Monday, December 17, 2012

On boring books and even more boring readers

I’m not known for much, but one thing I’m known for is my dislike of the term literary fiction. The term could be helpful in distinguishing, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather from Mario Puzo’s. The one is cinematic fiction; the other, literary fiction. But that’s not how the term is used anymore. Literary fiction, as I’ve said before on this blog in trying to define it, is therapeutic fiction. It is fiction that is good for you. It’s like tofu, as I later tweeted. No one really likes it, although many people think they should eat it. But how do you know it when it’s on the shelf in front of you? Only by the via negativa, as I wrote elsewhere:

“Literary fiction” is not “genre fiction” (crime fiction, science fiction); it is not thrilling, exciting, suspenseful, page-turning fiction, ripped from the headlines and set to serviceable prose for comfortable beach reading; it is, as [the novelist] Lev Raphael quoted a bestselling mystery author as saying, fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.The trouble, as I observed in a review, is that nobody knows what else to call it. If not “literary,” then what exactly is the name for fiction that is not intended to be read as quickly and painlessly as possible? In disputing the “wicked idea that good writing and entertainment are incompatible,” the British novelist Howard Jacobson declares, “The better the writing, the more fun there is in reading it.” But when he must settle upon a name for it, Jacobson falls back upon calling it serious fiction (he was, after all, a student of F. R. Leavis).

An Arnoldian term, serious has its own shortcomings. But I was wrong four years ago when I said that it has no natural opposite. My students at the Ohio State University this semester have taught me that the opposite of serious is whatever the opposite of boring is. Assigned a critical dictionary as a course-ending project, more than a dozen of them defined literary fiction, a term I had introduced in class for the sake of quarreling with it, as “boring fiction.” Here is perhaps the most representative student entry:Literary Fiction . . . is the type of fiction that is thought of as boring to the ordinary person. It is mostly read by the scholarly or students that are forced to read it through academia. Classic novels, not mainstream books, often fall into this category. Literary Fiction is thought provoking and can be difficult to understand; it is not mindless entertainment. Literary Fiction contains beautiful writing and is supposed to have a great moral lesson that we all should learn from. People that like literary fiction are often thought of as having good taste and as being smarter. Ordinary people look down on literary fiction because they think it is too confusing or time consuming.By contrast, the same student defined genre fiction, that hunky and handsome younger cousin of literary fiction, as the “kind of fiction people do not have to be forced to read.” I was tempted to quote Arnold: “Force till right is ready.”

When did boredom go from being an admission about the self (“I’m bored”) to an accusation against a going-on (“It’s boring”)? For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people complain that baseball games are boring, but I paid no attention, because the complaints were so obviously an expression of unfamiliarity and ignorance. Coronary artery bypass surgery is boring too—it can take up to eight hours—but if your parent or spouse needs it, you don’t care about the boredom overmuch; certainly not enough to complain about it. If a book bores my students, though (and many, many other people in the culture, I would wager), the fault is the book’s, not theirs.

“One can . . . tell a great deal about a person by what bores him,” Joseph Epstein wrote in his essay on boredom. But that may be in the process of becoming untrue. To call something boring any more is to give a damning and faithful evaluation of it. More and more, one can tell a great deal about a thing from who is bored by it. I’ve started asking my students whether great literature might not be bored by them.

Update: Scott G.F. Bailey has a reply and further reflections here.

11 comments:

Yadel said...

When I used to use the term, literary fiction meant more or less those books written by authors who had been shortlisted for any of the major American awards. So it’s mostly an American problem. When I was breaking away from the reading I did in highschool , maybe out of embarrassment, and probably because I wanted to feel important and intellectual, I tried reading contemporary literary fiction. It didn’t work out for me and my first reaction was that I was dumb for not liking it. The first “literary” writer that I found I enjoyed was Bellow, and I’m sure that a great deal of my enjoyment came from how referential he was. Whenever he mentioned a new author or philosopher or bit of history I had never heard of, it made me want to read more.
Contemporary writers seem to want to keep the language of Bellow (or any other American writer than they looked up to) and strip off everything that made him real and interesting. Probably even worse influences are Kafka and Chekhov since every contemporary American writer seems to have been influenced by them, but without being able to recreate that which made them transcendent writers.
As I said I think this is an American problem, and I think it won’t last very long. Very soon the major American writers that will emerge will have been influenced by Bolanos and Murakami and David Mitchell. This isn’t to say that I think they’re the best writers, but they’re very visible (which we cannot shelf under genre or literary because they’re foreign) writers that maintain the tradition of writing about interesting things..

R.T. said...

Literary fiction is the term often used by snobs in an attempt to elevate their reading choices and themselves above the great unwashed masses who read for simple pleasure. The literary fiction crowd is most rabid in English departments. Mention so-called genre fiction to most English professors, and you often get a very intolerant dismissal. What ever happened to more simple distinctions: good and bad fiction.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Reading for more than "simple pleasure" isn't snobbery. It is, however, an elevated experience.

scott g.f.bailey said...

It's also true that the pleasures of literary fiction are many, and often include the pleasures one gets reading genre fiction.

D. G. Myers said...

I guess I’m not being clear enough. Literary fiction does not exist. It is a spasm of special pleading, a pretentious name for pretentious writing, a name without an entity. (The British novelist Linda Grant proposes calling it LitFic, which brings it back down to earth.) For that matter, though, genre fiction does not exist either. (Are sonnets an example of genre poetry?) The two terms, which exist for the convenience of publishers and booksellers, from what I can tell, are trapped eternally in a bad marriage. The rest of us are under no obligation to listen to their bickering.

Susan Malter said...

It is such a relief to read something good. In fiction or on-line, when I no longer expect to appreciate what I see, I come upon thoughtful writing. Thank you.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Maybe a music analogy would help clarify things. Is there a difference between Handel's Messiah and Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit? Or for that matter between Bob Dylan's Tangled Up in Blue and and The Bay City Roller's Saturday Night? Of course there is, in a myriad of ways. Saturday Night aspires to achieve artistic goals that completely different than Handel's Messiah. It's not enough to just say 'it's all music'.

D. G. Myers said...

True enough, Glen. But let’s compare like to like. Would you want to call, say, Purcell’s “O Solitude” or John Dowland’s “Come, Heavy Sleep” musical songs, while “White Rabbit” is a genre song? Like “music,” literature is the category term: it contains both great novels, including Madame Bovary, which my students were not ashamed to dismiss as boring, and write-by-numbers mysteries, cowboy stories, sexsational romances, and SF. What is more, all great literature also belongs to some genre or other. Madame Bovary is the leading example of an adultery novel.

The distinction literary/genre is without difference. And when the term literary is used as a high-falutin’ synonym for high-falutin’, well, as Howard Jacobson says, it consigns hundreds of books to oblivion, because most readers won’t go anywhere near them then.

R.T. said...

You say: "The distinction literary/genre is without difference. And when the term literary is used as a high-falutin’ synonym for high-falutin’, well, as Howard Jacobson says, it consigns hundreds of books to oblivion, because most readers won’t go anywhere near them then."

I say: Call something SF, fantasy, mystery, romance, or any other "genre" label, and some readers won't go anywhere near them.

Of course, labels help bookstores organize and market their titles. And that helps buyers. So, when you get down to it, what's wrong with genre labels?

Andrew Fox said...

David, I'd suggest that the best binary terms to use might be "quality fiction" and "disposable fiction." "Quality fiction" is fiction which deserves to be read more than once, or which deserves to be savored. What makes it savorable? The richness and evocativeness of its composition, the moral/ethical/historical questions which it raises, and any insights which it provides into the human condition. "Disposable fiction" is fiction which is read primarily for the pleasure of reaching its end: finding out what happened. Once a reader has discovered what happens in the end, that reader has no need and sees no utility in dipping into the book again. Books which are currently termed "genre" can fall into either the "quality fiction" or "disposable fiction" categories. So can books which are currently called "literary." That's my five cents! (And of course, no book seller would want to make use of my binary distinction.)

PMH said...

I agree, an empty term, for one can find too many exceptions regardless of the criterion. After all, judgments about books don't inhere in the books, but in the audiences and they change for a number of important reasons. As the comments reveal, one can speak of generalities, but what good are they over time?