Hazel McHaffie

social commentary

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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