Hidden deep in the unwritten past lies the origin of our love for a good story. Long before the invention of such technological marvels as clay tablets or parchment, nameless storytellers, relying solely on memory, beguiled their fellow tribe folk with gripping tales of danger, courage, and sacrifice. To satisfy this perpetual desire today, we turn largely to movies and — far less often — live theatre and novels.
The novels that succeed best at satisfying our seemingly innate craving for a good story are clearly those that dominate bestseller lists. Mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, and romance are the brands of storytelling that the vast majority of readers enjoy most. Perhaps these fiction genres are the nearest — though still remote — descendants of those original tales of ancient days when, before the advent of print, to tell a story was to recite it in the shared language of the tribe.
The language of genre fiction — unlike the often experimental or poetic language of the literary novel — rarely strays from everyday speech. Genre delivers stories straight up. It relies on the vernacular, familiar and unassuming, to tell suspenseful, action-filled stories that compel us to discover what happens next. We need no special literary training to enjoy brazen cliff-hangers.
Compared to bestselling page-turners, literary novels can be challenging — as many of us discovered in high school. Back then we learned that certain novelists — Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Laurence, William Golding, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name just a few of the worthies on high school reading lists — aspired to a purpose higher than merely telling entertaining yarns.
Unlike the humble language of many whodunit mysteries thrown into the trunk of the car before a summer vacation, along with beach towels and badminton rackets, the language of the novels we read in high school sometimes tested our adolescent mettle (unpopular introverts excepted). Passages that read like strange, wordy digressions from the tale proper were to be highlighted or underlined with great vigour as crucial to passing the final exam. These excerpts provided important clues to the meaning of the novel, and often introduced key symbols, as English teachers are programmed to point out. The meaning of those symbols, you may recall, were as contentious as the poor grades on your English essays.
The wide variety of specialty chisels in the workshop of literary novelists allows them to carve more out of words than just symbols, of course. While no two literary novelists use exactly the same set of literary tools and techniques, their ultimate purpose is to provide more than just a frothy diversion to fill your spare time in the way that a crime or mystery novel would. Page per page, literary fiction demands more patience and concentration than genre fiction. Its language is more nuanced, more finely chiselled. It obliges us to read slowly, to pause and reflect. Reading a page of Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time may prove daunting. Reading a page of a horror novel by Stephen King isn’t.
Literary fiction may be just as entertaining to some readers as genre is to the vast majority. For such atypical readers, the challenge of complex novels is worthwhile if they deliver the reward that supposedly elevates them above genre fiction. But what reward is that?
If you were bold enough in high school, you may have asked much the same question of your English teacher. The daunting homework of reading an entire novel may have fomented adolescent unrest and a demand to know why To Kill a Mockingbird or Fifth Business was required reading. Perhaps your high school English teacher hit back with a vague, didactic speech about the power of fiction. Or one about developing critical thinking skills. Or that other standby about nurturing empathy for our fellow human beings. Or maybe your English teacher, less the literary idealist than others, invoked art for art’s sake.
In 1983, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to William Golding, whose novel Lord of the Flies remains a staple in high schools. The Academy praised Golding’s novels for illuminating the “human condition” but also for being “entertaining and exciting.” These dual qualities may be the reason why Lord of the Flies has lasted as long as it has on high school reading lists. It’s an adventure story whose higher ambition is to expose humanity’s lust for power and propensity for violence.
Is insight into human behaviour, then, the singular reward we derive from serious literature like Lord of the Flies? Is that the ultimate difference between “light” reading, such as fantasy or romance, and literary fiction?
If so, the literary novel has some obvious competition. Reflections of one kind or another on the human condition — the broadest, most inexhaustible of topics, after all — find their way into every human endeavour. Human suffering and unhappiness go under the microscope in history books and documentaries, in disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and philosophy, in museums and the visual arts, and in daily newspapers and tv news programs. A first-hand account of living through war or in an oppressive or intolerant society may raise questions of fundamental justice as effectively as any serious novel. Even that trove of mental rubble, social media, can be an unexpected source of insight into the human condition.
Obviously, we don’t need literary novels to expose our flawed, often contemptible humanity. If literary novels are in a special category all their own it’s because they tell stories in a particular way. Their vocation is, impractically, aesthetic. Literary novels are like paintings in an art museum: designed for thoughtful contemplation. Staring at the Mona Lisa, we abandon ourselves to our innermost thoughts and reactions. Is Da Vinci’s portrait as beautiful and mysterious as they claim?
Reading any novel is as private an experience as looking at a painting. The literary novel lays special claim to our inner selves — our concerns, uncertainties, fears — by means of language that’s in no rush to get on with the story as quickly as a thriller or spy novel would be. That language may track the emotional states and thoughts of its characters in detail. It may try to plumb the depths of meaning beneath the seemingly obvious surface of circumstances and events. In short, it’s language that reaches for what’s difficult to express in the everyday speech that’s the stock-in-trade of genre. To some, it is high literary prose, to others verbal ostentation.
Literary novels attract readers with a propensity for introspection. Spy thrillers, police procedurals, and other commercial story-types attract those less inclined to self-analyze while reading. Literary novels are just one specialized form of storytelling among many others designed to appeal to particular types of readers.
Readers of all kinds of novels, however, seek the enjoyment that all good storytelling delivers. In the end, the literary novel is as much a form of escapism as a thriller or romance — no less so because it’s favoured by the Swedish Academy, English teachers, and literary intellectuals. Reading a novel by Dostoevsky is as much a form of entertainment, of idle indulgence, as reading the latest bodice-ripper. Even novels with elevated themes and well-wrought language merely provide transient pleasure. The novels that literary reviewers praise as contemporary masterpieces manage to entertain some readers. That is all they do.
Fortunately, our survival doesn’t depend on novels of any stripe. The great novels of the past haven’t yet managed to convince us even to be kind to one another. No literary masterpiece of the nineteenth century could prevent the atrocities of the twentieth. Some may argue that novels can be a call to action, but no novel published today will be any more effective than those of the past at combatting hate or racism or sexism.
The world’s most prestigious literary award is the Nobel prize given for “outstanding contributions in literature.” But it’s literary fiction that attracts the plaudits of the Swedish Academy and its Nobel Committee for Literature. The Academy hasn’t yet honoured novelists in the mould of P.D. James or Georges Simenon, best known for their compelling crime fiction. Novelists’ methods may differ — but it’s all storytelling that originated around that campfire of ancient days. Someone had a good story to tell and we listened with rapt attention.