Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Why the Difference Matters.

As an English teacher, I have experienced the groans and complaints of students when you announce with enthusiasm that the novel they will study for term will be one of the classics such as Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, or, even better, the great William Shakespeare himself. Not fair! they cry. They want Rowling over Orwell, Riordan over Melville, Taylor Swift over Keats or Byron. One of the first questions out of their collective mouths when you announce the title of the text is, “Have they made a movie of it?”

I’ve heard all the comments. “It’s boring.” “I don’t understand it.” “Nothing happens for page after page.” “Why doesn’t she just tell the story instead of all this description?” There are many other similar observations. Students today find it hard to see the relevance of these works. They live in a world of immediate satisfaction, of CGI movies, of plot over characterisation, of story over theme or form.

Schools have students study the classics–also termed literary fiction or literature–for a very good reason. They’re hard. Teachers want their students to use their minds, to analyse, to question, to be exposed to great writing, to begin to question the world and seek truth. You have to work at literary fiction. You have to think about it. Your mind must be engaged and functioning on all cylinders in order to appreciate it fully. That’s why it’s taught.

There are basically two types of fiction (a term which includes drama, film, art and music as well, but I’ll stick to novels for the purposes of this essay to make it easier). Literary fiction is more than simple narrative or polemic. It presents complex ideas about life, the universe and everything (thanks Doug!). Its form and content influence each other. It explores critical perspectives, the individual’s relationship to society and emotional manipulation. Most importantly, it is not reducible to any one correct interpretation. Genre fiction is more popular, does not normally explore theme or allow for deep critical analysis. It declares that form and content are separate entities which do not influence each other. It is usually only capable of one interpretation and does not invite resistant readings.

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“texture” by honeycut07 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The terms form and content, so important to both of these, require further explanation. Form is exactly that: the form of the work, the structure and style. Genre fiction follows a particular form. The standard romantic comedy has boy meet girl, they hit it off initially, have a falling out, re-unite at the 5/6 point and, after the clearing up of misunderstandings, live happily ever after. A romance author who deviates from this tried and true formula risks readers’ disapproval. Science fiction creates expectations of science-based ideas, aliens and spaceships. Horror is usually expected to explore supernatural themes, and so forth . I know I’m generalising here but it’s to make a point.

The generally accepted structure of genre fiction follows that tried-and-true formula of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, denoument and resolution. This structure is taught in creative writing classes. It’s spouted as the way to write a story, and woe betide the author who strays from it. The style must follow the style of books of a similar genre.

Literary fiction does not necessarily do any of this. In it, form and content influence each other. Rules are broken for structure and style because the depth of theme, the examination of character, the complication of the story demand that they be free to follow whatever course they need to in order to put across the message. In Moby-Dick  Herman Melville stops the plot and lectures on such esoteric topics as chowder, harpoons, try-pots and the taste of whale meat because that information helps the reader to fully appreciate the word of whaling, so that the last hundred pages, in which the pursuit of the white whale becomes some of the greatest hunting-themed prose ever written, can be appreciated on a deeper, more visceral level, than might otherwise have been possible if the reader plunged in without all this “knowledge of the trade”. Melville even has an entire chapter is which is “proves” that the whale is not a mammal but a fish, simply because this misinformation better serves the story.

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“Yup, whale.” by ScottDonald is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Literary fiction is given to students to study because they have to work at it. The themes–for there can be more than one–must be hunted for. The reader can draw from it their own individual reaction and understanding. Genre fiction is produced for the mass market. It nestles in the safe world of the tried and true. The author is confident that readers will want to read it because they, too, like the comfort of a known structure and style. While the content of genre fiction is infinitely variable, its predictable form carries reassurance.

I’m not saying that genre fiction is less worthwhile than literary fiction. I love genre fiction. I write genre fiction. It’s great to read a book in which I can turn off the brain and the critical analysis and happily plunge into the world of the story. Nothing wrong with that at all. But there is equally a place for literary fiction, and a need for it to be taught in schools.

If you want to write literary fiction, go for it. Experiment. Do your own thing. But be careful: what the reader takes from it might not be what you intended. Your baby is open to multiple interpretations. Critics will see things you never anticipated. You might even be told you’re wrong!

There is a place for both types of fiction. Make sure you know which type you’re reading or writing. And enjoy both. That’s what good writing  and reading is all about.

(Featured image “Book Store Heaven” by C_Greengrass is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 )

http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

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The Horror of Children’s Stories

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This is repost from an earlier one. It’s still relevant though.

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

You might think the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.

My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.

Road Beasts

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I stand on the corner and watch the

Cars rush by.

 The drivers, in cocoons of metal and glass,

Windows up, the world shut out,

Air conditioning on, radio LOUD,

Listening to the drive-time DJ

Serve his daily dose of stereo bubble-gum.

 Where are they going, these car junkies?

What is so important

They risk their lives to bet there?

 See the drivers:

A man, his face set in anger,

Huddles over his steering-wheel

Like he has to hold it on,

Fumes the traffic is too slow,

Mouths his frustration:

“For God’s sake hurry up!”

To the other drivers, who cannot hear.

 A woman, her back-seat driving child

Swaddled in safety harness, safety seat,

Safety-nappy, dummy,

Thumbs a text message on her phone

As the car inches forward at the lights

Like her child’s life was merely incidental.

 A young man, out to impress,

His penis-exhaust throbbing,

One arm propped out the window,

The other reluctantly, insolently,

Resting lightly on the steering-wheel,

A cigarette set in the corner of his mouth

At just the right angle to make the girls notice.

 Road beasts, the cars, pass by,

Spewing, roaring, rushing, purring like cats,

Chugging, crawling,

Deep-chested booms and stutters,

Carrying cargoes of the helpless.

 What would we do without them?

No way to get from here to our next bit

Of mindless triviality.

 I stand on the corner and watch the cars rush by,

And I wonder to myself

Oh, why? Why? Why?

 

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com