Hazel McHaffie

literary fiction

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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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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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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