I started thinking about this again when inspired by a discussion group on Amazon: “Have you written literary fiction?” I certainly aspire to that, but what is it? What indeed is literature?
“Literature” is difficult to define. I once published an academic article on the question of what we mean by “art” and “literature”: taking Tolstoy’s criteria in his What is Art? of 1898. The article turned out to be long and boring, since Tolstoy’s arguments are convoluted and few of us would agree with most of his criteria: he dismisses as “art” both his own writing and Shakespeare’s.
But despite his undoubted prejudice, exaggeration and sheer dogmatism, Tolstoy does make a few valid points. He starts by saying that we rarely try to define what art is. “Instead of giving a definition of true art, and then deciding what is and what is not good art by judging whether a work conforms or does not conform to the definition, a certain class of works that for some reason please a certain circle of people is accepted as being art, and a definition of art is then devised to cover all these productions.”
From our point of view we might say that art, including literature, is usually determined only in retrospect. “Literature” is perhaps something some of us aspire to, even model ourselves after, although only future generations will be able to decide whether or not we have actually produced it. And of course, setting out to write, a writer is rarely concerned about literature, but rather with how best to give expression to a particular idea. Sometimes he or she may be successful in this, sometimes not.
Turning to “literary fiction,” let us note that for many publishers this is a “catch-all” term for books in their “mid list” that don’t fit into the more easily determined genre writing. In some search engines you won’t even find “literary” fiction as such, but rather “contemporary” or “general” fiction. But for those that aspire to create literary fiction, the quality of the writing is the primary consideration.
Quality can of course be found in genre fiction too. To take as examples from genres with which I am most familiar, John Le Carré is a marvellous writer and so, very often, are Ken Follett and P. D. James. Quality implies a certain intelligence in what one writes, rather than mindless formula writing.
But I think there is more to it than this. Returning to what is “literature,” we might note that implicit in Tolstoy’s argument is the belief that art does have something to say. In other words, content is of vital importance. In literature it is the writer's perception and understanding of the world that appeals to readers, who are thus enabled to relate emotionally to, and at least partially identify with, characters who are ultimately engaged in some kind of struggle to make sense of their lives. Such a search for me remains as the essence of great art. A writer as artist takes seriously the basic question of why we are here and tries to discover whatever answers there may be. Tolstoy would regard today's post-modernist theories, which specifically deny art as having anything to say at all, as the most depressing and nonsensical kind of artistic nihilism imaginable.
Mikhail Bulgakov (whose masterpiece The Master and Margarita I personally regard as the greatest novel of the twentieth century) talks of Tolstoy in relationship to artistic truth: “The fact that he existed ... that there existed the phenomenon of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy obliges every Russian writer after Tolstoy ... to be mercilessly strict towards himself and others”; it obliges him “To complete truth of thought and word. ... To utter sincerity. To knowing why and for what end you are writing! To a merciless intolerance towards every untruth in your own compositions! That's what the fact that there was a Lev Tolstoy in Russia obliges us to!”
Today Tolstoy would certainly be opposed to the “productions of amusement-art” created for television (“prepared in such terrific quantities by the armies of professional artists...”) and to romantic subjects for their own sake. He would reject an extreme naturalism, the description of everything without regard for underlying meaning, where “infection with a feeling ... is usually hindered by superfluous details.” He would be scornful of those works that, in an age of show rather than substance, rely largely on effects: the technical fireworks with little or trivial subject matter. Would we, or would we not, agree with him?
Above all, to my mind, art and literature should challenge conventionally held ideas. Having been brought up as a student of language and literature, I turn for examples to writers such as Dostoevsky in Russian literature or Kafka in German—who are difficult to understand precisely because they do challenge. So, in fact, does Tolstoy.
And perhaps I may give an example of the opposite, a play that I think only confirms existing prejudices. I shall not name the author (although some may recognize the play I am referring to) since the point of these articles and blogs is not to disparage other writers, and furthermore I can give praise where it is due: it is extremely well written, works well on stage and has good parts for the actors. But what are its themes?: 1. Cottages are nice. 2. Getting old sucks. 3. A grandson or similar younger person helps, and 4. (a special point was made of this in the advertisements for a recent production) Loons are nice. So what? Audiences can sit back, nod their heads wisely, and say “Yes, yes.” What challenge is there here?
Of course, writers of “literary fiction” wouldn’t claim to be always successful, even in producing something good, let alone in producing “literature.” That is the challenge for any writer. But at least we should ask ourselves to what extent our works approach an ideal.
A.Colin Wright's novel Sardinian Silver can be ordered from any bookstore, from www.amazon.com and other amazon sites, www.barnesandnoble.com, and www.iUniverse.com.