Spot the connection…
I enjoyed reading Karissa’s interesting take on this tag that’s doing the rounds, so when she said “consider yourself tagged”, I considered! My answers to questions 2-7 share a common link. No prizes for guessing it, but if you do you have my permission to wear a smug expression for the rest of the day…
1. How do you define literary fiction?
I struggle with this all the time when deciding on what tags to use on reviews. I think I’d define it as indefinable! Generally, though, we all know it when we read it, I suspect. But I’m looking for great writing – and by that I don’t mean creative writing, I mean writing that uses a vocabulary that stimulates the brain without baffling (No to Nabokov!), that reads effortlessly (Fie to Faulkner!) and that creates wonderful images of places or people, or both, with beautiful descriptive prose (Kiss me, Hardy!). I want emotional truth – the characters might be realistic (as in McIlvanney) or exaggerated and even caricatured (as in Dickens) but they must fundamentally act in ways people would act. If it’s historical fiction, it must be true to the time in which it’s set. If it’s genre fiction, it must transcend the genre but must never forget its roots in its desire to be literary. If it’s contemporary fiction, it must say something intelligent and preferably profound about society, culture and/or the “human condition”. Please don’t ask me to define the human condition…
2. Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. From the review:
Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.
3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
Docherty by William McIlvanney. Written partly in standard English, but partly in a beautifully sustained and authentic Scots dialect, this tells the story of Tam Docherty, a miner in the west of Scotland in the early 20th century who vows that his youngest son, Con, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.”
“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”
4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes. From the review:
The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.
5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. This first volume of Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. From the review:
The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.
6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison. This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. From the review:
…the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. None of them is perfect – each has her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The two eldest, Julia and Emmy, are a little like Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility – Julia’s strong feelings masked by her outward calm, and with the intellect and strength of character to overcome the slings and arrows of her fortune; Emmy driven by emotion, unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept society’s restrictions. Lisbet is clear-sighted about her sisters, and about herself. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time.
And a quote:
The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.
7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
The Long Drop by Denise Mina, based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. Part true crime, part crime fiction and wholly literary – a wonderful book. From the review:
The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize [it won] and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…
8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
I love literary genre fiction so would be happy to see more of it in all the genres I enjoy, especially crime, science fiction and horror. Come on, authors – get multitasking!
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Your turn – I tag you!
And if you don’t blog, then I tag you to reveal all in the comments below…