Friday, 30 March 2012

The Oxford Literary Festival: Part Two – The Genre/Literary Divide

The Oxford Literary Festival comes to an end this weekend, but my attendance is now complete and I have four signed books to show for it, just as I had hoped.  If there was a pattern to the first part of my experience of the festival, it would have been children’s and YA books and writing.  If there is a pattern to the second part, it would be the literary fiction/genre fiction divide, something I have rather strong opinions about, as a writer of a YA fantasy novel and a doctoral student looking at those very canonical authors, the Brontes.  My reading and writing tends to be, as Lev Grossman might say, rather bifurcated (gosh, isn’t that a great word?).

Tuesday, I attended a panel discussion rather provokingly called But Is It Literature?, at which Christopher Priest, author of The Prestige, and Mark Billingham, a crime writer, spoke.  I had read neither of these authors, but I do like speculative and crime fiction (when done well) and the topic interested me.  I think there are some really fascinating issues to be dug into regarding genre fiction and literary fiction, itself, as Mr. Billingham said, a genre like any other with its own tropes and expectations. 

However, with all due respect to the panellists and the moderator, I didn’t feel this discussion really grappled with the issues surrounding “literariness” and where genre fiction fits into that.  Last year’s Booker shortlist, roundly criticized for including books partly on the basis of readability, was raised and the naysayers lambasted.  The topic of reading for enjoyment came up.  Mark Billingham seemed to suggest that if you don’t enjoy a book, there is no good reason to go on with it.  I read Victorian literature for enjoyment now; when I slogged through Jane Eyre at fifteen, it was much less enjoyable.  However, it was also valuable training for the more difficult books I was going to meet and fall in love with in future life.  Readability and enjoyment cannot be the be all and end all; on the other hand, there is no point to book that is trying only to be difficult (*cough*Finnegan’s Wake?*cough*).

I was also surprised that in a discussion of the literary merits of genre fiction, language and prose style weren’t raised until an audience member asked a question about it.  So, on the whole, I felt there was much more to be discussed on the topic.

Thursday, I attended a panel called The Power of the Critic, at which Andrew Holgate and Peter Kemp, editor and reviewer, respectively, for the Sunday Times’ book review pages spoke.  The discourse here was much different from at the genre talk.  The process of deciding which books to review and the dos and don’ts of reviewing were covered, as well as the various ways irate authors can get back at their reviewers following bad reviews (this usually involves killing off or torturing characters who happen to share the reviewer's name in one’s next book).  On this panel, the Booker shortlist of last year was roundly criticized (though I did agree that Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent The Stranger’s Child probably should have been included) and the criteria of “readability” dismissed.  Internally, I went “Ack!” at that point.  What’s wrong with a good story?

Also, if the audience was anything to go by, broadsheet reviewing may be in trouble in this country.  I’m sure I was the youngest person in the room.

Tonight, I attended my final event of the festival.  Lev Grossman, the literary critic from Time Magazine and the author of the wonderful literary fantasy novel The Magicians spoke on storytelling and the new avant-garde of American novels at an event hosted by the Rothermere American Institute.  It was a fantastic talk and it covered a lot of the areas I had hoped would be discussed at the But Is It Literature? panel. 

Grossman gave a brief history of the novel, from Robinson Crusoe (1719) through to Henry James and the High Modernists.  He argued that for the first 150 or so years of the novel’s life, it was a genre that could be both High and Low in terms of art.  Dickens was a popular novelist, after all.  However, he identified James as first putting his work forward as high art only (which is rather amusing, since James referred to The Turn of the Screw, one of his most influential books, as a pot-boiler).  The Modernists, seeking to subvert the realist, linear narratives of their Victorian youths in the aftermath of World War I, created a high art version of the novel with fragmented narrative, difficult language, stream of consciousness, etc., which we now call the literary novel.

And so, since then, the literary novel and the genre novel have been running on parallel tracks, never meeting.  Grossman suggested that with the growing number of literary novelists now using genre elements in their novels (Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy) and the equally large number of genre writers exploding their genres and writing literary novels (Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, China Mieville, etc.) that these two novelistic forms might be working their way back toward each other.

The big change here, Grossman submitted, is an renewed interest in old-fashioned storytelling.  As an exemplar of this new avant-garde in novel-writing, he put forward George R. R. Martin, who, Grossman believes, is plotting in sophisticated ways that no literary novelist could match.  The Modernist version of the literary novel is very old; new novelists are fusing genre and literary elements and re-embracing plot.  As a reader of the literary canon and some contemporary literature (mostly historical – more story-based) and a lot of young adult and fantasy literature, this is a trend I can wholeheartedly support.  Long may it continue!

Lev Grossman then very kindly signed my copy of The Magicians – my fourth signed book of the festival.


  1. Have you, by any chance, read Gaiman's introduction to his anthology of short stories? Its short but I think that it demonstrates the importance of good storytelling and its resurgence in the literary world. And yes bifurcated is a great word.

    1. Hey Jamie,

      Good to see you in blogland! No, I haven't read the intro to the Gaiman anthology but that's really interesting that he's picking up on this trend too.

      Have you read a lot of Gaiman, by the bye? I've only read Stardust so far and am wondering what to read next... I have a copy of the Graveyard Book at home in my parents' basement I know I need to read.

  2. I've read almost everything Gaiman has written. (except for Coraline and The Graveyard Book and a few other of his kids books). Sandman was the first thing of his that I read and it blew me away. It is a graphic novel but it is first class story telling that is creative beyond belief, though very dark and sometimes terribly violent. American Gods is probably his best novel, but he really shines in his short stories.

    On a completely unrelated note I just noticed that you use &c. to write etc. and I am quite happy about that.

    1. Excellent! So, I basically can't go wrong where Gaiman is concerned.

      Also, I'm glad someone finally noticed and appreciates my use of the old short-form for "etc." :)