The exponential acceleration of the digital revolution, with all its trappings/traps (e-books, iPads, Kindles, apps etc.) has prompted a spate of public musings on whether or not the novel is dead – a phenomenon akin to what happened when music went digital. But a certain kind of novel is proliferating (witness the Twilight franchise). The endangered form today, at least according to sales figures, would appear to be that subspecies, literary fiction.
What the $#@% is literary fiction? To begin to define the term (and for the sake of simplicity, let’s forget hybrids), we can contrast it with commercial or genre fiction. In this context, synonyms for ‘commercial’ might include: popular, airport, page-turning, escapist, plot-driven, Mills-&-Boon, formulaic, addictive… And, above all, this product must deliver a happy ending (or the promise thereof in future volumes) – lovers unite, evildoers get caught, hero[in]es save, order is restored – so consumers will get their fix and crave a sequel, prequel, or fixion that’s similar (derivative).
Literary fiction is harder to define. Detractors and fans alike cite the focus on style of language, the stressing of complex characterisation over plot, an emphasis on description and/or setting. But these are technicalities. The essence of the difference, if we look at lasting literature, seems to lie in the novel’s morality or apparent amorality, the latter of which has resulted, at some point, in many cutting-edge works being banned (Ulysses, Lolita, Naked Lunch, American Psycho, to cite just a few). When was the last time a work of shamelessly commercial fiction got banned?
In his 1979 literary novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes:
Children are the future not because they will one day be adults but because humanity is becoming more and more a child, because childhood is the image of the future (p. 257).
In childhood and adolescence I was fed a diet of happy endings via Disney films or fairytales like ‘Cinderella’ until I rebelled, and now I live in a culture where adults not only crave upbeat story endings but expect the market to deliver nothing but pleasure, including medication to banish unhappiness as if it were a symptom of bodily rather than soul sickness. For better or worse, so-called functional adults in affluent Western societies feel compelled to protect their children from too much reality, and in the light of reports on child labour, child abuse, child prostitution etc., this would seem wholly justifiable. But the rise of consumerism and with it technologies that insulate humans from nature (a term I use narrowly here to refer to the organic world of rot, manure, real viruses, insects, real mice, hot/cold/wet weather etc.) has led to a shift in definitions of reality. Could spending most of one’s waking hours connected to a device (e.g. mouse, mobile, iPod) that functions as a virtual extension of one’s body–mind, when it’s not required for employment or survival, be indicative of an addiction to non-stop entertainment, the safe bubble pampered children enjoy before they reach school age? Yet anyone uninvested in this increasingly closed-circuit herd mentality runs the risk of being left behind like the lame child in The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Unlike the modern masses, the ancient Greeks found meaning in tragedy. Their myths rarely end well. Yet they still resonate after millennia (as do biblical myths, which are even more depressing). Will Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code (or even our species) endure to see the Aquarian Age, let alone survive it (as the Bible has, at least so far, survived the Age of Pisces)? The defining myth of science, ideal for Hollywood blockbuster treatments – technology, given funding, will save us from climate change/cancer/depression/AIDS/overpopulation/poverty – and the defining myth of Western religion – Apocalypse/Judgement Day/Second Coming – represent delusional extremes, the common theme being humanity’s unique obsession with immortality.
As the likelihood of a happy ending to the Earth’s story recedes with the icecaps, humans seem to crave the myth of progress more than ever. On this, Kundera says elsewhere in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
Those who are fascinated by the idea of progress do not suspect that everything moving forward is at the same time bringing the end nearer and that joyous watchwords like “forward” and “farther” are the lascivious voice of death urging us to hasten to it (p. 247).
Julia Gillard, take note. If Kundera’s writing is any kind of example, literary fiction is often a refuge for controversial ideas; in much of his work the characters exist mainly to illustrate theories. The principal character in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting finds herself stranded on an island inhabited only by lecherous children, and she drowns in a desperate bid to escape.
The female protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, published in 1899 to moral outrage, also flees an oppressive society by swimming away from it until she drowns. A critique of marriage and motherhood in fin-de-siècle Creole society, the novel was panned then banned from St Louis libraries. Rejecting social convention in favour of creative and sexual freedom, 28-year-old Edna Pontellier suffers the censure often accorded those who are ahead of their time – as was Chopin. Acclaimed decades later by feminists as America’s Madame Bovary, Chopin’s portrayal of spirited Edna is more sympathetic than Flaubert’s portrayal of Emma, a bored shopaholic who likewise has affairs then tops herself. Was Chopin’s heroine too sympathetic? In 1857, on publication of Madame B, Flaubert was prosecuted for offending public morals, but duly acquitted. Critics and poor sales ensured that Chopin’s career was finished.
And yet time has told us that, on the whole, great literature outlives fiction that offers instant gratification (which makes it disposable, like so much in our consumerist age). Traditionally, authors of literary fiction have taken artistic and/or political risks which may not have paid off in the short term, but assured their works relative immortality.
Commercial fiction avoids ambiguities which block instant gratification by promoting confusion, raising questions, and forcing readers who don’t react dismissively to think (or feel) more deeply. (Ambiguity also shrouds that ultimate unknown, death, in the face of which science and religion compete to offer antidotes or answers.) Might literary fiction, with its ambiguous definition, be eminently equipped to adapt?