Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction’

Fantasy literature is often accused of having a regressive or conservative tone as a genre. There’s an attitude among some commentators that it’s a way of retreating from real world issues, of romanticising aspects of the past without considering its dark truths. It’s an argument that’s extended to steampunk in this interesting but not entirely convincing piece I found via For Whom The Gear Turns.

I can see where people are coming from on this. A lot of fantasy and steampunk does romanticise certain aspects of the past, and of society in general. To generalise broadly about a hugely diverse genre, we tend to look at the nicer bits more than the really wretched ones, and to repeat a lot of the same features others look at. I’d love to read more steampunk that explores Victorian social and political trends like mass protest, social division, colonialism, the emergence of Marxism, or any of a hundred other things. I sometimes try to balance that in my writing. But it’s a small part of the published picture.

Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can't be fun?

Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can’t be fun?

However, to criticise fantasy or steampunk for under-representing these subjects is to miss an important point. What are we comparing the genre with? If it’s reality then yes, fair cop, things look whitewashed. But if it’s compared with other literature? Then I don’t think it’s a fair criticism.

Consider historical fiction. Does that address the whole range of historical experience in a balanced way? Certainly not. There are dozens of books in which the likes of Richard Sharpe fight the dastardly French, and almost none in which they steal people’s countries and subjugate their populations. Or how about the dark side of Victorian England? Sharpe’s Peterloo Massacre anyone?

How about literary fiction? Yes, some of it deals with problems of race and society, but an awful lot of it is navel gazing from a middle class, middle aged perspective. The experience of Britain’s disengaged modern underclass, while not absent, receives literary attention that’s nowhere near in proportion to the real balance of our country.

If fantasy or steampunk is, on average, quite unadventurous then that’s only because it’s like the rest of our culture. And if it weren’t for the more adventurous writers, carving out new niches on our bookshelves, then these genres would never exist in the first place. Yes, we should be more daring. But that’s not about fantasy or steampunk. That’s about people.

 

Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons

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Research has shown that reading novels that make you think, that stretch your mind and challenge you to get inside the heads of others, increases your empathy. It may not take much empathy on your part to work out that I’m not surprised.

Literature, along with the other arts, is often treated as a nice thing to have, a way to escape from our ordinary lives. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a way to transform the way we think, to get into the mental space of other people, to help us relate to our fellow human beings.

The study, by the New School for Social Research in New York, also found that reading books off the Amazon bestseller list didn’t have the same benefit. Having read two whole Dan Brown novels, I’m not surprised, though I wonder how much that’s about the texts themselves rather than how we approach them. And the idea of dividing literature into dumb bestsellers and smart literary fiction is a whole other problem I won’t get into today.

I’m off to read a book – a stinking headache is making me hate the world this morning, and I could do with the empathy. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any thoughts on this, or any books that have really helped you to understand other people, leave a note below.

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.