Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Slippery Eel of Literary Fiction

Daphne Lee in today's Starmag wrestles valiantly with the term "literary fiction" which if it is an animal at all, I think is a very slippery eel.

But I love this definition that she takes from David Lubar :
If you’re ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there’s a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.
She says that she herself does not much care for the label:
Personally, I dislike the term literary as I feel it’s much too broad and doesn’t do justice to the variety of voices involved in telling the stories that fall into the category. Those who say they enjoy books that are literary will agree that they are distinguished by their high quality of writing – writing that is evocative and provocative, original and daring. It is certainly not formulaic. And this means that it’s virtually impossible to predict the kind of story told by an author who is dubbed literary.
It's really just a term of convenience, isn't it? Herding buffaloes into a pen and books onto an appropriate shelf in the shop. And as someone pointed out long ago on this blog, there is far less segregation of books in American publishing. (I think we Brits like to hold on to our various snobberies for as long as possible. Class distinctions don't hold true anymore, so let's transfer our sniffiness to books.)

For me it’s a question of a satisfying read. I can no longer enjoy something simple and formulaic. I want to be both entertained and surprised. I want to read something that touches my heart so much that I can never forget the experience. I want to be in the company of someone more intelligent than I am, who can show me new things about the world and make me see things in a different way. I want to believe fully in the characters I read about, care about them, and enter into their world. I want to be delighted by the language to the extent that I find myself rereading passages for pure pleasure.

Call that what you like.

Anyway, the wisest and most wonderful people in the Malaysian literary universe (including - ahem - myself) come up with lists of favourite literary books.

And always there's the compulsion to compare your own reading against the lists of others.

Mine looks more low-brow than the others.


Should have nicked a few titles from Preeta's list - I love Midnight's Children and think it changed the landscape for many later authors, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is a novel I really love too and have read twice with a hunger now to read it again. And Preeta shares my love for Peter Carey - great!

Spot on, the way Tan Twan Eng describes Ian McEwan's writing:
... his diamond-hard prose buffed to a shine. Like swallowing a cold drink too quickly and feeling the pain hit the centre of your forehead.
Oh yes. (I'm reading Atonement at the moment and it is so beautifully evocative that I feel sad at leaving one page behind to move onto the next. But I have the sicky feeling of dread as I always do with McEwan, knowing as always in his books that the unthinkable is just about to happen ...)

I'd go with Janet Tay's enthusiasm for Coetzee (but - note to self - need to do some urgent catching up on his more recent titles), and Bernice's choice of Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and Jennifer Gabriel's love of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. (I knew there had to be a real serious bookaholic in charge of Kinokuniya's excellent literature section!)

Amir's list reminds me that it's time to reread Nabokov's Lolita, as well as catch up on some of his short stories, and that belatedly I'd better start reading Flaubert and James Baldwin.

Too many books. Too little time. Whatever label you want to stick on 'em, why not go just for the best?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lolita is one scary book.