On What Consitutes Good Literary Fiction

I often get asked by friends and family if I can recommend a good book to them. As I read alot, I know that it’s a perfectly reasonable request, but it’s a question, I always worry about answering. What if I recommend something that they hate or worse can’t get into? My recommendations are by default, a reflection of me, my tastes and my perception of what is ‘good’ and therefore, can be used to make a judgement about me. I know that just because I think something is ‘good’ does not necessarily mean it is. In one sense it’s a hugely subjective area, but in another sense it isn’t, because every single book published by a publishing house (the rise of self publishing muddies the waters of this argument a bit)  has already been predetermined as being ‘good enough’ to publish for public consumption.

In real terms our book choices are determined by editors of publishing houses: they are the ones who choose to filter out the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’, picking out the potential literary jems and with a little, or a lot, of support from the marketing department, helping them on their way to become a literary gems in practice.  As an unpublished writer, with a novel (or two) on the go, my main aim is to write something good enough to get in front of an editor, and to be chosen as one of the ones that makes it to a shelf in a bookshop (or on an online retailer!) rather than the top of a slush pile. All this means that I spend a huge amount of time pondering over what constitutes ‘good’ literary fiction and trying to determine how the answer relates to, and affects, me, as an aspiring writer.

As you know, as well as the actual business of writing, I’ve spent the last few months getting to grips with literary theory (yippee!). Recently this has meant immersing myself in the wonderful world of Jonathan Culler, who, thankfully, has written a very, very short introductory guide to the subject.  I won’t go on about it too much here, but in it, he talks alot about the function of literature, saying that over the centuries, it has been many different things. In nineteen century England, ‘literature emerged as an extremely important idea, a special kind of writing charged with several functions. It would at once teach disinterested appreciation, provide a sense of national greatness, create fellow-feeling among the classes, and ultimately, function as a replacement for religion, which seemed no longer to be able to hold society together.’ (pg 36) In the twentieth century, amongst other things, theorists have shown literature to have performed a social and political function, reflecting the views, standards and principles of those living and working in the world at that time. He also talks alot about the ‘power of literary fiction’ ashaving a national function: ‘the more the universality of literature is stressed, the more it may have a national function.’ (pg37) He cites Jane Austen’s works as an example of how this theory is played out through literature, evidencing her novels as testament to the England, ‘its standards of taste and behaviour, the moral scenarios and social circumstances in which ethical problems are worked out and personalities formed’ (pg37), she lived and wrote within. What this means is that the function of literature at any one time has a direct influence on what is considered to be ‘good’ literary fiction in that same period. What consitituted ‘good’ literary fiction in the nineteenth century, was completely different to what constituted ‘good’ literary fiction in the twentieth. Now, in the twenty first century, at a time when more novels than ever before are being sold in the UK (78 million sold in the UK in 2010); when we as readers have more choice not only about what we read, but in what format we choose to read it and also how we choose to buy books, the answer about the function of literature and what constitutes ‘good’ literary is changing again, becoming even more complex.

On Saturday 5th March, a television episode of The Culture Show appeared on BBC 2. The content of the episode was primarily focused on the process of choosing the UK’s best new novelists for The Granta Best of Young British Novelists List 2011. As a means of providing context for the judging process, the show’s host, author, John Mullan, reviewed the current status of the book industry and postulated on its future. In doing so Mullan commented on how the world we live in today, impacts on the way in which we, as readers, consume literature and also the way in which writers, produce literature. His findings showed that the form and function of literature is changing or at the very least, expanding.

 The first change to be identified by the programme related to the function of literature as entertainment. In today’s complicated, e-enabled world, literature of all forms in printed format, fiction and non-fiction is vying for our attention with television, websites, blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter and Linked In. To compete with the audio, visual and interactive, nature of these electronic platforms, literature has had to adapt from the traditional printed format to become a better ‘fit’ for the way in which we live our lives and occupy our time. This has meant that literature has not only become available in digital format via e-book readers  and online publications, but that digital publishers are now using a combination of video, audio and online interactive content to engage ‘readers’ with the ideas that literature presents. Today’s modern writers are writing for, and about, a generation and a society that is happy to sit in front of a computer or a games console to learn about the world in which they live and to use these tools to access literature that can provide escape from, or reinforcement of, it. With forecasts for the future decidedly focused on further incorporating the digital age into everyday life, it seems as though the function of literature as entertainment is here to stay. The impact of literature as entertainment on writers is already clear, with style, novel structure, narrative devices and even language itself (think text speak and spelling) being turned on its head. The debut novels of the winning twelve novelists featured on The Culture Show, illustrated a growing trend toward multiple narrative voices, a resurgence of dialect and regionalisation, complicated leaps of time and voice and style from chapter to chapter and unique meta structures designed to make the reader work harder and interact with the story in a more involved way.  Authors are no longer thinking about their writing in terms of its psychological impact on the reader, but also in terms of its physicality and how readers can interact with it. This leads to the question of whether readers should retain the name of reader, when the interplay between a reader and the literary works now exists on so many different platforms and sensorary levels: we are no longer just reading text, we are listening to voice and audio, seeing dynamic pictures and images. Has reading become a cinematic experience?

The second change to the function of literature, identified by Mullan on The Culture Show, related to the view put forward by, author, David Shields, who believes that the conventional literary fiction novel is now irrelevant. Quoting Samuel L Johnson he said ‘A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure existence.’  His subsequent comments placed a demand on the function of contemporary literature to match contemporary cacophony. However he précised this by saying that contemporary society is no longer the Balzacian society that the conventional novel adheres to, but one in which DNA and genetics feature and where advances in technology have far reaching implications on the way we live our lives.  Whilst this might sound like he is in agreement with Culler’s argument that literature has a national function, Shields takes it further by implying that literature now has a global function and that, for a piece of contemporary literary fiction to be considered ‘good’, it must teach us, as readers, how to endure existence within this new global, technological, bio-chemically driven society and not just allow us to escape it. He acknowledged that the rise of historical fiction from some of Britain’s leading authors could be seen as the writers, and their readers, retreating from the advances being made in today’s society. Whilst Shields wasn’t arguing against the writing of historical novels, he was arguing for the writing of the type of ‘good’ contemporary literature he had been describing to John Mullan on The Culture Show.

Looking again at the author’s works which were chosen as examples of the twelve best UK novelists, Shields’ ideas about what constitutes a good piece of contemporary fiction, is not necessarily apparent in many of them. Perhaps, then, what constitutes ‘good’ literary fiction is more about the way in which the story is told, rather than what it’s about. And the way that it is told should be done so in a manner that is accessible and appropriate to the lives of today’s readers, in the context of technology and with an understanding of culture as entertainment.

As an aspiring writer, who hopes to emerge from an MA in Creative Writing  (another cited influencer on the changing shape of literary fiction) into the published world, I find the prospect of writing something that meets the societal needs and expectations of readers and that considers the issues raised by multi-platform access and interactivity quite daunting. Honestly, at this point, I just want to complete a first draft, but I know if I’m serious about getting published and about writing a piece of literary fiction that I can be proud of, these are things I now have to consider. Eek! 

For anyone who is interested, here’s a list of my sources:

Culler, Jonathon, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: 1997)

The Culture Show, BBC2, 9pm. Saturday 5th March 2011. (www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer)

Shields, David on The Culture Show. BBC 2. (pm Saturday 5th March (www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer) Also check out this guy’s website: amazingly he uses his own head as a navigation tool! www.davidshields.com

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Jenn Ashworth on The Culture Show

If you happened to go out last night you might have missed the news that my mentor, Jenn Ashworth was recently chosen as one of The Guardian’s twelve best new British novelists.  Don’t worry, you can see an interview with Jenn, where she discusses her debut novel, A Kind of Intimacy, with John Mullan on last night’s episode of  The Culture Show  Catch up with it on BBC iplayer. Congratulations Jenn!