Monday, November 20, 2006

Fun and games with Serious Fiction

My morning chuckle was provided courtesy of a short piece in The Guardian which begins:

Last night, in a biker bar, I overheard two men discussing what distinguished "realist" fiction from more "experimental" work. Although one shouldn't generalise, I never expect bikers to be literary critics. Well, these were literary critics, and good ones - in fact, they'd bought their "hogs" with royalties from a book they'd co-written, Feminine Desire In Jane Austen: Them Ho's Lived To Get Freaking Hitched.

Ahem. That's about as close to profanity as I'm willing to lean on this blog, and the article contains some other "ornery" stuff I wouldn't dream of quoting here, but it's hilarious. Unless you're the deadly earnest type who's unable to joke about literary fiction (and goodness, if you are, I've gotta warn you that you're reading the wrong blog), run over there and catch some giggles.

It's too bad the book mentioned in the article isn't real. I would have loved seeing the estimable Laura Vivanco discuss it on her blog.


Laura Vivanco said...

Thank you very much for esteeming me ;-) I suspect, though, that Sarah Frantz, one of my colleagues on the blog, might be better placed to write about Jane, since she's the Austen expert.

The bit in the Guardian article about 'Realist fiction often involves a "central metaphor"' and 'the mimesis achieved is only a simulacrum, which creates a diversion, so the 'central metaphor' can more effectively do its imagistic work.' reminds me of Julie Cohen's first page challenge. She asked the romance writers who visited her blog if they'd be prepared to put the first page or so of their books on the internet, along with comments about what they were trying to achieve in terms of setting up the plot and characterisation. What I found most interesting was the way that some of the authors had worked a 'central metaphor' into the very first pages of their romances. And although they hadn't even been doing it on purpose, the visual metaphors were still there, and when I pointed some of them out, the authors were (a) surprised and (b) agreed that the interpretations I was putting on these metaphors were actually correct. Not everyone did that - some writers were maybe more realist than others, and some perhaps introduce their central metaphor a bit later in the novel, but it did suggest to me that some writers must be attuned to metaphor, just as other people notice coincidences. I suppose it could be because in general people like to see patterns and a deeper meaning in events, and if we do that in daily life, it's not surprising that some authors do the same in fiction, whether 'literary' fiction or not.

Brenda Coulter said...

I just took a quick look at Julie Cohen's post and was surprised to find myself wholly uninterested in the examples and explanations provided. I thought about that for a minute, and here's what I came up with:

Readers must draw on their own experiences and emotions to complete the work the novelist begins. If a reader understands what the writer has attempted to convey, further explanation is unnecessary. And if the reader doesn't understand, explanations are pointless because the writer has already failed to hit her mark. And as we all know, a joke that has to be carefully explained tends to elicit only the weakest of laughs.

Oh, gosh. Now I sound like one of those puffed-up artists who folds her arms and says if people are too stupid to understand her creation, she's not going to bother explaining it!

Laura's going to pound me for these remarks, I just know it.

Laura Vivanco said...

The writers weren't giving the explanations so that the readers could understand the works, though. They were giving the explanations so that (a) other people could read the works and say if they'd understood them differently and (b) so that the authors themselves, while writing the explanations, could think a bit more about how they create character and plot expectations in the reader. So it was supposed to be a learning experience for the writers. Obviously some of the readers would, as you say, have different 'experiences and emotions' from the authors'. But if an author of a romance is consistently writing something which, on the very first page, makes readers shut the book in disgust, or turn away in confusion, then isn't it a useful exercise for the writers to post that passage and find out how many of the readers understood it in a way the writer didn't intend? It's really just the equivalent of what a critique group might do.

Of course, if the writer doesn't care how many readers buy the book, then yes, this would be a pointless exercise. But if the writer's interested in finding out if she and the reader are on the same wavelength, then it's useful.

If a reader understands what the writer has attempted to convey, further explanation is unnecessary. And if the reader doesn't understand, explanations are pointless because the writer has already failed to hit her mark.

Oh dear. Are you saying that literary criticism in general is utterly redundant, then? Did Shakespeare and all the other writers of classic literature 'fail' because some readers require additional explanations? The way I see it, there are different levels at which a person can enjoy a book. Some people never re-read books, but others like to go back and look for the ways that the author did some foreshadowing, or they might like to do some further reading on the background about the setting etc. And even the Bible requires exegisis. Is that because the author failed to make His meaning clear?

[Laura ducks, and runs off to hide]

Brenda Coulter said...

Right. What do I need with a conscience as long as Laura's reading my blog?

Yes, you caught me over-generalizing again. But I'm not nearly as analytical as you when it comes to reading romance novels. I enjoy discussing the genre, but not individual books. Not at any great length, that is.
And I'm feeling especially shallow right now because I've had a headache all day.

Yes, your clever little shot about the Bible squeezed a smile out of me. You eat a lot of fish, I bet. Just like Jeeves.

Laura Vivanco said...

I'm not nearly as analytical as you when it comes to reading romance novels.

For a long time I wasn't either, when it came to romances. And even now I usually just sit back and enjoy the story the first time round. After that, ideas might or might not pop up.

For what it's worth, I took a look at the excerpt you've got on your website of Finding Hope and I could see quite a lot going on there. There's the heroine's name, for a start, then the physician who needs to heal himself and the Christian who appears, makes people a bit annoyed but leaves something behind, which makes them ask questions/provokes them into action (is there a parallel here with ministry?). Then you've got the heroine's purse, containing only 'two one-dollar bills', while the hero is rich, which could possibly make one think of the widow and her two mites. The heroine's described as a 'young gazelle', which is a metaphor that appears in the Bible, particularly the Song of Solomon (depends which translation you use, though).

I could be way off the mark, of course.

Anyway, I hope your headache gets better soon.

Brenda Coulter said...

Laura, I'm flattered that you took the time to check out the first chapter of Finding Hope. But oddly enough (because I do possess a healthy ego), I'm no more inclined to analyze my own books in that way than I am someone else's.

Which isn't to say that your comments weren't interesting. I'd disagree (just a little) with a couple of things you wrote, but it was fun to read your take on the beginning of my story.

The headache's better today, thanks.

Laura Vivanco said...

The headache's better today, thanks.

I'm glad. Headaches are no fun at all.