Carracks, kerseymere and other last straws
The Tyger's Labourer

Washing up and growing up

A few months ago I went to a centenary concert at the Purcell Room of the works of my great-aunt Elizabeth Maconchy and of her daughter Nicola LeFanu. After a lifetime of dodging 'Aunt Betty's' - to me - incomprehensible music, I went because my sister Carola Darwin was the soloist. And loved it: in the intervening years, much casual Radio Three listening has educated my brain, so the new and strange made sense, because it was woven in with what has become more familiar. As I found myself saying to Nicola afterwards, 'I think my ears have grown up.'

That may have been a very naive-sounding thing to say to the Professor of Music at the University of York, but it's got me thinking about the equivalent in writing and reading. In my previous post Carracks, kerseymere and other last straws I was talking about just how hard the reader's working in the first few pages of a novel. The process is most obvious at the beginning of a story, but actually all the way through it the reader is having to use what they've already read and understood in their life and the preceding chapters to make sense of this new choice and arrangement of words. Part of the pleasure of reading your favourite genre of fiction is your consciousness of using that understanding: that sense of something both playing by and playing with the rules. If you like thrillers you know that the hero will win in the end, and walk away bloodied but unbowed, the world just that little bit safer. If you like romances you know that it'll end in happily ever after, but when and how? The narrative drive - the way the writer harnesses the reader's urge to know what will happen to keep them turning the pages - is as much about how as it is about will they?

The best examples of any genre manage to satisfy the reader by providing what they know they want, while using that satisfying shape as a container for good, lively writing (i.e. fresh, if not truly original), intriguing characters, and a exploration of all sorts of subsidiary themes and ideas. It even takes that playing with the genre's form and rules to its logical concludions: 'If this was a mystery novel...' says Harriet Vane to Peter Wimsey on more than one occasion.

But it's not a straightforward case of writer and reader just learning the rules, because the usual genre labels aren't all labelling the same aspect of the novel: 'fantasy' and 'historical' are about the setting of the novel (though I've met more than one reader who thinks Jane Austen wrote historical fiction), 'while 'thriller' and 'romance' are about the mainsprings of the action, with 'detective story/mystery' and 'chick lit' as subsets respectively. And there's 'comedy' and 'horror', which are about tone rather than setting or subject, but does anyone actually file a novel under 'tragedy'? Unless they file it under 'literary', of course. In book trade terms 'literary' is another genre - a particular market and set of readers to be targeted like any other, with the right design and the right media coverage. In readers' terms it's more often about prose style and explicit intellectuality (is there such a word?), with the subject, tone and setting open to anything that the writer fancies for this novel.

So, for the reader, literary fiction by definition refuses to offer them anything like such a clearly-known form leading to a guessable if not known ending. Instead it offers at least to some extent the unknown: new words in new arrangements; beginnings which ask you to keep going even when you don't understand things yet; middles which don't follow an at least retrospectively obvious route; endings you didn't expect or don't want; actual plot points that you have to put together from hints and references which the author assumes you'll get. It is, arguably, harder work.

When it comes to reading for pleasure the new and strange will always be easier for readers to comprehend if it's anchored in the comfortably familiar. Which is why, to my mind, it's not worth anyone's time to be shocked and horrified at the fact that literary fiction sells, generally speaking, in much smaller quantities than genre fiction. Nor is it shocking that literary writers on the whole seem to write fewer books: if the reader finds new things harder to deal with, so too does the writer.

Which is why it's also not worth being shocked and horrified by what someone else regards as too literary. I have a theory that the proportion of strange-to-familiar each of us can handle is part of our character: what changes is what feels strange in the first place. My enjoying music which I used not to be able to get at all isn't about my trying harder, or being braver or cleverer or more self-sacrificingly family-minded, let alone more culturally virtuous. I'm no more those things than I was as a teenager, and if anything I've forgotten the little technical musical knowledge I had then. My tolerance for new-and-strange is probaly much as it ever was. It's about my brain having spent twenty years doing what human brains are designed to do: learning simply by experiencing new things in learning-sized doses, usually subliminally, often while doing the washing up, until they're no longer strange. Nothing very culturally virtuous about that, is there?   

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