Sunday 17 December 2017

The 'Literary Novel'

I caught an interesting talk on Radio 4 this morning on the decline of the 'literary novel' and the flowering of long-form TV drama. In it Zia Haider Rahman – who recently presented an incisive programme on metaphor – accused novelists of 'complicity in their own decline' by 'relinquishing the very things that are [were, surely?] exclusively the province of the novel'. Relinquishing them, that is, to television. That might equally well be seen the other way round: the kind of writers who might have the qualities required to write good novels are understandably eschewing the 'literary novel' in favour of the big money and huge audiences that television offers.
 What is the 'literary novel' anyway, and why must it be separated out from other forms of novel? Is the term anything more than a euphemism for novels that don't sell, unless they're lucky enough to win a literary award? Indeed might the term 'literary fiction' be reduced to the circular definition 'novels eligible for literary prizes'? It's essentially a publishers' category, and of recent growth. Surely none of the great novelists of the past thought of themselves as 'literary novelists', rather than just novelists. Even Henry James wrote some of his best work in what we'd now call 'genre fiction', and most of the novels that now clearly belong to the literary canon sold, in their day and since, in large numbers. The likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow wrote bestsellers and made serious money; they were not confined to some 'literary fiction' ghetto, sustained only by the esteem of their peers and the generosity of academe. Nabokov, surely one of the most literary novelists ever, wrote one of the biggest bestsellers of the postwar years – a bestseller now regarded as one of the great novels of the 20th century. Updike himself vigorously resisted the whole notion of 'literary fiction', a category that could only 'torment people like me who just set out to write books and if anyone wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier'.
Of course drama (in whatever medium) and novels (of any kind) are very different beasts, and the particular skills involved in each are not necessarily transferable – indeed they rarely are – so literary novelists are not 'relinquishing' anything to TV drama. It is our culture that has moved – from a novel-reading one to a screen-viewing one. In the end, perhaps, it's simply a matter of 'follow the money'. In any period, the talent, imagination and innovative flair tends to migrate to where the money is – and that, sure as heck, is not in 'literary fiction'.

1 comment:

  1. Zia Haider Rahman's criticism of the film or televisual medium's inability to convey (as in the case of 'The Great Gatsby') the interiority of characters is rather like the just criticism of the 'science,'psychology's inability to address the very same thing in any meaningful scientific sense. So is losing interiority, thus, a dangerous thing?

    On Philip Roth's vestigial cult of novel readers mentioned by Rahman - this made me think of those who enjoy the poet Geoffrey Hill -surely only a small cult of "understanders" now?

    Finally, a poet quoted on Anecdotal Evidence recently, John Foy said this - "Genius is not democratic. It doesn’t care about you or your rights under the law. Vicious idea!" which might militate against the celebration of the 'democratisation' of talent by TV. Those who can write like this for TV even will always be an aristocracy in a sense.