Fiction and Literature

November 18, 2003

As I was commuting in and out of the city today I could have played the audiobook I keep in the care. Even if I was spending the drive in thinking about my class, I could have played it on the drive back. I did not. I have gotten bored with Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure - and I am still on the first tape. The novel is bleak, it is sad, and it foreshadows even more bleakness and sadness. It is read slowly and lovingly by Jenny Sterlin. She reads well, she emphasized the words and the characters and the feel of the novel. And I do not like it.

Audiobooks emphasize the language of literature. They move more slowly than I read for myself. This can be a very good thing - I have read The Lord of the Rings so many times now that my eyes glance over the paper while in an audiobook I linger in the descriptions. If the prose is rich and thick, and the point of the book is the way it is written, then an audiobook is a very good thing. However, when the point of the book is the plot, well, I begin to dislike audiobooks. When the book is abridged, taking out all the rich thick prose and leaving just plot, then I dislike it very much. Audiobooks reveal the weaknesses in a book; they are more demanding than paper. You can not flip back to check something, it is hard to replay a paragraph, you have to get it the first time and, if there are junk words and waste paragraphs in there, your eye can not skip by them. I put down most audiobooks unfinished. Thomas Hardy lingers lovingly on the crushing impossibility of real improvement and the doomed dreams of people who want to break free of their existence. I do not care to linger on that while I drive. Jude goes back to the library tomorrow.

Earlier today, as I was thinking about why I did not like Jude, I also thought about the nature of modern literature.

At one point I divided my library into fiction and literature, light books and serious books. I tried to define each, and could not come up with a definition that both held up in the abstract and matched the way I had shelved my books. I had shelved the genre novels in one room, thrown the crappy stuff in with them, and put the non-genre good stuff in another room. This was fairly arbitrary - some genre fiction is better written than most non-genre fiction: Gene Wolf, Terry Pratchett, Sam Delaney, and Walter Jon Williams all have some work that is absolutely spectacular. But, they went into the basement shelves next to Robert Wilson's Illuminati Trilogy and Mercedes Lackey, and Robert Tanenbaum, and the rest of the science fiction and mysteries and thrillers.

Thinking back to those two rooms of books there was a general pattern. The books in the basement were entertaining; some handled serious themes but all were page turners. And, by and large, the books in the basement were about success. The books upstairs moved more slowly. Some were page turners (Moby Dick is a page turner if you like Melville), others were slogs. But, by and large, the books upstairs were about failure. Especially with 20th century literature, we can approximately say that serious fiction is about failure and light fiction is about success. I wonder how many people will try to write a "serious" piece of fiction with light pages and a happy ending. It cuts both ways, of course. William Gibson voted himself from my "buy this" list to my "library" list when, at the end of Virtual Light he first kills a character and then, in the coda, tells us that the character somehow survived falling off the top tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. He forced his happy ending, and in doing so he undermined the world he had created in the previous 300 odd pages of his novel.

Earlier today I tried to articulate a distinction between fiction and literature that would capture that difference between success and failure, and I could not do it. Fiction is a story that did not really happen; literature is either everything that has been written or, in the narrow definition, everything that has been written well. Using the broad definition of literature, all fiction is literature. If we use the narrow definition then there is a small group of material that is both fiction and literature, well written stories that did not really happen. Those are pretty decent ideal types for someone who has never studied literary theory, but they don't help me file my books.

I have time before I need to work up a new filing system. In the new house there is no room for fiction, and while I am writing and teaching I have little time to read fiction. The books remain in boxes in a storage unit.

Someday the books will be unpacked, and then I will have to file them. I might file them as books about success and books about failure. J suggests that we just file all the stories that did not really happen in one set of shelves, with William Faulkner and Robert Frezza hanging out near each other; I might do that. I might also put all the books with repetitive plots in one set of shelves and everything else in another - that criterion might well put Sir Walter Scott in with Bernard Cornwell and David Drake. Or I might just file the books about happiness, the books about despair, and the books about bittersweet in three separate sets of shelves. That way I could grab a novel that suited my mood.

For now, I am going to go grade papers and read John Pemble's The Mediterranean Passion. That is a work of British history, so it will get filed in non-fiction.

Tomorrow, I will look for a new audiobook. I have summoned Mystic River after reading Sheila O'Malley's rave for its opening paragraph. If the rest of the book is as richly written, it will hold up to the audio process. But I am number 8 on the hold list, so I will need to find something to tide me over. There are not a lot of unabridged books on tape in the library, and most of them are books I do not care to read. But I will find something, I usually do.

Posted by Red Ted at November 18, 2003 08:14 AM | TrackBack