AP English 12
March 17, 2014
Phase Seven: The Fiction Debate
A comparative essay between the merits of literary and genre fiction as it pertains to audience and style Skimming through the collections of books at a local Barnes & Nobel, one might be stunned to find a copy of the popular fiction The Hunger Games sharing the shelf with the literary classic, The Canterbury Tales. But why should this come as a surprise? Don’t the authors share the same last initial? One could only conclude that this is due to the literary and genre labels placed upon two books. But does being long-winded and verbose necessarily constitute a quality novel? Does having an audience consist of mostly adolescent girls mean that a novel is poorly written? In order to gain a complete understanding of the debate, one must first comprehend the terms that are used to describe the two sides. The term genre fiction refers to popular fiction, which is often described as plot-driven and written with the intention of fitting into a specific genre. Literary fiction, on the other hand, claims no specific genre. Literary fiction is placed within a genre, based on technique, tone, content, and length of the individual piece. Literary fiction is often distinguished as a more serious type of fiction and professes more merit with regards to style, character development, and plot. Genre fiction generally can be said to place less emphasis on characters, and focuses it efforts on development of plot. Genre fiction is sometimes called commercial fiction, perhaps because it sells in great volume relatively quickly. While some audiences are typically attracted to literary fiction for its “academic” appeal and others to genre fiction for its stimulating plot, they both possess scholarly merit, and have mass appeal through conveyance of universal themes and should be judged on an individual basis rather than as a whole.
Having read how literary experts weigh in on the debate, it is apparent that while literary and genre fiction share similarities, one is not consistently superior to the other. Both the novels The Inheritors by William Golding and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis are two books that appear on either end of the spectrum of this debate. The Inheritors is considered a piece of literary fiction for its deep insight into the human and Neanderthal mind. Golding means for us to understand his themes through the perspective of his characters. This novel contains universal and high interest themes. It is written in the simple language of the natives and does not really have a lot of grammatical sophistication. It can be understood best through the biographical and historical aspects of Golding’s life and the time period. The Great Divorce also employs literary devices found in literary works. However, it is categorized as genre fiction. It is a short book about Lewis’ ideas regarding Heaven. Like Golding in The Inheritors, Lewis’ approach may seem simplistic. As in The Inheritors, The Great Divorce, and its significance can be experienced through biographical and historical perspectives. This work also contains themes of high interest, common to the human experience. To those who argue that popular culture makes a slave of the genre writer, one could counter that the genre writer simply mirrors what is taking place in popular culture. The contemporary works of genre authors document current thinking and trends in society. How does incorporating modern thought and events make this literature less valuable than literary fiction? These universal themes appeal to the masses because they are common to the experience of humankind. To further enhance this type of writing, authors of genre fiction frequently employ well-respected literary devices. As previously mentioned, the genre title, The Great Divorce, embodies these characteristics of quality lirerature. In one particular scene, the nameless protagonist is talking to his childhood hero, George McDonald, an influential author of the mid-1800s, about those who choose to be self serving rather than submissive to their creator, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. ”(Lewis 117) The book as a whole tackles the major themes of Heaven, Hell, and the meaning of our brief stay on earth. The reader confronts the antithesis of life and death in this quote as Lewis skillfully develops the dilemma that we all face; that there are ultimately two courses of life one can choose from: One of a self-centered, hedonistic manner, and one of a truth-seeking and self-less manner. At a time when World War II was coming to a close, many were wondering where their loved ones had gone once they died. This seems to be Lewis’ answer to that question. Online book reviewer Brenton Dickieson notes about this passage, "We discover in The Great Divorce that heaven and hell are not thrust upon a person, given without choice and against the free will of the individual. And, more than that, it isn’t so much that a person is locked out of heaven or trapped in hell, but that heaven is completely inaccessible to someone unprepared for its realness." (Dickieson) Another instance is when an angel speaks to a skeptical “ghost” that does not want to fall victim to being overly religious, “We know nothing of religion here: we only think of Christ.”(Lewis 102) This is a classic example of Lewis’ use of paradox to get a point across to the reader. Lewis refrains from too much character development (even the protagonist is nameless with little background given) but instead offers insightful comments from the characters the reader has just been introduced to. This idea makes the reader contemplate what it means to be a follower of Christ versus a religious fanatic. It harkens back to the Bible when Jesus calls his followers to avoid being like the Pharicees, due to their lack of compassion and pious nature. In another passage, the protagonist asks why the men do not go to Hell to help those who are not afforded the opportunity to go to heaven, “The sane would do no good if they made themselves mad to help madmen.” (Lewis 78) Christ was viewed by many in His time a madman. He thought differently from the holy men of the day. His actions were often seen as illogical. Additionally, this is an example of the paradox of Christianity. The concepts behind the faith that Lewis is extolling via his novel are somewhat evasive and can appear to be illogical in isolation. In this passage, the narrator is wondering how those on Earth would perceive all that he has learned from the Spirit guide. He knows that they will think him crazy. No doubt, Lewis had similar concerns as he prepared to defend his newfound faith to friends and family, and influential people in his academic sphere of influence. Lastly, on page 29, MacDonald explains to the nameless protagonist why it is so painful to walk amongst the “full-bodied people”, “Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?" (Lewis 29). This use of personification is effective. These ghosts are not real. They live in the shadows. Their feet lack substance. The truth is what will give them solid bodies. Lewis gives substance to that which is unseen by using figurative language to preserve the fleeting concepts of the spirit realm. He keeps this reoccurring pattern of painful reality throughout the novel, as the guests travel over the new land and experience the harshness of the truth. Daniel Logner, a contributor to a book review website said, "While waiting at the bus stop in Hell and during the bus ride to Heaven, Lewis meets several characters: the Big Man, the tousle-headed youth, Ikey, and a cultivated man who sees the grey town as a lovely "spiritual" place, freed from matter and, with its half-light, always promising the dawn. Lewis is satirizing a view of "spirituality" that makes it less real and solid even than earthly realities."(Logner) By this Logner means to say that Lewis intentionally shows how trivial their earthly endeavors are by portraying them as translucent shadows: intangible. Lewis’ work embodies the scholarly qualities one might expect to find in a classic fiction. While The Great Divorce is still considered a work of genre fiction, it does bring into question as to whether genre fiction has the capability to possess the qualities of a piece of literary fiction and if literary fiction does not necessarily have to posses elevated and pompous language to be considered a classic. If this is the case, can they be judged on anything other than on an individual basis? Generally speaking, authors of literary fiction books are credited with infusing those elements commonly accepted in the literary community as having scholarly merit. Also known as classics, these books document popular beliefs held at the time of their creation, providing contextual and historical background. Literary fiction is often distinguished as a serious type of fiction with regards to style, character development, and plot. William Golding’s novel, The Inheritors, is an example of such a fiction. However, in contrast to The Great Divorce, this supposed example of literary fiction employs a limited range of vocabulary and largely on the psychological or symbolic meaning behind the character’s actions. In this manner, Golding tackles the universal themes of what it means to be civilized in the eyes of ones culture. This is not accomplished with words. The plot and the primal reactions to events in the story convey the norms of the people. For example, there is a scene in which a Neanderthal by the name of Mal has been slain and the other members of his group are coming to terms with his passing with this simple utterance, "Oa has taken Mal into her belly." (Golding 91) The creatures display a sense of spirituality with their deity Oa as they believe their fellow tribe member has gone to join her. Literary analyst V.S. Pritchett seems to concur with the idea that setting and plot are most important to this novel, "The prose within 'The Inheritors' is highly poetic; Golding paints an intricate portrait of a primeval landscape, such as our planet will probably never experience again; this description in itself adds to the atmosphere of suspense the author creates in this novel. It is not just that landscape in itself that is impressionable, but also how it is perceived by the Neanderthals and their "mind-dream-pictures" (Pritchett 166). Pritchett recognizes the importance of the setting and plot as opposed to the development of Golding’s characters. A scene around a campfire exemplifies just this point, "With the scent of the other, I am other. I creep like a cat. I am frightened and greedy. I am strong."(Golding 97) Lok and perhaps some other members have the ability to enter the mind or mindset of others, whether it be an animal or human. In this passage, Lok is communicating his experience of meeting the "other" while he was searching for Ha. Not only is he miming his actions, but previously, he entered the body of the being while he was trying to determine its nature and purpose. While it is understood that the other members have the ability to comprehend one another, the reader is left wondering, like in many other parts of the novel, what the character is thinking and how this has affected them. Another literary analyst, D.W. Crompton says, "but the fact that what argument there is, is so unobtrusive, so intricately controlled, so layered in depth, that is reveals itself fully and satisfyingly only, as a poem does, in terms of images and symbols of which it is constructed." (Crompton 171) By this he means to say that The Inheritors finds its meaning not in the characters, but in the symbols and images that surround this plot. It is not until the end of the novel that the reader is supposed to relate to the savage Homo sapiens rather than the blameless Neanderthal tribe. Considering that a significant part of the definition of literary fiction is a work that focuses on character development and analysis rather than plot, the categorization of this novel is in question. Unfortunately, it appears that placing a novel into one genre or another can be an arbitrary decision, one which results in targeting one audience or another, but not both. A debate regarding the superiority of one fiction over another is an exercise in futility. There are enough readers in the world; the two do not have to compete for fans. Are there examples of stellar writing found among each style? Yes. Do volumes exist within both types of literature where a literary critic would cringe at the lack of literary elements, style, and form? Without a doubt. The better questions to pose are, “What type of literature is preferred by an individual?” and “Which books within each genre provide the ultimate in reading experience?” These inquiries result in reading, which is the primary purpose for the existence of books.
1. Crompton, D.W.. The Inheritors. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981. Rpt. in
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 17. Ed. Sharon R. Gunton. Detroit: Gale, 1981. 171-172. Print. 2. Dickieson, Brenton. A Pilgrim in Narnia. The Twenty Ten Theme, 11 Aug. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. 3. Logner, Kaila. Factorum. Blogspot.com,15 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Dec 2013. 4. N.p.. Web. 1 Dec 2013. C.S. Lewis Biography .
5. Pritchett,V.S. The Inheritors. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 17. Ed. Sharon R. Gunton. Detroit: Gale, 1981. 165-167. Print.