Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Defense of Literature

In the kind of situation where everything comes together in a cosmic one-ness, it turns out that How I Became a Famous Novelist ended up being a searing indictment of my attitude toward books in general. The narrator--who was ridiculously over the top in his scorn for literary writing--gets some major, serious comeuppance. Essentially, he gets schooled.

The big theme of the book is about truth. It's about how books tell the truth, and how, even when you flop at that, it's a worthwhile endeavor. And it's even about how people who write popular mysteries and Tom Clancy type thrillers are, at their best, trying to get something right, trying to tell something that they believe in--not literally, but in essence. That part, about how truth relates to fiction and how they're not opposites but close relatives, is so well said in this blog post by The Intern that I won't bother to remake her point. You should really read that post.

So this book--which is hilarious, and you should totally read it if you like books, because it's funny and the author is on the side of truth and justice--makes a point that I found really hit home. Basically, it's about a guy who calls bullshit on "lyrical prose" and whips together some junk that sounds like a bestseller. And lo and behold, it becomes a bestseller. But somehow, almost everyone sees through him. He's like a literary sociopath, faking all the things that normal people really feel and believe.

Now, I've always been up against this. I often find "literary fiction" to be like abstract art. I can see why Jackson Pollack is famous--look at one of his most famous pieces and they're truly beautiful. But if you take a middle-of-the-road piece of abstract art--something a museum might pay just a few thousand dollars for--and put it up next to something that someone slapped together in five minutes without thinking about it too hard, and I probably won't be able to tell the difference.

Now, this is probably less a comment on the art than it is on me as a viewer. But can you blame me for not wanting to hang it in my house?

So: do I dislike, do I scorn literary fiction? I can see how I come off over the top in this as I do in--well, most everything, really. But no--some of my favorite books are things like Cloud Atlas, Lying Awake, Knowledge of Angels. How do you even define literary fiction, anyway--non-genre? No, I'm not that demanding.

So here's what I like: a story in which something happens. This does not have to be a big something: in most nun books, they just pray and eat and chat and occasionally work in a hospital. The something can be entirely internal. But there must be significant change, significant motion in the story--the story must be driving at something.

What I don't care for: lots and lots of minutely observed detail about the lives of normal people with nothing much going on. (The exception to this is if it's really funny.) I enjoy good writing, but the perfect word choice doesn't keep me in a book. It's what occurs in the book--not just epic struggles or fast-paced events, but people doing and feeling and trying and realizing and deciding.

And there has to be a reason. Even if I can't put it into words, I have to feel like I understand why you're telling me this story, and why you think, it's worth it for me to read it. Maybe I'll disagree with you, and that's fine, but if I don't even understand what you think is important about the story, then I might call foul.

So I think my point is, I'm no Pete Tarslaw (he's the main character, read the book). Also, you should really, REALLY read How I Became a Famous Author, by Steve Hely. Superb stuff.

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