I was wondering recently why I so frequently, in my reviews, reject lit!fic as mediocre whilst recommending genre fiction or fanfiction.
I think to appeal to me a story needs to have at least one character (preferably more) with whom I can empathise or sympathise: someone I care about, whose future actually concerns me. I have realised that in a lot of modern lit!fic this is not the case. Obviously it isn’t always the case in genre fic either, but I get more annoyed with lit!fic because I’ve usually paid more for it.
In two recent books that won prestigious awards I found I couldn’t care less about any of the characters. These were The Luminaries, and English Passengers. In fact I just wanted to get to the end, find out if there was an actual plot worth following, and feel virtuous about reaching the conclusion of something I’d paid for… This has been the case for numerous examples of the genre – and yes, I’m regarding lit!fic as a genre here.
I have no idea why there is a trend towards writing about people who are unlikeable. It hasn’t always been the case for general or literary writers. Dickens, Trollope and Eliot made sure we cared about their characters. Austen is perhaps a separate issue, falling into the romance genre whilst also holding a role in classic fiction. Later writers such as Greene and Forster made us want to know how their characters felt, reacted, etc. And I suppose there are modern writers who do manage it. I adored Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, though perhaps it falls into the romance genre in some respects.
There have always been classics and literary novels I’ve disliked, but they’ve been, until recently, heavily outnumbered by the ones I enjoyed. I don’t particularly like books that are about a place rather than the individuals who live there. I like Marquez’s style but I enjoyed Love in the Time of Cholera (a romance?) much better than A Hundred Years of Solitude. Even then, I did care what happened to the town, whereas in the two books I mentioned above I almost gave up in despair.
Both were historical novels and I have read other similar books which got boring very quickly. History, for me, it seems, needs to focus on one or two well developed characters rather than a cast of hundreds. And novels with contemporary themes that are lauded to the skies are often equally boring.
There seems to be a focus, on the part of critics, on style rather than content. I get the impression that many of them don’t actually read any books in what they call genre fiction – romance, thrillers, fantasy, etc. So they wouldn’t know a good plot if it came and smacked them between the eyes.
I want plot almost as much as I want character. I am not interested in romance (mm or fm) that is all about sex and feelings. I want to know how the characters feel, yes, but only in the course of a story.
So I’m looking for character, plot and style. A big ask? Not really. A lot of genre fiction has all three. A lot of modern lit!fic, in my opinion, is sadly lacking in the first two. If you know otherwise, do please let me know!