A Response to Kevin Myers Article in Yesterday’s Irish Independent

So I started a new blog and almost immediately forgot the password but inspiration struck and I’m back again.

This is a response to Kevin Myers Article “State Support Only lends Madness to Libraries” in yesterday’s (17th August 2011) Irish Independent. I should start by saying I’m not a fan of Myer’s so this post is necessarily biased and it consists mainly of personal opinion.

Part of me almost hopes the man is trolling rather than describing genuine opinions he holds. His article on the Orange Prize for Women’s fiction had me nearly apoplectic but yesterday he talked about things that I’ve been hearing a lot recently.

Despite his main article being a vilification of public libraries in the modern day the idea that struck me most was that literary novels are inherently pretentious, inferior to genre fiction, they don’t sell and are only ever applauded by out-of-touch academics.

The quote that particularly annoyed me was:

I can give you a guided tour of Booker prize winners whose books are unread beyond page 40 or so: pretentious, indulgent, smug, self-regarding, but gushingly reviewed by their peers, who will in due course be gushingly reviewed by those over whom they have themselves ejaculated so warmly.

Sales. That’s the only true measure of a book’s worth. I have little interest in critically regarded but otherwise unknown masterpieces. […] they are the only true and abiding artistic measure.

Now I realise this quote was specifically calculated to annoy people like me. I started writing with the full intention of writing science-fiction, fantasy and anything that’s just a little bit weird. However, despite my plot relying heavily on magic and folklore I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s become a very literary book. I don’t necessarily mean good when I say literary but there’s a lot of social and gender commentary, a lot of playing about with language and imagery and a few themes running throughout. All of this could disappear in subsequent drafts but I’m really enjoying it for the minute.

I know the literary vs. genre debate probably won’t be solved for a good while yet but here are some other blog and forum posts on the debate:

Authors den

The Literature Network: Forums

The Write Power

The main crux of the debate seems to boil down to the idea that literary fiction has an inherently higher quality of writing whereas genre/commercial popular fiction is just plain better. For Myers it’s enjoyable, unpretentious and it makes lots of money. But can art really be defined purely in materialistic terms? And when the genre boundaries become ever more blurred with new hybrids popping up all the time (New Weird, Speculative Fiction, Paranormal Romance) what actually decides if a book’s literary or not?

I read most genres, I intend to write in several (The current project is magic realism, the next is a horror/speculative book, then a sci-fi series that I’ve been toying with)

I don’t intend to answer these questions but the definitions as they stand make me uneasy as does the hatred that both sides of the camp seem to express for each other.

Please feel free to discuss in the comments but I believe that genre books can have literary elements and vice versa and both can sell really well or really poorly. There are countless genre books that sell less than the average literary book but because more genre books are being written and all the heavyweight earners of the industry are genre authors (Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Dan Brown). I have yet to read any of this years Booker longlist but neither Irish entry last year made pretensions to literary greatness or overt complexity. Both were easy to read, both have sold numerous copies and both are literary rather than genre. I disagree with many of the standing definitions.

Is it right, as Myers seems to be suggesting, to read only what’s popular? Should literature allow itself to be defined by a consumer culture? Or can art be found in all sorts of places? I believe the latter, the definition of art is a personal thing but I don’t believe that books only ever become popular because they’re good (Anyone who’s heard my opinion of Twilight will understand), yes skill is needed in most cases but so is marketing and luck.

Literary fiction is not some club, read only by academics and those too obsessed with lofty heights to notice that they’re going into liquidation, literary fiction is real, it can be just as off the wall as any genre, just as any genre can be as deep as literary. Rather than being completely separate  (I lay the blame for this separation squarely at the feet of marketing) one can merely be an aspect of the other.

Creative Writing Drinking Games

As promised: Alcohol induced literary madness gleaned from the finest corners of the internet!

1. The players in this game stand in a line and each person will say a part of a story. This can be as short as one sentence per person; however, the people in line do not tell their part of the story in the order in which they are standing. Random people in the line randomly declare their thoughts. The goal is to eventually create a story that makes sense, which isn’t always as easy as it may seem. While this game is extremely funny without alcoholic beverages, drinking can be incorporated so that every time someone laughs or fails to connect the elements of the story, he or she is penalized with a drink.

2. A better version of the previous one is where people sit around with pens and paper. The first person writes the start of a story or a poem (usually one or two lines), the next person writes the next bit and folds the top down and passes it on. The paper passes around the circle, each person adding a line then folding down the paper so that no one person sees the full story when they add their bit, only the previous line or two. The stories end up hillarious as the evening moves on and more alcohol has been consumed.

3. Some fun games can be made out of recitations. Say whenever soemone’s poem mention the big themes (love birth sex and death) everyone takes a drink.

4. I’ve never played this one before because I don’t know who Roger Cohen is but I’m sure it could be applied to anyone with equally bad writing

5. This is a list of games to play when reading specific writers.

6. This one sounds pretty difficult but I include it for any hardcore drinkers who can function on this level after a few pints.

7. Finally, the incredibly sophisticated game ‘In my pants’ is good fun when drinking. Typically someone says a song title followed by the phrase ‘in my pants’ looking for the funniest combination (‘Stairway to Heaven in my pants’) but instead of song titles it can be played with book titles (‘Things Fall Apart in my pants’)

Enjoy, remember, never ever drink and write. 😉