Sunday, March 18, 2012

The difference between literary fiction and other genres

To be honest, sometimes I can't tell the difference between a well written fiction book and a literary text. The differences can be too abstract for the reader to clearly understand. 

I just ran across this statement by Sonia Meyer: "Literature is when after finishing the book, the characters remain" as well as other statements to the effect of literature allows us to understanding ourselves and help our hearts to know ourselves. 

I have no essential problem with literature being classified as books that reflect and explore what it is to be human but what book doesn't in its own way do just that?

Even dictionaries are an in-depth exploration into ourselves because all our words, our base mode of communicating, are written down for us to search through whenever it pleases us. But less on non-fiction which obviously explores what it is to be human by writing it down as baldly as possible and more about the other fiction genres.

Standard fiction, if you could ever really get away with calling it such, often does exactly the same thing as literature in terms of humanity's self exploration and reflection but often includes more laughs, off-the-wall adventures, distorted but illuminating reflections on uncommonly approached subjects all packaged in light fluff that is extraordinarily hard to write. Although I don't generally read general fiction, being a fantasy, sci-fi and horror buff, I have to say there is a reason why so many people love a good general fiction read. The themes, motifs, plot designs and devices are less bogged down in earnest sole-searching and more into illuminating the play of our world and our minds. Never underestimate the importance of play in what it is to be human (that is another giant scientific subject in itself but really, play is fundamental to humans both in the development of the individual and of society).

Romance books explore what it is to love, obsess, hate, desire, want, adore, need, crave or fall into a rut, find your place, establish a home, build a nest, bring up a family and many other things besides, all through either rose coloured glasses or very blue ones. Both rose and blue viewpoints are valid as they are a part of out own instinctual pessimistic and optimistic impulses. Although I find rose coloured viewpoints a little hard to take due to my normally purple or blue viewpoint, I still believe romance literature, as fluffy and annoying as it can be, is a valid and interesting exploration into our hearts. It is often what we'd like to happen more than what does but who of us doesn't dream of belonging somewhere and to someone? We are beings that need such things on a fundamental level and to do without is like losing a part of your humanity.

Crime novels explore our darker sides. Whether fictional or true crime they reflect our worse desires, our animal side and where civilisation breaks down due to greed, hate, revenge, desire, egoism and all things dark to black in nature. We even call some of what is explored evil and believe it either essential in our human makeup or in the universal makeup. While I don't subscribe to the universal viewpoint or to 'evil' as such I do see that our base animal instincts are not always a good fit with our higher ideals for society. The mismatch and all the problems that come with it can rot a person's character. The result is that we can and do commit crimes against one another either individually or en masse. Both such occurrences are explored in crime novels, the characters often reflecting the deepest and most suppressed individual (and social) dark drives.

Fantasy books are one of the best formats for soul and heart searching a human can possible use. Fantasy allows for an objective viewpoint as well as a subjective, both often running parallel to a greater extent than in any other form of literature. Absolutely any issue concerning humanity can be explored, either through an outsider's view of another society or through an insider's search for answers in a strange world. In fact, the best fantasy books aren't ones based solely on fantastical events but on their impact upon an individual or on society (or vice versa). Creation, destruction, life, death, good, evil, lost, found, homeless, landed, greed, generosity, love, hate and anything that can't be set as polarities such as our struggles to survive, our instinctual drive for stability and a home, our need for adventure and excitement, our mistakes and the pitfalls we often find ourselves in because we were too keen. I cannot say enough for fantasy as a genre. It ties everything together and can allow the writer free access, completely without rules and boundaries, to explore any aspect of humanity conceivable. The only matter to consider is whether a publisher will accept it for the mass market. Only publishers will place any guidelines on what is acceptable in fantasy, purely to ensure they sell enough of a particular book. But that is the way it has to be as business is business and you can't make free art so without some guiding principles.

Science-fiction is an interesting genre as it explores our desire to logically explain the universe and all it contains at the very same time as it explores our desire to play with it and break all the rules we do find. There are certain rules to writing science-fiction but they are few and far between, the most important of which is obviously that science is included somewhere in the theme and structure. Science-fiction is a genre that has allowed writers to explore what happens to humanity, to a society, to the world and to the universe if something happens, usually a social, political or technological change or event. The genre allows for and often reflects the light with the dark, preferring purple to blue tinted glasses simply because realism and pessimism go hand in hand with logic and preparedness. The isn't a science-fiction work I know if that hasn't explored humanity's heart and sole in some way, shape or form.

Horror books delve deep into our darkest nightmares, sometimes too dark and sometimes not dark enough. To say we were creatures made entirely of the good, civilised and logical would be a fallacy and the horror genre illuminates that for all and sundry to see. Horror is born of our need for guiding principles to life, our instinctual fears of the 'other' and of death, our darkest desires and drives as well as our need for a good old scare to liven the senses. That might seem nonsensical but well, we are in essence nonsensical creatures. If you don't think so pay earnest attention to your thoughts, reasoning and excuses on the burning social issues that have plagued mankind for centuries. Ask yourself why you do it and deconstruct your position in society, your involvement and why you do anything at all. The answers you find will leave you feeling a little miserable but if you accept that we are formed by contradictions and built on a bundle of nonsense instinct for survival and that almost everything you do or say is tied to your need to survive then you'll do alright. Horror often faces us with the uglier and nonsensical truths, leaving us shaken and searching for more answers as to why. If that isn't writing reflecting the heart and soul of us all then I don't know what is.

Children's literature encompasses all of the above but in easy words and with a limited number of concepts woven into a single story, all so the young mind can grasp it. Any children's literature that doesn't reflect aspects of humanity isn't worth the paper it is written on. That said, it would be very hard to write one that doesn't reflect humanity even a little bit.

Literature needs more than just the classification "books that reflect and explore what it is to be human" to be labelled literature. To me the term literature is almost synonymous with book. A human writing is a human exploring humanity. All books contain aspects of the writer, the audience, society, civilisation and the complex and confusing animal called human.

In identifying literary fiction as literature the standard of writing could be a point of order (sorry, I've been watching a lot of Rumpole of the Bailey) but the standard of all writing has been lifted progressively higher with the proliferation of publishing over the last few centuries. Now, you're probably thinking about classical literature and considering that maybe not, maybe it has fallen, but those writers throughout history who have made it into the classical listing, the canon being its height, were and are the best of the best. There were many more writers who've been forgotten simply because they weren't but they did publish, their works were read and the quality of their work has varied wildly throughout publishing history.

Other than this I'm at a loss. Literary fiction is to me just well written, nicely polished and serious-minded fiction where the writer is earnestly trying to convey a point about humanity and that alone. Play, scares, shock, horror, delight, wonder, discovery, magic, disbelief and many other interesting aspects of writing and reading all take a backseat to this serious exploration of an issue even when they are included. That to me is what make literary fiction literature and is also why I only read it every now and then when the point is one I will be interested in. I see no reason to force myself or others to read literary fiction on a constant basis simply because it is supposed to be serious and high-brow simply because all genres include what I need for a good read: an exploration into what it is to be human.

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