An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

On literary novels with plots (and fancy words)

It’s always hard to go against the tide of critical acclaim and declare that in your opinion, the emperor has no clothes. Although Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding has been generally well-reviewed, on Brian Platzer lays into it in rather devastating fashion. In effect, he accuses it of being a genre wolf dressed up in literary sheep’s clothing, a rather original and interesting accusation with several layers. As I haven't read the book myself I'm not in a position to agree or disagree, but I think it's particularly interesting to unpack some of the layers of that accusation.

First off, of course, I need to make the point that I strongly disagree with Platzer’s disdain for genre novels. As any readers of this blog will know, I have broad reading tastes, and in my opinion, genre authors such as Anne Holt or Donna Leon are at least as talented as more “literary” authors. Further, Platzer’s scorn for page-turning plots probably reflects the fact that he’s never tried to write one – I suspect they are harder than they look.  And honestly, what’s the problem with a literary novel with a plot? It reflects a point of view that I thought long-discredited, that a “worthy” novel can’t possibly be enjoyable to read. Surely there are many authors who have proved that point of view to be wrong. The recent Miles Franklin win by Peter Temple's Truth was a fine example, as are many books by such literary stars as Kate Grenville or Alex Miler. The idea still rears its ugly head occasionally of course, like the controversy over the Booker shortlist afew years ago deemed too “readable,” but I would suggest it’s gradually dying out as the publishing industry realises it needs to cater to readers and not the other way around.

So after completely disagreeing with Platzer on this point I then found myself in the strange position of agreeing with him on another. I’m sure he phrased it better (and I do recommend you go read the article) but in sum, he pointed out that fancy words and literary allusions do not literature make. I wholeheartedly agree. While I wouldn’t touch the hot potato of what can and cannot be deemed “quality literature” (this blog does have a lot of quotation marks, doesn’t it?) I do think that authors sometimes think that the more obscure the vocabulary, the more literary prizes the book is likely to win. Or perhaps that’s unkind; I’m not really suggesting that authors write with literary prizes in mind, rather than they are unconsciously influenced by the way that they think a literary novel is supposed to sound.

My view is the exact opposite. In a really good novel, I think the language should be clear as glass, and a reader should not notice it at all. Stopping to wonder about the meaning of a word or unusual word choice jolts you out of the novel. Looking at the literary novels on my bookshelf, the writers I admire all write simply – if you asked me about the way they wrote, I wouldn’t be able to tell you about anything except the story. Siri Hustvedt, Alex Miller, Salman Rushdie and Helen Garner have all written prize-winning novels without needing fancy words, and their work is  somehow the more powerful for its simplicity.

One final thought – for all that I disagree with many of his points, Platzer did a fine job of writing a well-supported, thoughtful negative review of The Art of Fielding, a topic I discussed on this blog recently. Most importantly, it gave me a good idea of whether I would or wouldn’t like the book (a definite no – any book that uses the word “synecdoche” during a sex scene will definitely be struck off my reading list). As a review, there is much to admire in the article. And having ended up reviewing a review I had better finish on that particularly meta note.

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