12 April 2004

A Curious Essay

I haven't read Mark Haddon's bestselling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but an essay he wrote for The Guardian makes me want to read everything he's written (thanks to Maud Newton for the link). The essay is exactly what I like an essay to be: a variety of almost-disconnected thoughts from an interesting, insightful mind.

In one part, Haddon discusses the differences between "genre fiction" and "literary fiction". I have some reservations about his terminology, but I like what he says:
Genre fiction says: 'Forget the gas bill. Forget the office politics. Pretend you're a spy. Pretend you're a courtesan. Pretend you're the owner of a crumbling gothic mansion on this worryingly foggy promontory.' Literary fiction says: 'Bad luck. You're stuck with who you are, just as these people are stuck with who they are. But use your imagination and you'll see that even the most narrow, humdrum lives are infinite in scope if you examine them with enough care.'

Obviously, we all know men of 50 who have never paused to consider their own mortality, but I'll wager that very few of them are reading Middlemarch.

I don't mean that literary fiction is better than genre fiction, though I do prefer curling up with with an author such as A.M. Homes rather than Helen Fielding. Nor do I mean that the distinction is a rigid one. On the contrary, some of the best novels -- Jane Eyre, The Woman in White -- have a foot in both camps. I mean only that novels can perform two functions and most perform only one.
I might prefer to replace the term "genre fiction" with "escapist fiction", but I do think Haddon is onto something here. I don't think we should limit fiction to only two functions -- what an impoverished world that would be! -- and it might be more accurate to use the term "tendencies" rather than "functions".

Escapist fiction tends to bring us out of ourselves, away from the concerns of our lives, making us forget rather than reflect or think. (When defining escapist fiction, I always think of something Tom Lehrer once said: "I'd like to take you now on wings of song, as it were, and try and help you forget perhaps for a while your drab, wretched lives.")

Literary fiction, then, is the opposite of escapist, bringing the reader to reflect on life, the universe, and everything. While its intent is generally serious, its surface certainly doesn't have to be.

Using such a taxonomy, there is no need to separate various forms of genre fiction from the stuff that just gets shelved under "fiction" in bookstores, because in the genre sections you'll have escapist fiction beside literary fiction in the same way the fiction section has Brett Easton Ellis beside Stanley Elkin.

Haddon has written many children's books, books which he terms "genre fiction", and he says that though Curious Incident is able to be read by children and has "a carefully shaped plot" that "invites you to enter someone else's life", he was going for something more with this book, a something that pushes it toward the realm of the literary:
[The novel is] about how little separates us from those we turn away from in the street. It's about how badly we communicate with one another. It's about accepting that every life is narrow and that our only escape from this is not to run away (to another country, another relationship, a slimmer, more confident self) but to learn to love the people we are and the world in which we find ourselves.
I'm sure the book is more interesting to read than that -- it is from such banalities that great fiction is made -- but rather than the conclusions Haddon reaches, the goal is what interests me. Here is a writer whose previous goal was, simply and nobly, to entertain. With Curious Incident, he raised his sights a little higher, and aimed to create a story which would cause readers to reflect, perhaps just a little bit, and risk discomfort.

Great fiction comes not from any "hidden message", but from what it does within and against tradition, what it does with language, what it does to the reader. A story about imaginary worlds does not need to be escapist -- myths, fables, parables, allegories all make use of fantasies and fabulations without letting readers forget themselves or their worlds. A story filled with technological speculations is not by definition escapist -- indeed, with the rate at which technology is changing how various cultures work and play, we need more tales letting us reflect on the machines in our lives.

Let me end with a final quote from Mark Haddon, offering words from which we could all learn:
Reading is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.

Most adults, unlike most children, understand the difference between a book that will hold them spellbound for a rainy Sunday afternoon and a book that will put them in touch with a part of themselves they didn't even know existed.