Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is Literary Fiction?

The question of the week over on OF Blog of the Fallen is: What is literary fiction… “how you would define it, what examples you would cite, and your relationship with that term”?

My own response refers to the previous question on “otherness” and the notion of abjection I applied to it in my own post on the topic. Literary fiction is, I think, the X defined by the abjection of “genre fiction”. I’ve skirted around this idea previously, in the first few sections of this essay, for example, but I think it’s worthwhile explicating exactly what I mean in more precise terms.

Briefly then “literary fiction” is, on a literal level, almost a tautology — as redundant as if we were to say “textual texts”. I say “almost” because not all fiction is written and so not all fiction is, strictly speaking, “of or pertaining to literature” in terms of letters, signs inscribed in ink on a page. However, leaving aside the exceptions to the rule — oral recitations, anecdotal fabrications, narratives performed without a script (e.g. ballet), and purely graphic narratives — when we talk of fiction we generally do mean written narratives. “Literary fiction”, in common usage, is not set in opposition to “cinematic fiction” (movies) or “dramatic fiction” (plays, operas, ballets) or “graphic fiction” (comics, picture-books), but in opposition to “genre fiction”. And yet this other term is also something of a tautology. Every fiction sits in some familial relationship to other fictions. Every fiction is in a tradition of aesthetic forms. Every fiction is in some genre or other, whether it be that of the Harlequin romance, the Victorian Realist novel, the bildungsroman, the picaresque, the fairy tale, the club story, or simply the novel. Understand genre as comparable with race, tribe, nationality, membership of a family, of a genera, and the term “genre fiction” would become meaningless were it not so revealing.

The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is the product of definition-by-exclusion. One group of fictions have been actively distinguished and segregated out on the basis of common points of difference. I’ll come to the specifics of those groups and their markers of difference in a moment; for now the important poin is that they have been rendered "other" via an act of discrimination. All fictions are of-a-genre but only those of certain genres are segregated out as being “genre”. This is precisely comparable with the process of racial discrimination in which the reality that all people are literally coloured — their skin being of some visible shade rather than entirely translucent — is disregarded in order to segregate out those of certain colours as being “coloured”. As in many such acts of definition-by-exclusion, the purpose is to define the other as not-X (not-literary fiction, not-white people), to exclude those qualities from X (literary fiction, white people), with the aim of consolidating X (literary fiction, white people) as a stable system.

What is going on is that boundaries of aesthetic normativity are being established by which less common but nevertheless natural features of fiction are deemed essentially non-normative -- abnormal, unusual. As these aesthetic boundaries build into nomological systems, these features are held to infringe the laws of normality, which in this case manifest as prescriptive standards of quality. They acquire a quality of strangeness, are seen as transgressions of what is natural in fiction, of what is right in terms of “good” fiction. This is not perhaps surprising given that the identifying markers-of-difference are essentially what I have referred to as quirks — units of strangeness considered as the disruption of suspension-of-disbelief.

Without going into the full details of the theory, there is a suspension-of-disbelief (a sense that the events “could have happened”) during the reading process that can be disrupted by shifts in subjunctivity level and modality. In layman’s terms, “shifts in subjunctivity level and modality” simply means any event that contradicts our sense of the laws of normality with a temporal, metaphysical or logical impossibility or profound improbability (creating a sense that the events “could not have happened”) and/or with an affectively-valuated possibility (where we have a deep sense that the events we are reading “should” or “should not”, “must” or “must not” happen.) These quirks are the defining feature of strange fiction as I’ve attempted to set out my analysis of it in this lengthy series of blog posts. By definition, they render that fiction “sensationalist” in so far as all such strange fiction is defined by its disruption of suspension-of-disbelief, its aim of invoking a profound affective engagement to the extent of incredulity.

Contrary to the simultaneously narrow and fuzzy definitions of the “fantastic” or the “speculative” this notion of the “strange” allows for a more precise analysis of the different flavours of quirk possible in fiction (nova, chimerae, errata, suturae, etc.) and crucially recognises that the underlying technique is present throughout literature — in the exotica of traveller’s tales, in the arcana of mystery fiction, in the quirks of fiction throughout the ages. The absurd in comedy and the abject in tragedy can both be considered as strange-fictional features. Even the melodramatic can be considered strange to some extent — breaching the laws of normality in a way that both is and isn’t a break from mimesis (and pointing us perhaps to a more complex sense of what “mimesis” means). As particular approaches to the use of these features become the fundamental qualities by which we decide on what genre a work of fiction is situated in, the theory also allows us to see, however, how these qualities become the markers of difference by which one group of fiction is ultimately segregated out as “genre”.

That process can be seen historically in the emergence of Realist genres that expunge quirks of all but the subtlest varieties, as that aesthetic strategy of rationalist literature (i.e. focusing on social observation and commentary) defines itself in opposition to those genres that most markedly exploit strangeness. Beginning with Don Quixote, the novel begins to distinguish itself from the romance antagonistically. From writers like Fielding and Richardson up to the Victorian period, we see a gradual definition-by-exclusion that consolidates the concept of “the novel” by segregating out the Gothic Romances and the “Adventure” and “Mystery” stories of literary variety journals like the Strand. The term “sensation novels” emerges as a profoundly apt encapsulation of the qualities of strangeness this process of abjection is locked onto (and one that is a precursor of “genre fiction” and comparable with “coloured people” in its disregard for the sensationalist content of writers like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë and countless others in the canon). From dime novels and penny dreadfuls through to the pulp boom of the early 20th century which gave us the modern commercial genres of Western, Crime, Romance, Science Fiction and so on, that process continues, with all these genres being defined as “pulp fiction” which by now is intrinsically in contradistinction to “literary fiction”. The switching of the term “genre” for “pulp” could arguably be seen as a point of completion, the point at which the “sensationalism” of strange fiction has been rendered wholly abject.

A key point of the notion of abjection is that the abject is or was essentially a part of us in some profound sense. Julia Kristeva exemplifies it in psychological terms with our reactions to bodily fluids and matter that has been separated or excreted — blood, faeces, etc.. I would argue that the recognition of self-in-the-other is a profound intensifier of the negative reaction, that there is in fact a large degree of projection in abjection, hence the familiarity aspect to Freud’s notion of the uncanny, and its figuration in the doppelganger. The abjection of genre fiction in order to consolidate literary fiction as a stable system is neurotically driven in part, it seems to me, by a denial of the essential role that strangeness plays in all literature. That which we call literary fiction does not in fact — cannot — truly expunge the strange. Literary fiction is no more free of the strangeness that is abjected as “being genre” than white people are free of the epidermal tonality that is abjected as “being coloured”. To use a metaphor pertinent to Kristeva’s root notion of abjection, literary fiction is in a state of horror at its own lifeblood, the very stuff that renders it dynamic, renders it of interest by challenging our suspension-of-disbelief. That which most deliberately seeks to, and successfully manages to, expunge the strange only succeeds in rendering itself bloodless and therefore dead.

This is not to say that we should revile the fiction that is labelled literary fiction, that may even be written intentionally as literary fiction. Given the importance of strangeness in terms of narrative dynamics, even with the cultural neurosis of the context of creation, these works usually succeed only in repressing the strange. This may lead to bourgeois banality or it may lead to works of very subtle and sensitive dynamics, interesting precisely because of the extent to which they are subdued. We should be aware of the sometimes ill-considered hostilities that emerge from a history of abjection, the knee-jerk antipathy to the “enemy”, the complementary attempt to abject from “genre fiction” that which we, in turn, identify by markers-of-difference as “literary fiction” (the most common such markers being the low-level structural complexities that many readers of the abjected genres of strange fiction themselves abject as “style”). We should be aware of the extent to which similar processes of abjection have taken place and continue to take place within the strange fiction genres, most markedly in the attempt to consolidate science fiction as the X defined by the abjection of fantasy. We should be aware of the extent to which, as these genres have matured over the decades, as they have striven for greater quality and credibility, they have ironically accepted the terms of the discourse by which they are deemed abject, echoing the artificial dichotomy of “sensational” and “intellectual”, even echoing the aesthetic normativities born of the definition-by-exclusion in phrases like “literary sf” or “literary fantasy”. Personally, I know I have used, and will doubtless use again, such terms as conventional shorthand for the attempt to integrate the techniques of mimesis that mark out the Naturalist and Realist genres, and to achieve greater depth in terms of character and theme through the more complex low-level structures some call “style” and/or the more complex high-level structures that many call “experimental”; but that shorthand is… problematic in the critical discourse, I think. It suggests a value-system that privileges ultimately trite works written by the middle-classes for the middle-classes, works which may well achieve gravitas at the expense of vigour.

If “literary” is defined by the abjection of the strange, the sensationalist, well, I want my fiction to be shameless of its blood, sweat and tears.


Blogger Colin Meier said...

Hi Hal

Might just be me, but that link to "long series of blog posts" doesn't work.


11:40 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Only difference I can see is that the link in the post says "dhttp://..." whereas the 'Strange Fiction' link on the sidebar is "http://"

11:45 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Okay, now that I've actually read it...

Thanks, Hal. I'm participating in an ongoing discussion of what African writers "should be writing", and this will certainly inform that discussion.

11:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this post pretty insightful. But I think there's another legitimate problem hidden in the split between the 'literary' and 'genre' that isn't covered by 'strangeness' nor even banished by invoking the genealogy of differing aesthetic forms. Canonic authors like Proust and Woolf create some truly powerful spiritual and emotional effects by focusing their novels on the real-life experiences that all of us have. Because of this focus, they can draw directly on the huge emotional well that we quietly build up just in the process of living conventionally as most of us do. On the other hand, these books tend to become boring very quickly for exactly the same reason: our lives generally don't involve exciting narratives that can engage the reader and make him want to turn the pages. 'Genre' authors usually create excitement by means of plots that deviate wildly from our real experiences, and hence, despite this excitement, they can't draw as effectively on the experiences that have built up within us and are waiting to be released. Certainly I'm not saying they have no relation to our real experiences, but a 'save the world' style plot, so common in one guise or another in sf, creates an atmosphere that makes it impossible for the author to spark the profound spiritual moments of, for instance, the best parts of Mrs. Dalloway. Other genre plots are almost always similarly artificial, or at least similarly distant from our 'bourgeois' experiences. For an author, this seems like a very troubling problem--I'm not saying an unsolveable one, but one that, to my mind, has been unsolved thus far: the author has apparently been stuck with an either-or: an engaging plot and absorbing world,, or else a boring narrative that could potentially bring about a spiritual epiphany.

2:51 am  
Blogger Larry said...

While I agree with much of what you say about the differences in story expression, I think a crucial point hasn't yet been stated: what about the modes of audience expectations/communication?

The more I think about it, the more I'm reminded of a comment of Neal Stephenson's a few years ago about how he and a "literary fiction" writer were talking and that she was surprised that he didn't have to rely upon grants to work on his writing. The patronage model (e.g. the university-sponsored lit mags/reviews) is a key trait of most, if not all, literary fiction that's being published and I think that and its intended audience and their expectations might need to be taken into account.

Anecdote: I did a Google search the other night for reviews of Conjunctions: 39: The New Wave Fabulists. Virtually every single review that I found was written from the "genre" perspective; I suspect reviews from the "literary" side did occur, but are more likely to be found in print journals than via online blogs and websites.

8:13 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Cheers, Colin. Link now fixed. And, in the context of African writing, I'd be curious to know if you think there's a parochial mentality there that leads to a... bending over backwards in the attempt to be taken seriously. I see this in Scottish writing, IMO, and I know Scott Bakker has talked about it in respect to Canadian writing -- a more institutionalised aversion to the abjected "genre". Like the Scottish Arts Council will generally run a mile from putting money into any project associated with the strange fiction genres.

I've wondered if maybe this is because when you perceive yourself as being in a "backwater" in relation to English or American fiction there's a need to prove yourself, to show that your marginality does not mean a lack of relevance (where being relevant means being more purely mimetic). And that plays out in a privileging of contemporary realism when it comes to arts councils, grants and suchlike.

You could maybe contrast this with France, which is in a similar position to England and America vis-a-vis French literature. And there the two big French festivals, Utopiales and Imaginales both have huge levels of investment by the towns they're located in. In both cases, in fact, there's proud linkages made (explicitly) between the strange fiction genres and the cultural heritage, the former sf festival being located in the birthplace of Jules Verne, the latter festival being located in the home of "les images d'Épinal".

This is totally speculative on my part, right enough, a matter of a vague perception of tendencies. And I have a similar sense of a complementary tendency within strange fiction writers to bend over backwards against geo-cultural marginalisation -- i.e. to be overly wary of setting their work in their homeland in case it's perceived as parochial.

Sort of thinking out loud here.

3:12 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Anoymous: I think you make some very good points, but I think where you're talking about "the real-life experiences that all of us have", "living conventionally as most of us do", this mimesis of the domestic is very much what I'm contrasting with strange fiction. I absolutely agree that representing the reality can have intense resonance. This is partly what I'm getting at with "works of very subtle and sensitive dynamics, interesting precisely because of the extent to which they are subdued". For me, the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end of Ulysses is the paragon of this.

I also agree that there's a strong tendency for the inherent dynamics of the quirks of strange fiction to generate Romantic plot structures. I've blogged about this too, expanding on Clute's notion of narrative grammars, but I'm not sure I can point you to the most relevant post right now; it's a matter of how those quirks load the worldscape with boulomaic, deontic and epistemic modalities that up the ante, invest the worldscape with a distinct aesthetics, serve as Todorovian disruptions that the protagonist must engage with, and thereby lead us into Clute's "Thinning" and "Thickening", my "Twisting". The end result is Epic, Heroic, Adventure, Mystery, Noir plot-structurings.

But are the mimesis of the domestic and the semiosis of the strange really incompatible? Catch-22 being a comedy doesn't make it any less emotionally resonant. Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet has moments that are up there with Molly Bloom's soliloquy for me. Slaughterhouse 5, Dhalgren, countless other works of strange fiction demonstrate that the quirks don't necessarily result in "save the world" plots.

These are not "blendings" of "literary" and "genre" approaches, to me, no matter whether we view them as "less genre" or "more literary" because we accept the discourse of abjection. It's simply that the quirks that disrupt suspension-of-disbelief, that break from mimesis of the domestic, are an *additional* layer of semiotic complexity. Strangeness can be even more effective in contrast with intimate domestic representation, and vice versa. The dynamics that results from the injection of quirks into a narrative does not have to be formulaic.

To me, the idea that it's either/or is an artifice of the abjection. The Romantic plot structures are part projected stereotype, part enforced role. It makes me think of the way the Mandingo stereotype is not just projection but imposition: here's what you are, all that you can be; you want to "succeed" your path is to become the "big black buck" of the sports world, c.f. Mike Tyson.

I'm not sure I'm articulating this well, though. (I need to go out to the shops, like 15 minutes ago, but once I've got my teeth into something... argh.) I'll maybe post again in some more detail when I have the time to organise my ideas.

4:09 pm  
Blogger Tj said...

Hiya Hal.
This isn't related to the post above at all. I'm a big fan of your writing, which is usually the only reason I post on here, to heap random praise on you.

This time though, I wanted to recommend something to you. Have you had the pleasure/pain to catch Primer which was created by Shane Carruth? It has a very meta storyline, similar to your Book of All Hours. As such, it takes a bucket of tears and sweat to understand.

On the off chance you have seen it, what did you think?

7:02 pm  
Blogger •ZAR• said...

I am so sorry, you writes so large text. and I am unable to read them considering my English levels. but that must very interesting…. Fuck!

7:55 am  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Ah, I see blogger swallowed my first comment.
On the subject of how domestic mimesis and genre can mix, I’d suggest Shirley Jackson (among others) as a model. The Lottery, etc. Of course, she’s deliberately subverting the mimesis, but it makes the horror all the more effective, since by the time we realise what’s going on, our suspense-of-disbelief is turned up to 10. Of course, this may simply be a product of the way modern horror works. Steven King does the same thing, although there is somewhat less subtlety about the horror when it arrives.
Hal, yeah, “parochial” is a good word. I can’t be too critical since I’m guilty of the “complementary tendency” – I’ve never written anything set in Africa. I should perhaps re-examine why that is.
I’ve spent a while thinking about the way genre fiction is (almost) completely ignored, on this continent. I have one or two (published) friends who write science-fiction or fantasy. If I look at them, and I look at the majority of writers, who insist on domestic mimesis, I have to come to the conclusion that, firstly, genre fiction is part of Western culture, and is abjected (lovely word) for that reason, which leads to the second reason : it’s a form of fiction that builds on itself, that refers to itself. You mention this in passing in your essays on strange fiction. Without a fairly extensive grounding in sf / fantasy / horror, it’s difficult to read, let alone write.
I was re-reading Ink over the weekend, and thinking about how it might appear to someone unfamiliar with the idea of strange fiction; without knowledge of some of the conventions (or more accurately, the idea of conceits). It would be fairly difficult to understand, to say the least. And that’s despite the fact that none of the book is “conventional” science-fiction or fantasy – IMO, it helps a lot to be aware of the tropes and conventions, in order to notice (even if not at a conscious level) that they are not there, and what they’ve been replaced with.
There might be a blog post along these lines, if I can find the time (the novel, happily, is occupying a lot of my time right now). But I’d be interested in what you think of my above conclusion : one has to know science-fiction / fantasy in order to understand many of the concepts in Vellum or Ink. I’d also be interested in knowing what response it got from “literary” critics, contrasted with strange-fiction critics.

9:08 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hey, Tj. Yeah, I saw Primer a while back and thought it was fucking awesome. It's more of a rigorous science-fictional approach to time travel than TBoAH, I'd say (more of a rigorous approach than *many* time travel stories) -- kind of beautifully thought-through, in fact -- but I can see what you mean in terms of headfuck effect. It's truly meaty. Also brilliant on the casual-yet-incomprehensible-conversation front, the way it just quietly creates this utterly plausible picture of the accidental discovery of a strange effect, the experimental investigation of it, and so on -- the indie movie verisimilitude of it. Puts all other time travel movies to shame.

Hey, Zar. No worries, man. I do try to write short sometimes. I just usually fail. :D

4:11 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Colin: Hard to say. The books' reviews were pretty much limited to the sf field, or in newspaper/magazine review sections where the reviewer had a background in the field -- or seemed like they might have, from reading between the lines.

As to whether you need to know the (t)ropes... again, hard to say. There's a liberal sprinkling of referentiality, Easter eggs of nods to other writers, and to particular pulp stylings, and a lot of that intertextuality is going to be lost on those who haven't read the type of thing I'm riffing off, but the key conceits are maybe not so hard to grasp without a grounding -- the book itself, the Cant, gravings, angels. (Orgone-powered chi-pistols maybe not so much.)

Various members of my family who've read the books have reported back varying levels of comprehension, but it's hard to say how many of them were lost in the strange imagery and how many were lost in the non-linear structure. That whole multiversal approach, the 3d time conceit, seems to be as much a problem for sf readers, it has to be said.

I don't doubt that a lot of the cyberpunk and steampunk gubbins would be just plain weird to a reader not grounded in sf, but the two books are a lot less dense in that respect, I'd say, than your average singularity story. With the exception of Kentigern, the worldscapes in the book tend to be less baroque, by and large. They're mining real-world history and 30s pulp adventure (i.e. in the Jack Carter stuff) in a way that's familiar from Indiana Jones.

I know my dad, who doesn't read sf at all, responded to it in a big way. The focus on early 20th century history might have played no small part in that, and the fact that he's an opera afficionado might have primed him for the trick of telling the same story in different time periods. If you've seen a ton of performances of various operas staged in contemporary costume, you might well be *more* likely to get the performative approach I'm taking with the retellings of Euripedes and Aeschylus than an sf or fantasy reader who wants coherent worldbuilding. But at the end of the day, it's hard to judge how much might go over your head if you don't know your strange fiction.

5:43 am  

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