It appears to be open season on literary fiction. First today we have Iain Banks writing science fiction in his literary persona, then Jay Lake pointed me at this article by Lev Grossman in the Wall Street Journal.
Grossman is talking here about the supposed characteristics of quality literature (much as Le Guin did yesterday when making fun of Atwood), but while Le Guin focused on the primacy of character, Grossman talks about the disdain for plot. A proper literary novel, he says, should not have a plot, because real life doesn’t have a plot. It is in many ways a compelling argument, and there are certainly SF writers who have taken it to heart. The world might be a better place if people didn’t think it was possible for politicians to wave a magic wand and make everything better.
As an argument about literature, however, it was always silly. Grossman talks about the historical origins of the Modernist movement, and why they wanted to do away with plot, but to do so completely they would have had to disavow almost everything that came before them. There was no chance that they were ever going to manage to label the likes of Austen and Dickens as “bad” writers because their novels had plots.
And actually, of course, few literary critics are daft enough to take so simplistic a line. I have certainly heard people use it. I’ve also heard people make silly comments about how having alien squid as characters is a hallmark of a bad book. But I also know some very sensible literary critics such as Matt Cheney whose understanding of the issues is much more nuanced and who are not impressed with Grossman’s article.
Where Grossman is undoubtedly right is on the subject of sales. Readers actually like plots. Give them a good yarn and they’ll be happy. All the quality stuff can come later. And in a publishing business that is struggling to stay afloat more “difficult” literature are going to have to take a back seat. Because, you know, you can write a darn good book and still have a gripping plot. Ms. Austen and Mr. Dickens were good at that. And so…
This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.
And who are the writers that Grossman believes are leading the charge. Well, there’s Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price and Kate Atkinson, but he also mentions Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.
Got that? An article in the Wall Street Journal says that Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke are in the forefront of modern literature. Whatever is the world coming to?
Update: “i” restored to “Iain”. Very sorry Mr. Banks.