A strange thing has been happening recently. The bookish blogosphere has been talking about literary fiction. This is a fire it would be perverse of me not to stoke, so here is a little light mix of oxygen and fuel.
It started with an excellent piece by Roz Morris about why literary novels can’t just be churned out. As if to prove her point, this coincided almost to the day with the announcement that after years of writing, arguably our greatest living literary novelist, Vikram Seth, had just missed the deadline for his follow up to A Suitable Boy, A Suitable Girl, and was being pursued for his seven figure advance. Now Roz’s piece was balanced and thought-out, and made no disparaging comments about genre fiction. Nonetheless it caused a considerable flurry of ruffled feathers. This in turn led to a superb piece from Porter Anderson in which he made some excellent points about genre-paranoia and the oppression of the “business-is-business” mentality. Yesterday one of my favourite literary authors, Vivienne Tuffnell, wrote a brilliant and coruscating attack on the pressure on literary writers to conform to a sales-driven agenda.
It was the title of Porter’s piece (Should Literary Fiction Come Out Of The Cloisters?), though, that made me think, with its huge implication that is both untrue and betrays a certain business-is-business subconscious of his own. Anderson argues passionately, and rightly I think, that literary fiction needs to be a central part of the contemporary literary discussion, and also that it is not. He also argues, again rightly, that the best way to meet the accusations of elitism thrown out like a herd of white elephants by the genre paranoiacs (and sadly stoked by the likes of Geoffrey Hill, whose election as Oxford Professor of Poetry was one of the most egregious and retrograde steps in recent cultural history) is not to respond with an attitude of superiority. Bang on, Porter – the way to respond, as always, is not by claiming superiority but by sending out the infectious spores of your own passion.
Where I diverge from Anderson is in his conclusion. “
- That genre fiction, and the wider modern marketplace and media scrum is not in its own cloister. The implication is that the marketplace is a porous place, delighted to welcome all-comers and that those on the outside are there because they have thrown up their own barriers in a giant (implied, “elitist”) sulk. I don’t know what to say other than this is plain and simple cultural colonialism. And just as the answer to human interaction isn’t assimilation, so the answer for literary fiction is not “meeting halfway”. Because meeting halfway is an acceptance of a structural status quo that just isn’t worth bolstering. It smacks of a move towards the centre, implying there is a centre. There isn’t. There are gloriously disparate nodes and nexuses between them, and like some superpowered superconductor it is the job of the cultural media to slide frictionlessly between them, along points of connection, and across synaptic chasms, exploring, mapping, presenting to the world the terrain it finds.
It is when the cultural media aligns itself with one of these nodes, or a matrix joining certain nodes, that an unacceptable (and denigrating/patronising to readers) colonialism appears. Sadly, the digital revolution has aligned the media with the marketplace, and, a fortiori but unseen, those nodes that flourish therein. And that is a state of affairs not to be met half way but resisted. Not by snobbery and superiority, but by an overflowing and abundant, passionate persistence, welcoming and embracing and learning from all other nodes in the gloriously diverse web of culture whilst continuously exploring and evolving one’s own.
And it is always the job of the media – and the marketplace – to make 100% of the journey to meet us. When it doesn’t, the failing is not ours – or that of any other genre in the same predicament – but theirs.
I’ll finish, as I finished my comments to Porter, by quoting the manifesto I wrote 3 years ago when I started eight cuts gallery. It’s as true now as it was then.
there is writing out there that will blow your mind. and you have no idea it’s there at all.
eight cuts exists to champion extraordinary literature from people you may never have been given the chance to encounter, be it a single poem, a performance or a body of novels
eight cuts is a doorway to a world you heard is there.
a world intimated at in blog comments and tweets
a world alluded to in magazines
a world a shadow of a shadow of which is hinted at in newspaper and magazine articles
a world you’ve probably been told is meaningless, scary, junked-up, trashy, bloated, angry, wannabe
we are rats
we live in our own space, build our own communities, societies, foundation myths and bodies of work.
we share some of your doorways, and sometimes you will see the traces we leave behind. traces like this. often they are strange, unfamiliar, and consequently seem frightening, but they are doorways onto a whole world that exists, fully formed, in parallel with yours.
for too long we have been expected to push at these doors, and gaze around them in wonder and admiration, dreaming, cap in hand, of one day entering the world beyond them. we think maybe it’s time for us to offer an invitation the other way.
go on. push, and see what exists on the other side of the door. those traces you see on blogs and underpasses, left behind in railway carriages and in strange marks on walls and pavements and facebook updates. they are tips, and traces, but of what? of something remarkable and fantastic.