’s heads.’

‘The world smiles on the physically attractive …’

So, a classic example of literary fiction? A work of literary merit that offers deliberate social commentary or political criticism? Or one which focuses in some profound or moving way on the individual in order to explore some part of the human condition? Yee…esss. Or, if you’re a closet-philistine, a work as dull and pointless as reading the dictionary because nothing exciting happens? Which camp do you fall into, I wonder?

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Books books and more books

Book tokenI’ve had a very generous book token burning a hole in my pocket for too long now. Holding me back was a real conscience about acquiring any more books when my shelves are already groaning, and I couldn’t get to the bottom of my my tbr pile if I did nothing else but read for the rest of the year.

But hey, everybody who knows anything says that writers must read … and read … and read. Voraciously. Comprehensively. Widely. Constantly.

Besides which, it would be churlish not to appreciate this wonderful gift, so I’ve succumbed and been spending it over the last few weeks. What fun. I delved into my file marked BOOKS I MUST READ, re-read the reviews, ordered my choices, and hey presto! here they are.

Books acquired - first pile(I didn’t realise this first batch were colour coordinated until I put them together to photograph!)

Books acquired - second pile

And …

Books acquired - third pile

And finally …

Books acquired - fourth pile

I might be gone some time!

Speaking of treasured books brings me to the lady in a village in Cambridgeshire who bought an old phone box for her husband as a birthday present in 2011. He restored it and installed it on the forecourt of their garage (on land they owned) and they filled it with over 800 books, opening it to their friends and neighbours. It became a free and much valued part of community life. Brilliant. Four years later though, the district council suddenly decided the phone box needed planning permission for a change of use, a process that would cost the owners £400. The poor lady emptied the shelves, bagged up the books and bundled them into a skip (I think for storage not disposal). Mercifully the council eventually saw sense and the phone box was reprieved, but not before the said stock were damaged by the wet weather. Nothing daunted she has now rebuilt her supplies and the phone box library is back in operation this month. Three cheers for her indomitable spirit and stunning services to reading.

The thought of 800 books going to waste like this makes me value my own collection even more.

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Points of View

My new novel is told through the eyes of three different narrators, and I’ve spent a lot of time and thought juggling with the options as to how best to present them. State the name at the beginning of each point of view? Designate chapters? Make the first paragraph by each person tell its own story? Leave the reader to fathom it out? Or what? In the end I went for the narrator’s name at the top of each chapter, as, for example, Jodi Picoult and Diane Chamberlain do. And as I did in Over my Dead Body.

After all, I don’t want my readers to be confused or struggling, do I?

Nor though, do I wish to underestimate their intelligence. Hmmm.

Moon TigerBut then, this week I’ve been reading Penelope Lively‘s Moon Tiger and I’m gobsmacked. Not only does she not give any such readerly assistance, but she changes POVs within chapters without warning, inserts flashbacks, omits punctuation willy nilly, doesn’t even break up dialogue. Surely this is pushing the boundaries a bit too far? And yet … well, I’m keeping up. OK, I’m having to concentrate, but it soon becomes clear who’s speaking. Sometimes it’s the once beautiful and famous historian, Claudia Hampton, now elderly and dying, lying in bed waiting for the end but thinking of bygone days. Sometimes it’s her young self, travelling, falling in love, working in exotic places, reporting wars and other civilisations. Sometimes it’s her only brother and adored adversary, Gordon. Sometimes it’s her daughter’s father, Jasper, charming but untrustworthy. Sometimes her colourless and conventional daughter, Lisa. Sometimes her one true love, Tom, found and lost in war-torn Egypt. A mad confusing medley you might think, and not the place to flout all the usual literary conventions. It certainly wouldn’t suit a lot of people I know. Probably not most who read my books in fact.

But hey, let’s not get too sniffy. After all, Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987. And Lively herself has been made a Dame for her contribution to literature!

That’s literary fiction for you. Rules? What rules?

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