Wednesday, February 03, 2010

When Non-fiction Breaks Down

I read a rather odd article from The Telegraph the other day, When fiction breaks down. The author, John Lanchester, seems to argue that things like the recent financial meltdown or an explanation of the difference between driving on the left or right hand side of the road couldn't be written about in a work of fiction, at least not one that anyone would want to read. Fiction, he seems to argue, cannot contain such things because they are too "interesting" and too "unlikely."

But that's not all...
The novel is the worldliest of the great artistic forms: you can ignore the world in a painting, or a symphony, or a ballet, or a sculpture, but you can’t in a novel — not one that would be worth reading. But the worldliness of the novel is qualified, and there are things it doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well. Unlikeliness is one of them, and another, I’ve noticed, is work. The world of work, especially of modern work, is significantly under-represented in fiction.

[...]most of the great books that describe work were written in the 19th century: Zola’s novels, or Dickens’s, or Moby-Dick (which among other things is a great novel about the job of whaling).

The modern world of work, however, is much less well-represented in fiction; startlingly so, given how many people define themselves through work and how central work is to so many people’s self-description. In modern literary fiction, in particular, a job tends to be as much a marginal detail of a character’s life as her hair colour.
Ahh, now I see where he's going! "In modern literary fiction"...
Contemporary genre fiction does better with work, but only with more ostensibly glamorous jobs; the central appeal of the police procedural genre...
"Contemporary genre fiction"... Lanchester gives several examples to support his "argument."

But what is his argument? It seems he wants to maintain some sort of false distinction between "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction. I say it's false because it either is fiction or it ain't. (I'd be happy to concede that there is "good" and "bad" fiction.) Certainly it's useful put things into categories (or genres) in order to describe them to somebody. But in that case, what work of fiction doesn't fall into some genre or another?

To be fair, Lanchester doesn't come right out and say that he thinks literary fiction is superior to genre fiction. And I suppose it's just as well, because if genre fiction can do something that literary fiction can't (represent "work," explain stuff, etc.), then it must actually be superior. In fact, so-called "genre fiction" has no limits. None.

Excuse me, I've got this Neal Stephenson novel to finish...

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