Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

the narrowing world of literary fiction

I've been thinking a good deal about a recent blog post by Adam Roberts, a fine scholar and even better novelist whose work you should know. (Here are some thoughts of mine about his fascinating book New Model Army). In this post he's reflecting on the general tendency among the literati to dismiss science fiction and fantasy and, especially, young adult (YA) novels as being intrinsically less complex and innovative than what we usually call "literary" fiction.

Take the Twilight books. There are lots of ways in which these are very bad books, of course: clumsily written, derivative etc etc. BUT! They speak to and move millions, and I’m uncomfortable simply mocking that. It (the mockery) seems to me symptomatic of an attitude that defines ‘aesthetic merit’ solely in terms of stylistic or formal innovation. These novels are about something important (sex) and they write about it in an ahem penetrating way—sexual desire as a life-changing force that is at the same time something that doesn’t happen; sex as something simultaneously compelling and alarming, that draws you on and scares you away in equal measure. There are no Booker shortlisted novels that are about that. Indeed the post-Chatterley novel has taken it as more-or-less axiomatic that sex is something to be explicitly and lengthily portrayed in writing. The mainstream fiction attitude to sexual representation is ‘adult’ in the several senses of that word. I have no problem with that myself; I'm not advocating prudery, or Victorian sexual morality. I'm suggesting that that’s not actually how sex manifests in the lives of a great many people.

Or take Harry Potter, bigger even than Meyer. Formally conservative and stylistically flat novels, yes—but this series is one of the great representations of school in western culture. Perhaps the greatest. School dominates your life from 5-18; more if you go to college. When you’re 25 and reading fiction, school has been literally two thirds of your existence. It is our gateway to the adult world, our first experience of socialisation outside the family. It’s a massive thing. When do Booker shortlisted novels ever apprehend it? They don’t—the most you will get is a little background of character A’s schooltimes past, by way of fleshing out their characterisation as adults. Because it is as adults that we’re supposed to be interested in. [School is]a massive, global phenomenon. Yet where are the other great novels of school life?

Roberts is a consistently imaginative and provocative thinker, but this post is especially important. What he's showing us is that the typical story we tell about the rise of modern fiction — a story of expanding possibility, of increasing frankness about experiences, especially sexual ones, that our ancestors drew a discreet curtain across — is highly selective and hence distorting. The freedom to treat "adult" issues has led to a neglect in our fiction of experiences deemed to be less than adult. Yet, "Victorian sexual morality" notwithstanding, Charles Dickens could treat school experiences as of equal interest to adult love and loss. (Roberts: "And of course people often denigrate him — compared say, to ‘properly adult’ writers like Eliot or Thackeray — as somehow an immature figure, a child who never quite grew up. Bollocks to that. Feature not bug, people! Feature; not bug.") What if the much-celebrated "openness" of our recent fiction is simultaneously a closing-off?

All that said, I find myself thinking, Is Roberts actually correct about how thoroughly novelists of the past hundred years have neglected these experiences? There's a good deal about school in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, isn't there? And I wonder if to some degree the narrative treatment of school experiences hasn't been offloaded to memoir and autobiography, as in Paul Watkins's lovely Stand Before Your God. But about the neglect of sex as something imagined and sought and feared rather than experienced, I think he must be correct. Thoughts? What have I missed?

2 comments:

  • I think he's very, very right, particularly about demanding sexual experience in high literature. Thank you for posting this. If he's missed anything from the past 100 years, I'd say it's Brideshead Revisited. It's about College, not High School, but for me nothing expresses that mystical sensation I had in school (and nowhere else) better than this:

    "But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city."

  • I have thought about this post (and Roberts') occasionally in the last couple years, and thought of it again this weekend when I finished Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. While it wasn't outstanding (let's say 8/10), it absolutely nailed the experience of school, and especially the idea of "sex as something imagined and sought and feared." More impressively, Murray writes about adolescents in a contemporary setting, and all the modern tech that implies, without ever resorting to ham-handed commentary on Kids These Days and Their Horrible Gadgets. Which I suppose is as good an example of the book's charity and imaginative empathy towards its young characters as any.

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