Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thinking More on the Falseness of Literary Fiction, sometimes

The thing is, in all these stories, by numerous authors of literary fiction, characters have this hyperreal awareness of their own misery, and comment upon it.

In fact, people are often too busy in the habits of their life to be aware of how miserable they are until something happens to break that comfort in familiarity.

That's a problem: subtext is not the end-all and be-all of human experience. You wouldn't know this to read the pregnant prose stylings of Amy Hempel. Every single character is almost crushed under the weight of the sea inside their own minds, where an emotion is spilling out.

Which is, I'm afraid, incredibly false to the vast and overwhelming majority of people who are - whether they admit it or not - basically happy people who have a set of daily habits that helps them be happy.

Moments of crisis are necessary, then, to break people out of this series of habits. Literary fiction knows this, too, and embraces it with dead children, endless affairs, cancer, unwanted children, etc., etc., etc..

Alas, moments of crisis, expressed in literary fiction, are often tiresome and forced because they are too similar to our own lives to be plausible expressions of things we, the living, already know. Our own experience of those crisis and ones like them often don't line up with the expression of that crisis presented by one writer spewing subtext all over the place. Crisis, in life, is rarely the realm of subtext. In fact, when a child dies, however that child dies, subtext is not the rule of the day. Surviving that grief is an exceptional feat of emotional rebuilding, where there is little subtext. In fact, it is a time to not embrace subtext at all because facing the pain head on is really the best way through.

Thus, the falseness of literary fiction: reading about someone whose everyday experiences with a crisis moment diverge wildly from our own natural world alienates us from the prose, because it alienates us from the humanity of the characters.

In fantastic fiction, the crisis moment is often wildly different from our known experiences. The person who is trying to escape the Zombie Apocalypse, or the one that's discovered they can read minds for real, or the one that stares down the sword at a horde of misshapen monsters straight from our dark subconscious, are thrust into situations where subtext is the rule of the day because those crisis events came out of the subtext of our cultural detritus that clings to our psyches wherever we go.

In speculative fiction, readers experience a universality of crisis, because everyone is discovering this crisis for the first time, and no one has a basis for experience exactly, literally like that. Then, the crisis enters our deep minds not as exactly what to do if my wife's cheating on me, but a general guide of what to do if my spouse has a secret world within herself that I cannot understand. This trains us for numerous human experiences, including an affair, instead of just the one. One could say the literary fiction scenario has the same power, but the familiarity of the events, to me, forces me to see it in terms of just that one experience, and I guess I'm not imaginative enough to extend the crisis outwards as a metaphor in quite the same way.

It is much easier for my subconscious to view the dream logic of a speculative fiction piece and gain insight into the human experience involved, than to read that mis-named academic juggernaut "realistic fiction" and gain insight into the human experience. After all, the real world is far stranger than we'll ever truly believe. The world is only getting stranger. Realistic literary fiction hasn't quite escaped the small town worlds, the hangers-on, and the empty room in the house that no one talks about.

It is like having a ghost in the house, that empty room. But, to make the human experience universal add the dream: put a ghost in that empty room. Put a ghost there, because that's what it's really like to have one of those. Because the mother will walk into that room and talk to the ghost, whether its there or not, and the ghost will follow the father out into the yard at night, will carve a place in-between the parents in bed at night, and hang around with the siblings long into adulthood.

Just an empty room is not universal. It's not universal because not everyone eperiences grief that way.

Making an actual ghost, though, in the room, provides a reason for experiencing grief that way, and speaks to a universal experience with a dream-like thing presented as if real.

In speculative fictions, we gain the human experience of what the characters went through without the limitations of forcing a situation upon reality so similar to our own as to alienate us. It is easier for me to understand a character from the streets of Bombay if that character is thrust out of their known world, into space, for instance. I learn that character, and street survival in Bombay, by how they interact with this Other.

Does this make sense?

I hope it does. I have a headache, and I won't be editing this or expanding this anytime soon.

I had surgery in my face yesterday, and I'm going to lie down and put an ice pack on my face, and rest a while.

I hope this makes sense.


K.C. Shaw said...

I hope you start feeling better soon.

I like your take on literary fiction. I've often though the same thing, although I haven't ever tried to articulate it. One of the things I've always hated about literary fiction (not all of it, of course; just in general) is its complete lack of joy. The characters are never allowed to have even a momentary feeling of pleasure unless it leads to yet another crisis. In reality, of course we all have little moments of happiness.

While I was reading your post, I kept thinking of the new Pixar movie "Up." The main character, an old man who's lost his wife and who seems to equate the house they shared with her memory, decides to embark on the journey to paradise that they had planned throughout their lives. In a literary novel, the journey would be full of navel-gazing flashbacks; in "Up," the main character ties balloons to the house and literally takes the house--and his wife's memory--with him. It's a delightful image, and remarkably profound. But then, I love the movie.

J m mcdermott said...


That physical, surreal image of a house flying in the clouds by hundreds of colorful balloons is EXACTLY why speculative fiction is more powerful to the human experience than what passes for "realistic" art, these days.

It's never about the subtext, but about the real world he inhabits. What subtext that exists is just frosting of the fine craft of Pixar's crack team of filmmakers.

Compare that to any other short story about an old man who loses his wife and has to, somehow, move on with his life, and there's just no comparison.

UP, by embracing the dream and the wonder, creates an experience that is universal to anyone who has experienced grief. Everyone relates to the fabulous moment.

Navel-gazing flashbackery and pregnant prose would be limited to the folks that experience grief in exactly this or that way.

This is, to me, why there seems to be a gap between academic fiction and mainstream fiction. Academic fiction is constructed around a set of life experiences that are not universal. For instance, utter self-awareness is common among the hyper-literate examiners of life, but uncommon among the people that actually have a pretty good life, working, watching TV, and playing with their kids.

Richard Morgan said...

Hmm - should have lain down with the ice-pack before you wrote anything. I'm afraid you make no sense at all. You generalise wildly about the contents of literary fiction (misery, sub-textuality), wildly and self-contradictorily about the contents of other people's minds (most people are happy and habit-based - apart from the ones who live in numb unawareness of their own misery of course. Say what?), and wildly, smugly and completely erroneously about genre fiction ( In speculative fiction, readers experience a universality of crisis, because everyone is discovering this crisis for the first time No, everyone is discovering this crisis for about the hundredth time. How many, many Zombie Apocalypses or Alien Invasions or Battles Against Misshapen Evil have we sat through on screen and page by now? We know the drill, inside and out. None of this stuff is in any way remotely fresher than anything you'll find in the mimetic "literary" fiction you so despise).

What it comes down to is this: you like fantasy, you don't like mimetic realism. You like the pulpy excitement of escape (you relate okay to a character from the streets of Bombay as long as he's in a space-ship) but not the the more understated confines of the real world (you can't relate to the character from Bombay if he's on the streets of Bombay itself). That seems to me like a pretty childish piece of self-limitation, but personal taste is called that for a reason, and you're as entitled to yours as anybody else is to theirs.

But to try and convert that personal preference into some kind of half-assed objective statement of superiority for the very narrow kind of fiction you happen to read, write and enjoy is exactly the kind of idiocy that helps ensure Spec Fic remains marginalised as a form of literature. Oh look, the literati will say, it's those books for people who can't relate to a Bombay street kid unless he's stowed away in a spaceship or fighting zombie aliens. It's a genre for people so autistic they aren't able to empathise with ordinary human beings in ordinary human circumstances. And in this particular case, with the manifesto you're touting here, the literati will be absolutely right.

J m mcdermott said...

I'm in Maine on my iPhone @ a big, long event and cannot adequately respond to your post, Richard. I think however that it is interesting to see you use the term literati, and picture my post as part of some larger struggle between one label group and another label group that I think breaks down as easily as my original post. Best from Maine, and I may respond in depth when I return to an actual computer.

Andrew Cooper said...

99% of literary fiction produced today makes me want to vomit. No, more than that, it fills me with anger. It is incredibly pretensious and incredibly pointless, yet none of the authors author ever seem to realize the soullessness of their work. Give me Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Twilight or Harry Potter any day. I'd prefer Tolkien or Stephen King to any literary writer I know of.

Ironically, most of the great writers of the past (Dickens, Shakespeare) wrote genre--epic stories of love and intrigue full of excitement. And I guarantee you the majority of things people actually read in America are genre--Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. Because no normal person likes literary fiction, only pretensious creative writing professors and people who read for the express purpose of feeling superior.

Wasn't it CS Lewis who said he despised modern fiction?

Richard Morgan said...

And you, Andrew, have of course read 99% of the literary fiction produced on the planet in recent times, thus lending credence and intellectual weight to your carefully considered opinion there.....

J m mcdermott said...

Play nice while your host is out of town, gentlemen. I think you're both arguing about your opinions as if they were facts, and I encourage you to frame your ideas as experiential comparisons, not as pronouncements of truth. Typing on an iPhone sucks. Best from Maine.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

The problem is that people keep trying to treat literary fiction as a genre; it isn't.

It's a marketing category created by marketing dweebs for books that are not in a specific genre, mostly, with the goal have guiding chain bookstores in terms of where to shelve the books.

Literary fiction is not, for instance, used as a LOC cataloging tag. You'll not see it discussed as a genre in scholarly contexts; you will see editors, authors and agents using the phrase, but it's so vague that it's almost meaningless.

We don't refer to Remembrance of Things Past, or Joyce's Ulysses or Bleak House as literary fiction.

J m mcdermott said...


Richard, Andrew, Lisa, I think where we and us and me breech is our shared lazy terminologies, that have gauzy meanings of limited use in real discussion. We're reacting to each other's terms as if we are all saying the same thing when we say "literary" "genre" "speculative", "normal person", etc.

I will admit - and have done so elsewhere - that I was lazy with my terms. However, I've noticed that most people are lazy with their terms, and if you're willing to forgive me, I'll forgive the laziness within which you embrace some kind of notion that "spec fic" is marginalized by the literati, or throw around "normal person" like there is such a thing, for instance.

As a reader, I'm not really talking about this or that genre of fiction. I'm using the terms of them because I was being lazy, too.

I think, upon careful examination of my post, I'm really talking about a craft technique that depends too much on shared experience.

So, let's talk about the hypothetical kid from Mumbai, and the shape of icebergs.

In the ocean of my cultural norm, I know what certain signifiers mean. Weeping at a movie theatre, for instance, means a sad movie. Buying seven frozen dinners of marginal quality on a Sunday night means a certain kind of bachelor lifestyle that is probably indifferent to the joys of eating. These are cultural signifiers that I, as a reader, don't need explained to me.

This hypothetical kid from Mumbai might grasp the first instantly, but miss the second. No microwave, and no microwave dinner, and no knowledge of the brand names or signifiers that indicate whether a frozen meal is really good, or not.


So, the iceberg under the surface of my signifiers has shifted dependent on the viewer of those signs.

Now, to a child who has never seen a sad movie, because movies always have happy endings, like this invented kid from Mumbai, crying doesn't just not make sense. It sticks out, and throws him from the signifier, because not only does he not understand the action, but he'd really need someone to explain that action to him.

What I'm talking about is how subtextuality can, and does, often fail. How, as a reader, subtextuality fails less when I encounter it against the backdrop of the unknown.

Thus, as the text has to create a world where there are movie theatres that show sad movies, the weeping would make sense to both me and the hypothetical child from Mumbai.

Reflective prose - the stuff that depends heavily on a shared cultural experience to reflect reality back onto the reader - is an artform that limits.

I'm saying, in my post, that I want my art to be untethered to the limitations of shared experience, such that I can reach beyond what is just culturally true and strive for what is humanly true.

Speculative texts create their own signifiers, and shape the meaning of those signifiers. Ergo, the iceberg under the surface maintains a stability of shape that's lost when the shown signifiers have no value - or incorrect values.

Make sense?

It's high time we all stopped being lazy about terms, because we just end up engaging in shouting matches about terms. You, me, Andrew, everyone.

Chillax, party people.