I’m not normally a big reader of literary fiction. While Paul Auster is one of my all time favourite novelists, I generally prefer something with more adventurers and crazy gadgets. But this week I’ve been dipping into the world of Middle Eastern literary fiction, reading Madinah, a city-themed collection of short stories edited by Joumana Haddad.
This particular read was Mrs K’s idea. I’ve used the Middle East as a setting for a few fantasy and steampunk stories recently, such as The Wizard’s Stairs, and she thought it might be useful for me to read others’ work set in that part of the world. Of course, she’s right. None of us writes in a vacuum, and the surest way to bring nothing new to your writing is not to find out what’s already out there.
So what did I learn from this? First up, that not all literary fiction’s for me. I found most of the stories OK, a couple good, and one so gratingly aggressive in its missions to be unconventional that I hated every page. I like experimentation in the arts, but when your work is nothing more than a big sign saying ‘hey, I’m experimenting!’ then you shouldn’t expect many people to appreciate it.
This experimentation, and the structure of the other stories, reminded me that many of the things we take for granted in genre fiction aren’t absolutes. Not all these stories had a clear beginning, middle and end. Not all had sympathetic protagonists with clear goals. It’s good to know that these aren’t always necessary. It’s also good to know that, without them, I found the stories far less engaging – I’m definitely sticking with my familiar structures.
What was also interesting was the recurring theme of cities as places of conflict. Almost all of the stories were affected by the religious and political struggles going on the Middle East, and when they weren’t the characters instead faced struggles against social conventions specific to their countries. These stories showed that you don’t have to build your story around these conflicts for them to play a powerful role, that you don’t need elves or androids to make a place alien and colourful for the reader. These stories built a great sense of place, and I’ll be looking for ways to do that myself.
All in all, this has proved to be a useful experience. But I’ll mostly stick with scifi and fantasy.