Truth and literary fiction?

Today, as I waded through a flood of emails from Books and Writers Groups, I stumbled upon a contribution I’d like to share with you. On a Linked-In discussion group,  Jamaluddin Jamali, wrote:

“A ‘Literary Romance’ Shows the Mind of the Lovers, not Limbs… and Literary Crime fiction brings to us the victims’ unheard screams,,, and all else in the two genres is low pulp… This is how I think about fiction. What is your view about it? Wise people say, write pulp – only it sells.  Does it?”

He is author of The Invisible Killers, which he describes as ‘a literary thriller’.

Not surprisingly, this provoked a discussion among writers, both those who have literary aspirations and those whose primary goal is to sell. And while few people actually embraced the term ‘low pulp’, the focus remained on the question of which sells better. Some reminded us that some literary fiction hits the Best Seller lists, and many that the smart writer writes what readers want. And what readers want does not always include literary quality.

Few seemed to consider the, to me, most important element in Jamaludden Jamali’s post: his analysis of what makes the difference between a literary romance or thriller and a romance or thriller that could not legitimately be labelled ‘literary’ (whether or not you choose to label them ‘pulp’).

As the writer of (to be published) love stories, I would agree that showing ‘the minds of lovers not limbs’ could, in principle, be taken as a defining characteristic of the literary. This is not because explicit sex is in itself non-literary, but rather that erotic writing tends to be exploitative, aimed at titillating and arousing the reader (see for example The Story of O), with participants’ personalities (if any) subordinated to some predetermined goal.

At the same time, literary writers do need to find a way to convey the glorious sensations of entwining limbs in a loving sexual relationship if we are not to find a major area of human experience barred to us – which would be absurd. Some writers have achieved this most difficult feat: Ursula le Guin (The Dispossessed) and Helen Dunmore* come immediately to my mind, but no doubt there are many more.

So what does differentiate the literary love story from the run-of-the-mill romance? What is it about pulp fiction that makes the literary writer turn away in horror? Barbara Cartland, pink and fluffy Romance Writer who made millions, eschewed all talk of limbs, but no one would ever label her works as literary. It does have to be something to do with minds.

The psychological truth is surely what makes the difference: and the difficulty is to define what psychological truth is. We tend to know when a writer conveys the truth (*see e.g. Helen Dunmore’s marvellous The Siege and The Betrayal), and it is quite different from the facile plotting and resolutions in the majority of fiction.

Psychological truth is difficult to achieve – and sometime difficult to read also. Truth, like old age, is not for the faint-hearted.

Psychologists (and I am one) love to think they ‘understand people’, but most of us know that we do not. We have a great deal of knowledge not readily available to everyone, but that only serves to emphasise how difficult it is to know what is going on in the mind of an other person.

Minds are rather like the weather, but infinitely more complicated.   Understanding and forecasting the weather has become enormously sophisticated, but we know that we can have no control, and surprises frequently happen. Perhaps it feels as though people should be easier, but long experience as a psychotherapist, consultant to the Family Courts and as a human being surrounded by people I care about, I don’t think so.

It is writers of fiction who give us insight into how human beings tick. And it is writers of literary fiction, whatever the genre, who are most likely to get it right.

About Elizabeth Mapstone

Author of novels, short stories, a self-help book that really works and a serious work on the psychology of argument. Former psychotherapist, now retired and writing fiction.
This entry was posted in books, literary fiction, writers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Truth and literary fiction?

  1. Pam Nixon says:

    I think one of the things your post indicates is that it isn’t the subject matter that is most important but the way it is addressed.
    I went to WIO event on Wednesday, a talk given by Dr Belinda Jack. It was on words, word slippage, making cliches fresh etc – all very valuable. Unfortunately, in the Q&A session afterwards she said she didn’t read English modern novels because they were too parochial and mainly dealt with marriage and other personal matters. She contrasted this with French novels dealing with important subjects like post-colonialism. This seems very prescriptive to me. I believe that you can make any subject important and relevant; it just depend how you write about it .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do wonder how Dr Jack knows that modern English novels are ‘parochial’ if she doesn’t read them. What about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy? or Helen Dunmore’s moving evocations of war in “The Siege” and “The Betrayal”? or Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy? To name but three that come immediately to mind. But as you say, Pam, it isn’t the subject matter that makes the difference between a literary novel and the rest: it is the treatment.

      Liked by 1 person

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