Thursday, October 8, 2009

genre and literature: shaking the test tube

I've been astounded by the rumpus around the Booker: Harrumph, the litsnobs say, it's historical fiction, not literature! [Imagine that drawn out to about five syllable.] Jumped up little... [Dissolves into muttering and 'Pass the port'.]

Wolf Hall is a novel set in the past. So is Orlando, and The Name of the Rose, and Atonement, and (maybe, depending how you squint at it) One Hundred Years of Solitude.

So what makes a novel literature and what makes it genre?

I wish I knew. I've asked myself and others the same question about science fiction and crime fiction. I seem to be at odds with most people. I believe I write novels: books that are both literature and comfortably 'science fiction' or 'crime fiction'. I set them where and when I like, use the characters I choose, and employ whichever literary conventions please me. The publishers (and critics and booksellers) label them as they find convenient. I'm still getting royalty cheques, and the majority have had many printings, so readers don't seem to care one way or another.

Here's the definition of historical fiction given by the Historical Novel Society

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes: alternate histories (e.g. Robert Harris' Fatherland), pseudo-histories (eg. Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before), time-slip novels (e.g. Barbara Erskine's Lady of Hay), historical fantasies (eg. Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy) and multiple-time novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham's The Hours).

It's a fairly broad definition. Nothing there about ladies and lances, no requirement for romance--which is how litsnobs seem to think of the genre.

I've laid out my notions of how and why this Us vs. Them thing began with literature and genre. (See my essay, "Brilliance and Beauty and Risk," which I gave as my Guest of Honour speech in 2001 at the University of Liverpool's Celebration of SF.) It's a basic human trait to separate out qualities that are desirable and not (or, to use T.H. White's terminology, Done and Not Done). It's not pretty but it is, I believe, unavoidable, unstoppable. All we can do is remember to to shake up the test tube every now and again so that the layers mix again.

I can't tell you how pleased I am that the judges for this year's Booker are happily shaking test tubes.

Why does this please me so much? Because the minute people (readers, in this case) start to believe that two substances, literature and genre, are immiscible, each loses something important. Literature loses joy. Genre loses the brilliance and clarity, the life-changing potential of art.

Go forth and shake test tubes. Readers of the future will thank you.

Addendum: here's a video of Hilary Mantel reading and talking. (If you don't enjoy the reading--I admit I don't--fast forward to 2:45 where the interview begins.)

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