Tag Archives: Literature

What self-respecting genre calls itself Literary Fiction?

What self-respecting genre calls itself Literary Fiction?

Looking at bookcountry.com‘s genre map made me mull over that old cookie of how does literary relate to genre, and  is Literary Fiction a special kind of elitist genre, or just an excuse for writing intractable prose? Given some authors determination to write genreless Literary Fiction, and others determination to stick closely within  a particular genre, there’s obviously something highly personal about having your work categorised in a particular genre, or not, as the case might be.

A book’s perceived genre also has a profound effect on readers, as the many fans of speculative fiction who shun science fiction will attest, as will the legions of  P.D. James’  crime fans who won’t let her dystopian masterpiece, the Children of Men, anyway near their bookshelves.

Perhaps the most obvious relationship between genre and literary is how hard it is to define both terms.  Genre seems a fairly simple concept on its own, but turns out to be much easier to understand than it is to actually rationalise. Wikipedia has a good go and describes it as categorising by “technique, tone, or content”, before giving up and defining it as some kind of amorphous taxonomy. Electricka.com quickly decides it’s a categorisation of “style and theme”, before running scared and calling genre a fallacy.

Coming up with a plausible definition for literary is a well known black art, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that one of the most pleasing descriptions for both terms, genre and literary, is by Michael Kardos, who describes them as contrasting dimensions of the Literary/Genre Continuum. By placing them along perpendicular indices he ably shows how writing can be defined according to their literary complexity and genre at the same time, without introducing any dubious measures of quality or merit.

However, until publishers, authors, book sellers, and, most of all, readers give up on the one dimensional categorisation of genre, it looks certain the Literary/Genre continuum won’t catch on, leaving Literary Fiction as a reject bin for writing orphaned from the comfy and bygone taxonomy of genre. But of course, given that defying convention is something of a noble art,  perhaps there’s something in the snobbery associated with Literary Fiction, after all?

Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady Review

Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady Review

There’s no obvious way to review a collection of Robert Coover’s short stories, no conspicuous handle with which to hold the text, no praise likely to escape being labelled sycophancy, and no criticism that wouldn’t rightly be mocked as bitter jealously. Reviewing Coover is painful, and not because of any pretensions it gives one to write like him, but rather because of the pretensions it instills to read him without being intimidated.

Whether its the romantic irony of the collection’s eponymous story, the fetid titillation of “The Babysitter”, or the frivolous mundanity of “A Pedestrian Accident”, each story reads like you’re smacking yourself in the head with a flail; each leaves an admixture of blood and synovial fluid pouring from your ears; each feels sucking on the metallic teats of a shotgun’s barrels.

So if you’re happy to have your mind wrung out and twisted by a short collection of words, then I recommend you need look no further; if you prefer to keep your sense and thoughts well ordered, then why not go look for something off a best seller list.

The Sexes Review

The Sexes Review

The Sexes is a small collection of Dorothy Parker’s short stories about relationships, and is published as part of Penguin’s mini modern classics series.

The first story, the Sexes, is a masterclass in dialogue: taught, lucid, and oozing with an admixture of cultural, emotional and interpersonal tension. As a singular comment on the complex narrative that exists between the sexes, it is an aggressive shot across the bow against those that seek to deny the differences between the genders.

The Lovely Leave offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the intricacies that lie behind the facade of a loving relationship. An education for those yet to experience loving relationships, and a mirror for everyone else, it’s a pristine example of how to clothe reality in fiction.

Like all collections, not all stories are crafted equally, and the Little Hours is the runt of the litter, a meandering story with little purpose other than to showcase a litany of quotations and the sharp poise of Parker’s prose.

The final two stories, Glory in the Daytime and Lolita, bring the book to an ordered conclusion. Glory in the Daytime is a sharp vignette contrasting the human costs of fame against the droll existence of normalcy, and Lolita is a strange but elegant story of the smallness of attitude fostered by small town life.

The Sexes is an perfectly tempered collection of short stories that not only underlines the genius of Dorothy Parker, but also serves as a intricate lesson about the complexities of human emotion and sexual politics. And apart from being a taut read, it serves as a gentle reminder that–for those willing to look–the richness of life is there to marvel at just beyond the graceful vision of our eyes.

Genre-less Genre

Genre-less Genre

As a childhood fan of genre fiction—from Science Fiction and Fantasy, through to spy thrillers, murder mysteries, and a dash of horror for good measure—the discovery of non-genre fiction came late to me as I fell out of my teenage years.

Having spent my youth in the wilderness, I took to reading historical and contemporary classics with a vengeance. With little to guide me apart from the dogged maxim that genre was wrong, I ploughed through endless books, desperate to make up for my wasted youth. I’m not sure where the thought came from, but in the back of my mind I knew there was something wrong with genre fiction. Something debased about it that marked it as a lesser form of writing, to be shunned by civilized folk and, at best, to be read solely for the amusement of minors.

However, as I matured, I slowly rediscovered genre fiction. Like a dirty secret, I kept the rediscovery to myself, but gradually my desire to read magical realism and speculative fiction grew stronger, until I could no longer keep my reading habits to myself, and finally had to come out as a through-and-through fan of genre fiction.

Although I’m now comfortable with my literary inclinations and I’m well-adjusted enough to read whatever I want, I still can’t help but wonder if there’s a fundamental reason why so many dislike genre so much? Is there some intrinsic property that separates genre fiction from real literature, or is the separation nothing more than the bias of cultural elitism? After all, one generation’s genre fiction can become another’s classics, and in practice genre is little more than a categorization of literary style. Indeed where would some of our most compelling authors be without genre? Where would Margret Atwood be without speculative fiction, or Salman Rushdie without magical realism?

For some genre might be the price of making reading accessible to the masses, for others it’s the stench of cultural elitism, but for the rest of us it’s a compass that helps us navigate  through the literary landscape. Just because a book is written according to the informal rules of a particular genre it doesn’t, by any means, stop it  from being an original or significant work, or, indeed, a cultural masterpiece.  While the debate over genre and literature is unlikely to die out soon, given the significant number of books that willingly shun the shackles of genre, who’s to say that Genre-less fiction hasn’t become a genre in it’s very own right?

Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

While it’s often mooted that an author’s first novel serves as an autobiographical catharsis for the author, there is little if any consensus about the relationship between an author and their last novel. With this quandary steadfast in his thoughts, Eugene Pota, a world-renown author and aging cassanova, tries to unravel this enigmatic relationship while producing a novel that lives up to the past glories of his literary career, and in particular his first book – which rightly earned him a place in the history of literature.

Tracing the inner workings of the writing process, from the intimate embarrassment of writers block, through to the mystifying otherworldliness of success and the dizzying and perpetual fear of rejection, the issues deftly rendered in Heller’s last, posthumously published novel, transcends the barrier between fiction and autobiography and depicts the mesmerizing struggle between an author and a novel.

As Pota plants an array of weak, desperate plots and follows the subsequently questionable prose that grows uncontrollably weed-like, the heart rending sense of failure looms ever closer and ever larger, as Pota heroically tries to avoid coming to terms with the closing chapter of his career. With every turn of page in a literary race for time, and as the growing failing of Pota’s writing skills becomes apparent, the question that constantly assails the reader is whether Pota can overcome the overwhelming self-doubt and loneliness of writing and arrive at an idea from which to grow his final novel. Dragging the reader through meetings with his past muses, his literary agent and various facets of his life, through until the heady conclusion of the culminating chapter, a foreboding sense looms over the reader that not only Eugene Pota’s career rests on the success of his last book, but also the sanctified career of the Heller himself.

While the simplicity and measured pace of Portrait of the Artist suitably counters the complexity and mayhem of Catch-22, the high quality crafting of the writing, leaves the book as a laudable reminder and farewell from a master of humour. Ably pulling itself out from the shadow of Catch-22 and standing as a provocative example of how artful a final novel can be, it would not only make Eugene Pota proud, but also serves as a deserved slight to GK Chesteron’s ridiculous assertion that: A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” This is not only a great novel, but it’s also one that tells us the truth about its hero, the truth about its author and the truth of writing process. A definitive read for anyone even vaguely interested in the creative as well as the receptive side of literature.

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Book CoverSimone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex sat on my bookshelf for 5 years. It was picked up, dusted off, and thumbed through many times, but even after 2 serious attempts to read it from cover to cover the book sat defiant, its secrets safe and its intellectual rigour uncontested. If I’d conceived of a way to maintain my honour and consign the book to the bin, or worse, a charity shop, then it would have gone years ago. However, the pig-headed male in me couldn’t accept  a philosophical tract could be beyond my reading ability or intellect, and so I stubbornly picked up the book again and forced myself on the tome once again.

Having now finished the book, I’m ready, nay forced, to write something of my experience, because although not an easy read The Second Sex is a book that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my days. Its blend of history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology makes it an encompassing tract on Women’s place in history and contemporary life, and as such it’s an enticing read for anyone wanting to understand or at least investigate the social division between the genders.

But however enticing the book may be, it is also a hard book, and not because it contains ideas that sit uncomfortably within contemporary male-oriented society, nor because it lays the blame for gender inequality squarely on both genders, but because of the depth of its underlying research and the sheer volume of ideas it generates pertaining to the female condition.

Before my praise becomes indefensibly obsequious, I should point out the book has—like most philosophy books—many rough edges and fallible arguments, including frequent subjective musings from De Beauvoir that are based more on her whim than on reason itself, but these meanderings do nothing to diminish the intellectual spotlight that the book shines on the subject matter.

Although there are many later feminist books and books on gender studies that expand or contradict The Second Sex, this is a book that, above all, extols the feminist virtue of freedom: women’s freedom from sexual service; women’s freedom from the chains of marriage; but also men’s freedom from their gender’s historical role as the counterpart and gaoler of women.

This is not an easy read, but like a mountain there are many routes through the book, be it as a required text for students, or as a dusty tome to be pecked at gradually over years. Although the gender landscape has changed massively since De Beauvoir published The Second Sex, as a thorough examination of woman’s place alongside man in history and society this is a timeless and a critical read. For anyone that wants to grasp why the physical and physiological differences between the genders doesn’t excuse or even require the mental divide that cuts through the ages, then go get yourself a copy and a darned comfy seat.

What is Literature?

What is Literature?

When I first had the idea for this blog one of my key motivations was to boost my understanding and appreciation of literature. In the back of my mind I envisaged reviewing some good books, wearing my slippers, and quaffing brandy late into the night. Okay, perhaps my preconceptions weren’t quite so archaic and clichéd, but I had naively assumed I’d delve straight into literature itself and not get bogged down in the endless side alleys that lead off the subject.

Of course, investigating the myriad of festivals, awards, and changes promised by digital technology is interesting in its own right; add in the complexities of evolving media laws and the ongoing retrenchment of the publishing industry and it’s obvious there’s a myriad of complex issues that feed the literary Zeitgeist. However, although such issues have some importance to the contemporary world of literature, they are, at best, periphery to the heart of literature, which, with thousands of years of history, has a fundamental basis that transcends the capricious sway of cultural and social fashions.

While there’s a many approaches to dig into the fundamental character and form of literature, the most obvious starting point is, perhaps, to ask the age-old question what is literature? The simplest answer is to consider a literal translation from the Latin, which translates to acquaintance with letters. Although such an answer might be interesting for language scholars, it’s about as much use as scythe to the modern reader of literature. Enriching the translation a touch, then literature could be described as the art of the verbal and the written word, but while such a terse answer seems broadly reasonable, it fails to meet the qualitative aspect of literature which suggest that not all verbal and written should rightfully qualify as literature. The qualitative aspect of literature is, of course, an embodiment of the dichotomy between high-culture and low culture, and as such is an amorphous boundary that defies easy definition.

Although there’s little to argue that deep treatises on philosophy or fictional epics classify as literature, what about the text of a cartoon strip, the copy of an advert, an email, or perhaps just a tweet? Is there an ingredient that demarcates high-cultured writing from low? What aspect—by its presence or lack of presence—marks some verbal composition as worthy of cultural praise, and others as culturally void? Is it simply a matter of a composition’s aesthetic value, or perhaps its cultural permanence, a mixture of these, or some other, more complex values?

Since the question’s been grappled with by some of history’s keenest minds—such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s in his essay What is Literature—I’m by no means naive enough to assume I could ever approach an answer with anything but the most modest aspirations. So rather than set myself up to fail by attempting to answer the question with any more detail I instead intend use the question as a launchpad into the realm of literary criticism. Hopefully as my literary investigations expand so will my understanding of the true scope of literature, and if not I will at least find myself on common ground with writers and readers through the ages, even if the ground is decidedly shaky to boot.

Cities Built On Books

Cities Built On Books

As part of UNESCO’s remit of shining a torch on the world’s cultural diversity, the Creative Cities Network programme is a regime of  collaboration between cities across the globe to communicate and promote their local and shared cultural experiences.

Although the programme caters for a variety of cultural categories, one of the most august categories is that for Cities of Literature, which is open to any city that ably demonstrates a commitment to literature through various facets, including: diverse publishing organisations and enterprises within the city; a focused educational programme on literature across all levels of education; hosting literary, drama and poetry events; and significant involvement in the publishing sector.

Currently 3 cities have been awarded the status of City of Literature, each for their broad but unique contributions to literature:

While not physically as sturdy as bricks, books undoubtedly make for deep intellectual foundations as evidenced by the great libraries of the ancient world, which begs the question whether UNESCO’s Cities of Literature will stand the test of time, or shortly fall to the barbaric onslaught of the digital horde?

A Word Child Review

A Word Child Review

A Word Child by Iris Murdoch

There is one egregious facet of my Vintage Classics edition of A Word Child, which is the clumsy quote on the front cover from The Times: “Iris Murdoch is incapable of writing without fascinating and beautiful colour.”  While only an illiterate would dare contest the fascinating colour of Murdoch’s writing, it would be crass to attribute this particular book with beautiful colour, as it is with artful poise that Murdoch draws a very real, but suitably drab, monochrome rendition of London.

Into this necessarily murky landscape is captured the complex frailties of human relationships and the fragile edifice of social behaviour that draws the reader through the guilt-ridden, habitual purgatory of the protagonist, Hilary Burde’s, passive reminiscence of life.  Engraved with Murdoch’s legendary intelligence on every line of prose, the procession of pages beguile the reader with a fabulous charade of pain; a calamitous world of sickening sibling relationships, haunting nostalgia and naive virgin worship.

After the plot weaves into a powerful tapestry that depicts a childish renouncement of responsibilities, the story then unfurls itself into a disaster of farcical proportions and  displays, what can earnestly be called, one of the most cunningly paced and thoroughly unblemished examples of demonstrating genius with mere words.

Into the Blogosphere

Into the Blogosphere

After previous trysts with blogging, tweeting and all manner of odd, online publishing experiments, it’s once again time for me to enter the fray. Although it would be nice to avoid cliché so early on, my gut tells me this blog is going to be different, just like every other blogger out there since time immemorial. Not only will I post regularly and build the blog out through sensible linking, but I’ ll also stay focused on the blog’s subject: my adventures through the world of literature to decipher the role of literature to the contemporary reader.

So here it is, Verso-recto, a sojourn around the kingdom the written word. A back to front exploration through the world of words, the glories of Recto-Verso printing, and the halcyon dreams of writers past and present. I will stumble at times, I will lose perspicuity, and I might never touch on the hallowed ground of perspicaciousness. But let those future failures not cloud this beginning, as I step onward to explore that cherished blessing of  culture that is literature. The written word awaits.