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Friday, 14 May 2010

Literary Writing?

It does seem, in New Zealand, that there is, among writers and in so called writers’ support associations, a general and derogatory opinion of genre fiction. New students in my writing classes always tell me they are writing literary work. There was a time when a genre writer could not join a national writers’ association as a full member and still today, people insist that Literary is best.

We have, in New Zealand, writers who are successfully published overseas, and sell well, in the Fantasy and S(cience) F(iction) genres, and yet are treated as ‘prophets without honour’ in their own country. For many people, including writers who should know better than to put down one of their own, say 'Fantasy is not true, it's about things that don't exist, it's pure escapism.' Therefore readers of SF or Fantasy are escaping from reality because they are not good at coping with real life. 'They're losers!' They think that Fantasy readers want 'magic wand solutions' when the average person knows that this is 'wishful thinking and a load of codswallop because life's not easy like that' And of course every writer knows how simple it is to create a believable world with its culture and peoples and write well about it.

The majority writing view of the Romance genre is the same. The fact that it is the last remnant of the Mediaeval knight's code of honour watered down into our century's thinking is lost. New Zealand Romance writers get it in the neck for writing a load of 'sentimental rubbish', but they, and their readers, know it's a dream world which makes a nice escape from nappies, housework, struggling to make ends meet, the dreadful, constant news about murder, terrorists and threats of economic and ecological collapse. I actually know of a marriage counsellor who prescribes a list of Romance books to some of the husbands so that they can understand what women would appreciate and value in a man. Of course we writers know that a novel about two people, focussed solely on them and their relationship, is so easy to write. The genres called Women's Writing and Chick Lit are sneered at as second rate too. Good old MCP chauvinism is alive and well although heavily disguised as reputable book reviewing.

Literary writing is still held up as the best, even the only way of writing. It’s an attitude left over from the days where education was for the privileged and the size of your vocabulary and ability to speak in complex structures meant that you were not one of 'the ignorant great unwashed' or 'the working class'. There's a strong remnant of this opinion still in academia, the publishing world, and, sadly, the New Zealand writing world. But, and this is the great joke, no one, no critic or academic, can define ‘Literary Writing’ or has come up with a definition of New Zealand ‘Literary Writing’ which all or most agree with.

I teach my students that the Literary Genre is about ideas, universal themes of importance to all people. In the Literary Genre the characters will be memorable, the theme one that leaves the reader thinking. I believe that a good literary novel is not self indulgent navel gazing by a writer, but makes a universal statement that is true. Honesty, the writer's honesty, is one of the keys, for me, to the Literary Genre. It might not be your version of the truth, but it is the author's, and it makes you think.

With that as a definition then ‘Literary Writing’ can been seen in many types of fiction. PD James' crime novels, Terry Pratchett’s satires, or in some of Patricia McKilip's fantasy novels, to name a few.

‘Literary Writing’ is more complex than every day writing, using what my linguistics prof used to call 'the language beyond the lexical bar.' That is the writer can use Latinate words and complex structures. At one end of the ‘Literary Writing’ scale there are literary writers who are experimenting with language, in the use of words and structures, so that to the ordinary reader the writing becomes impossible to read or understand. At the other end are those so full of a love of language that they write prose like Gerard Manley Hopkins's poetry.

As a Kiwi I'm often depressed by this writing divide in my country. It seems only the correct NZ style Literary Genre is valued and it's not always the best of literary writing. And since Bill Manhire started his creative writing course we seem to have lots of course clones producing the same flat, dull, passionless and often meaningless writing. Our Arts Council grants go to these students and our New Zealand Society of Authors continues to encourage the belief that only these courses produce the ‘great New Zealand writers’ worthy of grants. I am not alone among the many readers in New Zealand who find such prize winning, or reviewed and vaunted, so called great literary works, as pretentious and arty-farty, peculiarly fixated on New Zealand's 'deep dark underbelly' or 'native consciousness' as though other countries aren’t populated by people who also do same nasty things to each other. It is sad to see some story or first novel lauded as a great literary triumph, and the author presented with grants and great reviews, when the ordinary reader can’t get through more than a few pages and will never finish reading it. It seems to me that the ‘Literary Genre’ has become a form of New Zealand intellectual snobbism to the detriment of all writing and writers.

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