Genre prejudice

minnow at minnow at
Wed Jul 16 17:19:05 EDT 2003

Jennifer wrote:
>> One of my pet peeves is bitty books, stream-of-consciousness with
>> unsignalled changes to *which character's* consciousness it is- or maybe
>> it's the narrator- (just tell the damn story, FFS!) but there are one or
>> two like that which I liked anyway, for the prose style.

If the characters are not sufficiently distinct for it to be obvious which
of their consciousnesses it is a stream of, then I'd be inclined to say
it's probably not being done particularly well.

Charlie replied:
>This reminds me of my experience of Virginia Woolf. Mostly, when I read one
>of her books I spend the first chapter or two enjoying it greatly. What
>superb style! What wonderful imagery! What insight into people's thought
>processes, memories, motivations, etc.! I could read it for ever...

My problem is that after a while the insights all seem to be into the same
person's thought processes, memories, motivations, etc.  Have you ever
tried the experiment of getting someone to chose a passage at random and
read it to you without identifiers, and seeing whether you know who is
speaking or whom it's about, or have any idea where in the book it comes?

>...about six chapters in, I begin to feel as if I already have. Clearly the
>physical size of the book imposes a necessary limit, but there's a certain
>sameness of intensity, of pace, of emphasis, and of event, which begins to
>make it feel tedious and somehow interminable.

Sometimes I will grant that there is a different facet of VW's personality
being the centre-stage person, as it were.  I mean, the mother and the
father in *To the Lighthouse* are insecure and self-satisfied in slightly
different ways...

>And I find this about a lot
>of literary fiction - though I wouldn't go so far as to call it a defining
>characteristic (there are 'literary' writers I enjoy, too). But, to take
>three quite differerent literary books, it's also what I particularly
>disliked in: The Rainbow, Herzog and On the Road. I say: "Yechh to them

I don't exactly say "Yechh to them all!" but I am careful to be sure where
the door is when I fling them (not those three in particular, but we each
have a list, no doubt).  And that it isn't someone else's copy or a library
book.  (Was it Dorothy Parker: "This is not a book to be set aside lightly.
It is a book to be hurled with great force" or something like that?)

Melissa a while ago mentioned someone's definition of two genres, as it were:
>A friend of mine suggested once that while fantasy/SF/genre fiction is
>about answering the question posed, literary fiction is about phrasing the
>question correctly.

I threw this into a mixed and ribald company including an author, a
professor and a critic, to see what happened.  Starting from there and
working outwards in all directions, the following was propounded in my

Literary Fiction is "What?" fiction: "what is the question [x]?".  Genre
Fiction is "What If?" fiction, in the main: "what if [x] is the question?".
Really fine-quality fiction (as being more than either of these) might
called "What Then?" fiction: "Given the question [x] and a solution [y],
what then follows from that, where do things go thereafter?"  It may not
*answer* these questions, it may leave the reader to chew away at them
later, but it will in general have answered the original question and then
shown that simply having one answer doesn't mean that a final solution, or
resolution, has been reached.  (In other words the story goes on, even
though the narrator has decided to stop telling it.)

I think that covers all of the things that have been said in defence of
Literary Fiction, since I'd say all the examples people have given tend
towards "I go on thinking about it afterwards", don't they?

On the other hand, I'd say that rather too much fiction of every kind,
Genre, Literary, Literary as just another Genre, and anything else anyone
can dream up, may start as "What?" or "What If?" fiction, and then instead
of ending up as "What Then?" fiction, end up as "So What?" fiction.

I would have forgotten that whole evening of idea-flinging if Charlie
hadn't mentioned Virginia Woolf, whose work always leaves me feeling "So
what?" about it afterwards.  So I put this in here, flying a kite, seeing
what anyone else may think of it....

>(Your comment about streams of consciousness and changing the POV was what
>set me on to think about Woolf, though I feel a little uncomfortable here as
>the book I have just finished writing uses quite a lot of POV-switches too.
>But I promise you they are INTEGRAL TO THE PLOT and not just a stylistic

We believe, we believe.  :-)  Don't worry, if we disagree we'll tell you in
email not in public....



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