Last week, I was having a little back-and-forth discussion online with a friend and former professor (a brilliant teacher and scholar from whom I learned just about everything I know about Shakespeare). She was exploring ways to bring her theatre students to an appropriate rubric for analyzing theatre–a tough task. A colleague of hers, a professor of English, suggested some criteria, then claimed that she uses such criteria not only to analyze theatre, but “to distinguish junk fiction from literary fiction.”
The recent literary boxing match between Jodi Picoult/Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen (or, to be fair, the attention paid to Jonathan Franzen; he himself has been very classy about the entire flap, admitting that his detractors have a legitimate grievance) has brought a great deal of attention to the gender inequity in critical attention paid to new books. But it seems to me that, the gender issue aside, there’s another bias at work. That bias, put pretty coarsely by the professor mentioned above, assumes “literary fiction” is the only truly important fiction, and that anything outside that category (i.e., commercial fiction) is junk.
Before moving on, let’s straighten something out: “literary fiction” is not some long-standing tradition in American or English literature. In fact, the term has been in use only since the 1960s, when critics found it useful to have a term for fiction that is largely about the author’s use of language, not the author’s use of plot and character. Plot and character as primary forces, then, are left to commercial fiction. In the past 50 years since literary fiction was deemed a category of its own, the term has become synonymous with “serious” or “culturally significant.” Commercial fiction, which finds itself subdivided into science fiction, mystery, thriller, chick lit, crime, and perhaps dozens of other categories, is the subject of much pooh-poohing and even outright derision in the writing world.
But I’d argue that we may need to think a bit more about what we mean by seriousness in fiction. Take a writer most people would agree is literary: Cormac McCarthy. If McCarthy doesn’t demonstrate masterful skill with language, then no one does; his work in Blood Meridian had Harold Bloom calling the book the most significant novel since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But I wonder how many readers can honestly recall the story at the heart of Blood Meridian. For my part, I remember McCarthy’s juggernauts of sentences, and scalping. Lots of scalping.
I’m certainly not of a stature to argue with Mr. Bloom, but I would be hard-pressed to say that Blood Meridian is a greater achievement than McCarthy’s most commercial book, The Road, the plot of which so many found moving, unsettling, and chillingly possible, but the language of which was uncharacteristically spare and plain. In The New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon argues that The Road is–wait for it–science fiction. If we adhered to the common wisdom on the matter, post-apocalyptic sci fi like The Road shouldn’t have literary merit, and the book surely shouldn’t have won the 2007 Pulitzer. Where’s the seriousness of language? The attention paid more to style than to character and plot? Why aren’t we using The Road to prop up the broken legs on our armchairs from which we philosophize about the great seriousness of Blood Meridian? Because McCarthy’s story and characters stick with us. Stories and characters (yes, those building blocks of commercial fiction) endure beyond artful turns of phrase.
Young Adult novelist Chris Abouzeid puts the matter beautifully, reminding us about what will remain when our nitpicking about seriousness and literary merit are over:
… let’s not fool ourselves. There will be stories told in the clumsiest, most conformist, even trite manner imaginable that will endure longer than most of our beautiful sentences. There will be tales we’ve heard a hundred times before that will thrill us simply because the circumstances are different, or the characters are new, or the times have changed. Maybe language will be part of that difference. But if not, it doesn’t matter. In the decomposition of literary bodies, words are the first to go. What’s left is the enduring beauty of story.