Literature vs everything else, or Who the fuck said “great literature” has to be fiction?

My Dad and I, who rarely talk let alone get into debates and discussions, recently had a dandy.

Dad described the latest book for his Book Club* as “trash”, “rubbish”. Naturally I asked why it was rubbish, and on hearing the title and plot, author, and unorganised style and format, agreed wholeheartedly that it was indeed the finest crap– although I had not read the book itself (judgemental, yeah; accurate, definitely). However Dad’s issue, and definition of “rubbish” was that it was FICTION. And easy-to-read fiction at that.

Now I understand my father’s attitude is academic snobbishness (he really should have been a university lecturer – up to his ears in pedantries and unnecessary detail**) but I have major problems with this. Good fiction is never rubbish, if it is well-written, accessible and well-edited; if it draws you in to that world between the cover pages and makes you believe in the characters and world the author has created. It does not matter in the slightest if it easy to read – easy to read fiction is probably more difficult and problematic to write than stuff that rambles and covers up it’s deficiencies with obscure prose and imagery. Anyone can pad.

I’ve read fiction that is easy to read that I would put up there in the “Literature” shelves at Dymocks even though it is classified elsewhere; Donna Leon and Dorothy L Sayers, both crime writers, come instantly to mind. Okay, so Sayers might not be classified as an easy read, due partly to having been written in the 1920s-30s, plus much of the conversation, particularly the courtship between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, is conducted in Latin and French – no translations. Donna Leon on the other hand is a contemporary crime writer and her noels, set in Venice and featuring a detective called Guido Brunetti, is beautiful writing, easy to read maybe, but not the least bit dumbed down.

In contrast, there are several Booker Prize winners I would (and have) thrown across the room for being complete and utter pretentious, obscure, indulgent horse-shit, padded to Michelin Man proportions.

*My father is in the world’s most boring book club – a bunch of 70-ish men who read either science or history or theological tracts – and do not even select the good stuff in those categories.

**My brother once said that if you asked Dad if he liked that beer he was tasting (he doesn’t drink beer but on this occasion he was “sampling”), Dad would launch into a very long, multi-tangetial lecture on how it was made; the entire process from agricultural (growing hops) to chemical (fermentation, carbonisation etc). You think *I’m* pedantic and given to tangents – not to mention parentheses – well sweethearts, you ain’t seen nuthin’.

Now here is where I do go off at a tangent, away from the debate with my dad, and on to my main rant. WHY – and this is perhaps the thing that most pisses me off about classification of books/writing – WHY is only adult fiction described as Literature with a capital L and not children’s fiction, science fiction and fantasy, crime (as above) – if it is “writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest” (Merriam-Webster definition). The key words being excellence; ideas of permanent or universal interest. Where is it written that other forms of fiction – and indeed non fiction – cannot be styled/classified/categorised as literature?

Non-Fiction has to be my biggest bug-bear – the best science writing should be classified as literature and included in the line-up for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it has it’s own awards – and very good the Aventis Prizes for Science Books are too – but it is still described as the best of science writing, not science lit. If we have chick lit and lad lit, why the fuck not nerd lit?

Case in point # 1 – Richard Dawkins mentions very briefly, in passing, about how only two scientists have won the Nobel Prize for Lit, and they weren’t writing science. Some amazing ideas of permanent and universal interest are presented in science writing – more so than in fiction, I think, and it is among the most difficult writing to attempt and make accessible***. In each of his books, for example, Dawkins has taken an astonishing and fascinating subject and presented it in a beautifully written, imaginative way. Definitely Literature. Far more provoking, poetic even, important, deep and meaningful, than much fic lit.

***Mini-rant – hatehateHATE the moniker “popular science” which encases any subject through evolutionary biology to environmentalism to quantum physics, so long as it is accessible to the smarter-than-average lay-person. Why “popular science”? It is a derogatory term to use for such writers as Jared Diamond, Dawkins, Matt Ridley, with it’s “Science for Dummies” implication. HATE.

Case in point # 2 – Not science writing but cooking. Yeah, yeah, any schmuck with access to test kitchens can write a cookbook. HA! Could you write a cookery book like Elizabeth David’s absolute classics of the genre, which explain procedures and recipes from the simplest to the most complicated in the most precise, concise, sublime and delightful way, inspiring home and professional cooks since the 1950s to get into their kitchens and produce something sensational, worthy of David’s keen and zero-tolerance-for-bullshit eye. I read David’s cookbooks for fun, for inspiration, for comfort when I’m feeling down. David got an OBE for her services, but it was as a food writer, not as a producer of superb food lit.

I call for a movement toward good literature whether fiction, non fiction, sf&f, children’s, whatever, whether about relationships in India or London or Dublin, solving a crime, the course of a grand romance, space or alternate worlds, anthropology, neurology, evolution …. all good literature and should not be differentiated, discriminated against in such a fashion. The guiding principle should be whether it is excellent, whether it is provoking, of universal importance; and that does not rule out writing that is fun, escapist, comforting. It just has to be FUCKING GOOD.

Thank you. Rant off


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  • luminog  On Saturday 15 March 2008 at 2:51 am

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