Monday, March 06, 2006

Liierary Fiction Versus Pulp Fiction

I have just started reading Man and Wife by Tony Parsons and I have to say that so far I am finding it a bit lightweight and sickeningly sweet and sentimental. I am hoping that it is going to improve and I prepared to give it at least a couple more chapters.

It has, however, made me ask myself the question have I sold out my literary values for a quick and easy read? and the answer is that I am not sure. Sure, writers like Tony parsons aren't in the same league of slush writing as Catherine Cookson et al, but they aren't exactly challenging either. But what exactly is it that a makes a book a work of literature. Does a work of literature have to be difficult to read, full of long words, metaphors and complex language? Is it more to do with the plot line, the connections between characters or is it simply the unique voice of the writer that determines whether a work of fiction is deemed literary or not?

The answer is that I am not sure - but I do know that there is a difference. In some cases it is more obvious. For example if you compare J K Rowling to Phillip Pullman - Harry Potter is a darned good adventure story, there is a lot of stuff in there about human realtionships and the struggle between good and evil. But in HP the struggle between good and evil is clear for all to understand, I defy anyone to read Harry Potter and not understand what is going on. There really is no subtext to speak of and Ms Rowling uses ordinary language which is easy to read and understand. Pullman on the other hand writes books that have many layers meaning, he bends your ideas of reality, morality and religion and he also uses more complex language, plotlines and concepts.

Found this description on Wikpedia that seems to sum it up:

"people may perceive a difference between "literature" and some popular forms of written work. The terms "literary fiction" and "literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works. For example, almost all literate people perceive the works of Charles Dickens as "literature", whereas many tend to look down on the works of Jeffrey Archer as unworthy of inclusion under the general heading of "English literature". Critics may exclude works from the classification "literature", for example, on the grounds of a poor standard of grammar and syntax, of an unbelievable or disjointed story-line, or of inconsistent or unconvincing characters. Genre fiction (for example: romance, crime, or science fiction) may also become excluded from consideration as "literature"."

So Basically authors like Tony Parsons come under the heading popular fiction and are not really worthy of being labelled as great literary works (although who knows in 300 years they may be hailed as such - look at Jane Austen and Charles Dickens!) whilst authors such as Louise Erdrich, Donna Tart, T C Boyle etc are more of a literary bent.

That doesn't mean that popular fiction is not worthy. Isn't it good to get the masses to read? I think so, although I do sometimes wonder whether it contributes to the "dumbing down" of society that seems so prevelnt at the moment. A side effect of the quick fix tv culure perhaps, I have noticed several of my friends and family (as well as N who is 13) have said recently that they couldn't be bothered to read some books because they were too difficult - and they weren't books that were that difficult. I sometimes wonder if we give up too easily these days - at N's age I was reading classics like War of the Worlds, The 39 Steps, Day of the Triffids and Gormenghast.

Gormenghast is a very good example. I know several people who have not persevered beyond the first couple of chapters. Yes the language is a little archaic at times (not unlike that of Lord of the Rings), and his description is sometimes a little verbose and unweildly, but the books are so worth persevering with. I have been reading the first book Titus Groan to N and as predicted he found the first two or three chapters tricky but now he is hooked. Peake creates such incredibly weird and multi-faceted characters and his descriptions of both people and places are fabulous. I don't think that the recent BBC series did it justice - it would be a fantastic challenge for Peter jackson!

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