Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Literary Versus Commercial Fiction Part 405...

Despite us being on the same page conclusion-wise, I just wanted to respond to many of the points Simin Savidge makes in his Booktube discussion video looking at the false division between literary and commercial fiction that has reared its head again during the Literary Prize listing season.

Here is Simon's original video, definitely worth taking a look at.

The first point is that there is no doubt Will Self does stir things up with his provocative statements on the future of literature, but a) I don't think he's pinning it to low sales of his own book and b) while he is what may be called a literary snob, his points about the future of the novel are more to do with technology and how we read digitally more than the descrying the dumbing down of novels. (My profile of Self & his work here). So there is undoubtedly as Simon says snobbery among some readers and that is lamentable if it is aimed at readers who are being accused of not being clever enough to 'get' certain books. But I feel there is an equal tendency for an anti-intellectual tendency, to tear down difficult or complex books as elitist, as not speaking to anyone, as if these books didn't have a right to exist. To my mind that is the same type of snobbery merely inverted.

Simon calls for all books to have an accessibility and while that's true and an end always worth pursuing, I don't agree with his assertion that it is far harder to write books simply and accessibly. How exactly are we measuring the 'hardness of writing a book'? Who can say whether a book written simply is harder or easier than a complex, experimental book? It comes down to the individual writers, some find writing easier and quicker than others irrespective of what genre they write. Besides there is little merit in judging which one has worked harder, because ultimately it's not how much work an author has put into writing their book, it's the end product and what type of read it delivers for its audience. Finally regarding Simon's accessibility point, it's true commercial books reach more people which implies they are more universal; but not all authors write for a universal audience (or any specific audience in mind at all for that matter). Such authors must be permitted to write the books they want to write, to pursue the lines of literary, fictional & stylistic inquiry of their choice and the judgement of first, editors (as to whether to publish them, because they must possess some modicum of commercial potential however small scale) and then the judgement of readers, (for even without an audience in mind, the decision to write a book assumes someone will read it) will determine some sort of external verdict on the work.

The problems arise when readers and critics with a foot in one camp or the other of commercial vs literary, or simple vs complex, start defending their corner by pulling down their opponents' tastes. We all know what we like and enjoy reading, that is we all know our reading tastes, but you have to allow other readers with different tastes. And this is why literary prizes may be more harmful than good, in that fans jump on the debates they prompt to deride something they like that is omitted, or attack something they don't like that is included. Social media fuels the fires. But the thing is, don't take it so personally, a panel of judges listing books is not a slight on your personal tastes. Being a book lover and promoting your favourite authors out of your passion for their work, is not the same as supporting a football team and wearing colours and punching the lights out, or swearing at fans of the opposite team. Or at least it shouldn't be, but we edge ever closer. (This is not a development unique to the book world, same thing in politics, music et al, this ridiculous lurch into tribalism).

Simon states that pretentious books can alienate. Of course they can, but I find many non-pretentious books can alienate me as a reader for lots of different reasons. We either like a book, or we don't. Pretentiousness may be nothing to do with it. I absolutely agree any book has to carry a reader along with it, but as I discuss in my video below, there are many different ways that different readers can be carried away by a book - again we return to tastes.

The different elements of a novel that can appeal to the reader include but not restricted to -

1) Provides escapism
2) Absolute immersion in the real world
3) The story
4) Ideas/ Themes
5) Character - the psychology
6) Character - seeing through the eyes of a different person, sometimes far removed from you the reader
7) Style
8) Language
9) Metaphors
10) Formalism/ experimentalism
11) Me personally, I like discovering new words which authors introduce me to

Of course, in all likelihood it's a few of these taken together that determine the makeup of a reader's tastes, but the point ultimately it has nothing to do with pretentiousness, worthiness or whatever else Simon lists, as these things are not to his tastes, whereas to a reader who veers towards say (2), (9) and (10), the book may never strike them as pretentious or over-worthy.

I was very interested to hear his experiences of being a judge for a literary prize category. But prizes do create problems. How can you judge a collection of short stories against a novel for example? Or as he says, the Women's Fiction Prize is a vital prize, yet the appearance of literary together with commercial fiction on the same broad list -which after all the only criterion is fiction written by women - to my mind makes it impossible for judges to rate the merits of one book against another because they are not trying to do the same things at all. But there again, the notion of rating any book with some sort of putative 'score' is anathema to me. Simon talking about the brief he was given, to select a book that potentially could be in the most hands of potential readers, provided a mechanism that could cut through this comparative rating problem, but makes it one particular type of prize only. Come the next year with a new judging panel, will that same brief be employed? If it is, then really the prize should make that rubric public and if it isn't, then it just makes the whole thing seem quite random from year to year; that was the year that we wanted the greatest potential accessibility for the winning title, but the following year it was some other facet...

So although I agree with Simon's conclusions, as evidenced in my video below, I'm not sure I agree with the specific points Simon made in reaching the conclusion; that none of these divisions matter, let us be all readers to all books and make our own individual choices and not rag on readers with tastes different to your own.

1 comment:

Denise said...

Here, here!
There should be space for all. There are books on shelves in libraries that range from the experimental to popular. Some fly out, wear out, and have to be replaced. Others sit patiently, waiting to be discovered (not unlike a fairy tale princess waiting for her prince to come!) I am all for books that make reading accessible for reluctant readers, but we must also have books to challenge the intellectual (for want of a better word) readers too. It's only fair, is it not? It's not unusual to hear the comment - a in a library full of books - "I can't find anything to read". These people are looking for something new. Not necessarily brand new, just new to them. It does not need to be 'difficult' but it does need to be different. Readers tastes can evolve and grow just like anything else. I read a mix of popular and literary. I don't prefer one genre over another. It just depends on what I want at the time. Easy escapism after a difficult day, or intellectual stimulus after a mindnumbing one?
I don't have a favourite book, nor a favourite author. When people ask me what I like to read I am inclined to say "books with words in".