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Subjective, objective, and Soviet toothbrushes

Over at Vulpes Libris I've been talking about something I've talked about here more than once: what I think it is that defines literary fiction. It's been an interesting exercise, not least because I wanted to set up a general discussion about how literary fiction works: some terms, some ways of thinking about it, and why it's worth bothering with. What I didn't want to do is say 'X is literary and Y isn't literary,'  because people will always argue about that: what's 'difficult', what's 'worth it', is always going to be a very muddly mixture of objective and subjective reactions. It seems to me much more interesting to unpick the question, and let people try mapping it onto their own reading, and see if they agree.

In fact, it seems to me that most of the blood that's shed when people start discussing and classifying books is because it's so hard to separate out what a book evokes in you from what it is of itself. Literary criticism, at least in the twentieth century, got round this first by urging perfect (and impossible) objectivity: close reading that ignored both the author's intention and the particular reader's response. An objective and accurate grand theory of how texts work was the aim: a definition of what they were of themselves. It's no accident that such a project emerged in the 1920s and 30s, just when Soviet apparachiks were trying to arrive at an objective and accurate grand theory of how many colours of toothbrush the population of the USSR needed. And we all know how well that kind of thing worked. Equally, though understanding the ways that words fit together is essential training for the writer, it does leave out of account the fact that a book can't help but exist within the stuff that different readers bring to it.

And then, when that project proved impossible, because sometimes authors pipe up and say what they were trying to do, as even Eco allows, and because different readers, inconveniently, will laugh, or cry, at the same thing, literary criticism decided that, actually, every text is recreated every time it's read. The author is dead in the sense that what meaning they were trying to get readers to find, is irrelevant. A novel is part of an ever-revolving and shifting set of references, and what it means is embedded in how those references interrelate. Sometimes the reader's response was allowed for. But sometimes the only value of a book seemed to be its role as a missile in the battles of symbols and signs: its ballistic possibilities were the point, not how well it worked as something readers wanted to read.

But readers go on reading things, and liking them, and not liking them, and writers go on trying to decide what to write and how to write it. It is possible, and essential, to talk about what works and what doesn't in a book. With variations, what works - what we'd loosely say is 'good' about a book - is likely to be true-ish for many of the readers within a given bookish tradition: say, those who grew up in late-20th century England (Wales, Scotland and Ireland having their own literary cultures). What works for you - in the sense of making the hairs rise on the back of your particular neck - is a different though related criterion. But in the general cultural terms I'm talking about one book is not as good as another, in any of the senses in which I defined 'good' a while back. But we have to acknowledge that it's still personal: it still involves your response. What alerts you to something being extra-good or extra-bad? It's an instinct, a gut feeling. Only then, if you're in critical mode, do you think 'Why am I gripped? What am I loving? Why am I bored? What don't I like?'. So the original alert, if you like, is a-reasonable and entirely personal and subjectiv, and the reasoning is post-hoc, logical, apparently objective. Even if it kicks in so quickly you're hardly aware that it's triggered by something not in the least objective and logical, the two are separate things.

It's the same process, if you like, as writing: the words occur to me, and then I decide if they work. It's a split second (though it might also be six months) between the two processes, but, again, they are different. Maybe that's the way in which, not only are writers readers, but readers are in a different way writers: even if you don't sign up to the idea that it's readers, not writers, who construct the book, their process of feel-think reproduces the writer's same feel-think pattern. Good reviewers like the Book Foxes over at Vulpes Libris know that.

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