The comedian David Mitchell once told a joke about how the neutral, in their neutrality, can never understand the passion of e.g. football fans and, indeed, that their very common sense neutrality (oh, it doesn't matter who wins, just jolly nice to see two teams having such a jolly good time) was far more absurd than the passion of the fans that they so ignorantly lampooned. Of course, when he told it, it was funny. (And he is equally funny laughing at fans too -- this YouTube video is wonderful.)

Criticising someone for their taste is plainly silly. Liking one particular cultural artifact over another does not and cannot make you a better human being than anyone else. We like what we like. Doesn't criticism takes that for granted? In the same way, we accept that e.g. football isn't the be all and end all of everything... and then we enter the fray regardless; and, on entering, at that point we believe with Bill Shankly that football is not a matter of life or death, but actually much more important than that. We cast off our neutrality because engagement is life. This is not too far from the view held by Alain Badiou when he argues that it is only through passionate allegiance to an event that we become authentic subjects...

If you were to come to tea at my house, you'd no doubt be bombarded by some weird music (György Kurtág anyone? Machinefabriek? Keith Fullerton Whitman?) and then we could settle down to a Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr film. Or, just as likely, we could kick back with some Friends repeats on E4, grab a pizza, and then watch a RomCom: Notting Hill or Four Weddings anyone? You decide! If the former happened, would you think me pretentious? If the latter happened, well, how would you judge me then?

Regardless of this pastel-coloured relativism, however, evaluative practices are inevitably part of how we talk about the arts and how we try to understand them. Not understanding that is a little like being one of the neutrals that David Mitchell poked fun at at. In What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey is right to argue that liking opera does not, and cannot, make you a good person. As I've said, that is surely a given. Further, it'd be a difficult task to argue that opera, say, was better (or worse) than rock 'n' roll. But it would be interesting, informative, educative, and possibly surprising and entertaining to know why a particular critic thought Schoenberg's Moses und Aron was better or worse than Berg's Lulu. If we were lucky enough to read two critics evaluating both we'd inevitably make judgements on which critic most persuavely persuaded us of the case for which of the works we should make sure to seek out.

And so to fiction... If it needs repeating: like and enjoy whatever you like! But evaluating, judgement, is part of what we do as soon as we (try to) engage with something. And engaging with something can be one way of deepening and extending our enjoyment of it. If we want to make an evaluative move, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of one text against another, first we need some common ground. Genre fiction -- except when Ian Rankin starts his especially specious pleading -- is normally content to evaluate itself againt other books in its field, so a new crime novel might say that it is pacier, gritter, knottier, more honest, more gripping, more realistic, more harrowing, the denoument more startling than another in its field. And, if we accepted that, we'd be a good way to being able to say that the new crime novel was better than the old one. The trouble with the genre of Literary Fiction, however, is that it puts itself up against literature. And, if it does that, then it must be expected to be judged against it. Literature -- like art itself, as Carey found -- might be treacherously hard to define, but if we triangulate Proust, Beckett and Dante or, say, Shakespeare, Kafka and Blanchot we might get somewhere near to being able to think about what something we call literature just might be. Rankin can go head to head with Agatha Christie and we can make sound comparisons between their writing and their plots (and we can, regardless, enjoy either, neither or both) but if he suggests he writes literary fiction, and by doing that makes claims to be writing literature, then he is going to be going up against Proust and so he needn't be surprised when he comes off looking decidedly worse for wear!

However, beyond the evaluative move, a move that inevitably happens as soon as we engage with any artform (even if that evaluation leads us to say nothing more exceptional than e.g. they are both good, but in different ways) there is the question -- and it is fiction here that is my concern -- that is much too rarely asked: what does literary actually mean? The question can only be answered from within literature itself: not when literature is arch and awkwardly self-ironising (the postmodern gesture), but when the existential question of literature's being is revealed to be the internal secret, and heartbeat, of the text itself. "Literature begins," as Blanchot famously says in Literature and the Right to Death, "at the moment when literature becomes a question." And so reading begins not when we mark books out of ten, but when we let them mark us; not when we question how good they are, but when they themselves question what they are and, simultaneously, undermine the certainty we feel when we make those inevitable evaluative moves.

Readers Comments

  1. I don’t think the distinction between ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ is quite as self-evident as you make it seem. Most of what is regarded as ‘literary’ now was probably thought of as genre entertainment at some time in the past. The very novel form itself was considered unserious and unliterary for most of its history. Vast swathes of canonical English literature from the nineteenth century was originally populist and genre in nature. A ‘literary’ novel like ‘L’Etranger’ takes its inspiration from a ‘genre’ novel like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (which in turn takes its inspiration from the ‘literary’ ‘Thérèse Raquin’). A ‘literary’ writer like Graham Greene is unimaginable without the thriller genre. In fact, I don’t think a history of 20th century literature could really be adequate without exploring the peculiar vitality of genre writing or including supposedly genre writers like Cain, or Highsmith, or Simenon. Rankin may or may not be good, but whether he can go head-to-head with Proust is pretty much beside the point. Can ‘L’Etranger’ go head to head with Proust? The 30,000-word novella is so utterly different in style, tone, form and theme to the multi-volume A La Recherche that comparison is meaningless. But if it can bear comparison, then so can Simenon’s Dirty Snow, or Highsmith’s Tremor of Forgery.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment Hugo.

    Firstly, the fact that "what is regarded as 'literary' now was probably thought of as genre entertainment at some time in the past" doesn't affect my case. "Influenced by" isn't the same as "reducible to". "A 'literary' writer like Graham Greene is unimaginable without the thriller genre" -- yes, but he is not reducible to that genre.

    I'd also suggest that the provocative comparison of Proust to Rankin is fairer than it first looks, not least because Rankin has written some seventeen volumes of his Rebus books. If this is just a question of girth (and I don't think it is) then Rankin has had the time and the canvas to "investigate" at length, but he hasn't -- he has just poured out more genre guff. Anyway, it is Rankin who wants to be compared to the "literary", and if that is to be the case then -- to use an appropriately pugilistic metaphor -- he needs to be able at least to step into the ring with Proust, even if none of us think he'd be able last even one round.

    Re Camus, I do think that a novella can be compared to a multi-volume novel if both are are working within a similar thematic "field". Indeed, I've long considered Proust's ISOLT to be a massive "fragment" which shares many of the same concerns as Beckett's miniatures. Size, I think, is beside the point!

    Actually, my aim in this post was not really to get into the interesting and endless debate about what constitutes genre fiction -- most fiction is genre fiction of one type or another. But, at the end of the day, something called literature remains. And it remains as a question. And that question is not answered by books that are merely the unfolding of a meticulous plan rather than an investigation into what it means to be laying out such a plan in such a way in the first place.

  3. Another great post, Mark - so good to have you back blogging in detail again!

    Overall on the subject of 'like what you like', my usual response on these things is to quote Alan Bennett: "They should have a sign at the entrance to the National Gallery saying, YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE EVERYTHING."

    Hugo makes an excellent point, which I think is close enough to your original point too. It is possible to have a book which is to degrees both "the unfolding of a meticulous plan" and "an investigation into what it means to be laying out such a plan" - I think I experienced something like this just last week with a book by another Hugo (Wilcken): Colony, which manages to be both "compelling" and to "dramatise the threat lurking within the uncanny power of storytelling" (both quotes from Steve Mitchelmore's praise of the book a couple of years ago. I told you I'd get around to it eventually Steve!).

    The Rankin story linked to is amusing, in the way these occasional outbursts always are - and they typically say more about the complainer's snobbery (wallowing in his high sales and bank balance) than they do about the "literary snobs". He's right enough though, in the sense that there isn't an awful lot of literary quality separating The White Tiger, say, from Rankin's books. And plenty of prize winners are a far less satisfying reading experience than a genre writer such as Highsmith or Simenon.

  4. Mark, thanks very much for the reply. I appreciate that your post wasn’t about what constitutes genre, but nonetheless the underlying assumption was that genre and capital “L” Literature are necessarily two different things. I’m not so sure. The 20th century has made it hard to separate out “literature” from genre. I get your distinction between “infuenced by” and “reducible to”: no one will accuse Beckett of making a genre flick because he cast Buster Keaton, but the fact that he did suggests permeability even at the unrelenting core of high modernism. As you say, everything in the end is genre, since there have to be recognisable conventions for anything to make sense. If in “genre fiction” the conventions are so much tighter – “the unfolding of a meticulous plan”, as opposed to Romantic/Modernist trafficking in the unknown – then that very tightness also opens up possibilities. When the rules are strict, the transgression means more. And when you break the rules, you are also acknowledging that the rules exist. Film and music probably offer better examples of what I mean. People like Hitchcock or Kubrick are indisputably working within genre; at their best they find an interesting space within genre, while at the same time challenging its rules to form the question you posit as the defining characteristic of literature. I’m very much with you on what you’ve called “establishment literary fiction”, but I think the interesting spaces lie below as well as above.

    PS to John Self: I am actually that same Hugo! And I'm very pleased indeed to hear that you liked my book. Thanks for the kind comments.

  5. Hi Hugo, Hi John,

    John -- thanks for your kind words... And you -- and Rankin -- are right that plenty of literary prize-winners aren't worth the paper they are written on and that plenty of genre writing is of a considerable quality.

    I kinda agree with Mr Wilcken's point which I'll gloss as: "all is genre, and there is interesting stuff when "genre" creators work within and then surpass genre confines." But then I might ask: if they have broken out of their genre confines, what have they then approached?

    Liking whatever you like is a relativistic point about liking -- plenty of stuff out there, enjoy what you will. But my second point is a separate point, not an extension of my first, and it is an almost essentialist point noting that literature itself asks what literature is, and only literature can answer.

    An off-the-cuff analogy comes to mind about life: the best way to understand lived experience may well be as an ongoing, unanswerable question about a particular life, life in general, and the relationship between the two. Or one can see it as just an accumulation of facts/events. Both make sense, but I wonder whether the dull empiricism of the latter doesn't do much violence to the wonder of the experience that it is attempting to comprehend.

  6. Ooer, what are the chances of that (re Hugo being Hugo)? Well let me tell you that I've been thinking about Colony a lot since finishing it - a rare enough endorsement in itself - and will be doing my best to trumpet its value on my blog later this week. I'm even suggesting it as a case study in blog power - a Jamie Oliver-style 'pass it on' campaign for overlooked books. We shall see.

  7. John, I was amazed at the coincidence when I read your initial post – it was the Internet equivalent of sitting on the Tube and finding the person next to you reading your book! Thanks so much for your interest, and I’ll look forward to your review.

    Mark, aren’t you kind of having your cake and eating it a bit here? When I suggest that the genre tradition has influenced literary writing, you make the distinction between ‘influenced by’ and ‘reducible to’. But when the influence is the other way around, then the genre creators have broken out of genre confines and are approaching something else – the capital “L”, you imply. I’m a bit wary of the “genre writers transcending genre” notion. Especially since it’s so often used as an argument for realism (the closer to “gritty real life” the genre novel is, the more it is transcending its genre). Good art – genre, literary or otherwise – uses conventions as central points of tension, sometimes to be obeyed, sometimes to be ignored or reinvented. Ultimately it’s the expectation that counts, not whether that expectation is fulfilled or not.

    No doubt we’re agreeing more than disagreeing. I’m certainly with you when you describe literature as a question that can only be addressed by literature. I think that is an enigmatic and profound point about art and philosophy.

  8. Oh dear, well now it's going to look like I've revised my review in the knowledge that the author was going to see it. In fact I haven't: I just looked at it again and it's already so glowing, it's practically visible from space.

    Sorry to derail this thread Mark. Back on board everyone.

  9. John, I hope your blog-power case study works. Colony deserves more attention. His earlier novel The Execution is very good too.

    One thing I would add about the genre issue is that the novel as we know it grew out of a realisation that genre was no longer appropriate. Robinson Crusoe, after all, is a memoir, an adventure story and what ever else, but it was marketed by Defoe as a true story (and as I wrote elsewhere: truth is not a genre). What I find annoying about Rankin-like fiction is that it takes the form of the novel for granted. Genre then becomes a place of safety in which death becomes a plot device and loses any other meaning. It is no longer appropriate in an artistic sense (though I appreciate the pleasure and wealth it brings to both sides).

    Colony is, on the face of it, a book that could not have come into existence without Henri Charrière's Papillon, but that tells us only that it is a captivating story and nothing about where the novel takes us. I can imagine reviewing-hacks (much like those who reviewed Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 and Littell's The Kindly Ones) admiring the genre features and expressing bewilderment at the twists the novel takes. Perhaps we (i.e people who appear impatient with genre) have a problem not with genre but with a reviewing culture which refuses to define its terms or even to begin to understand that definition is important.

  10. Clare Dudman Tuesday 26 May 2009

    Fascinating discussion - and very glad to see you've added 'comedian' to distinguish which David Mitchell you mean, Mark - especially in this context!

    Robert McCrum's excellent piece in the Observer this weekend may be pertinent here too, I think. As I interpreted it there were those novelists like Pat Barker who depended on history for their inspiration, and then others, like Martin Amis, who depended on literature. I'm just wondering if it is only the last category can really question what they are - and so are 'literary'

  11. If I may leap in front of Mark.

    Clare, history is a genre too of course. And, though I don't know what you mean about Martin Amis depending on literature for inspiration, I would say that literary fiction takes into account what it might mean for the novel as an artistic form to address something like World War One. That is, what does it mean for the foundations of the novel that an event like WW1 occurred?

    As VS Naipaul said, it would be absurd if a Papua New Guinea tribesman wrote a George Eliot-like novel about his native land (though I suspect many Guardian journalists would lap it up), yet still people like Pat Barker write hugely-acclaimed novels whose form suggests the 20th Century had never happened. Perhaps there's a connection there...

  12. Here's a link to the McCrum article BTW (meant to do this yesterday, but was in a rush).

  13. Sorry, forgot to actually add the link
    (thanks Mark).

  14. Thanks for the link Clare!

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