Private: The function of literary fiction

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid contends that, in Britain, literary fiction of the last fifteen years fails to “engage with the present day.”

She says that crime writers are the ones writing about the realities of contemporary British society–“about the ways in which social institutions, the way we live, the structures we set up in our society,” are often as morally reprehensible as the people who commit crimes.

Concerns about the nature and function of literary fiction in the U.S. and Britain have arisen frequently within the past year and a half.

Last August, Robert McCrum noted in The Observer that:

One or two critics have begun, nervously, to point out that literary fiction has become just another genre, like humour, crime or adventure. Some have even gone so far as to observe that the label could simply be a way of describing a novel that places style before content, puts prose before plot and subordinates character and narrative to nebulous aesthetic concerns

McCrum’s article seems to have been inspired by BR Myers’ attack, in The Atlantic Monthly last year, on the “growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.”

I like many of the writers Myers disdains, particularly Cormac McCarthy. And I can’t agree with his out-of-hand dismissal of Delillo’s White Noise or Proulx’s The Shipping News. But the article is worth reading, if only because it serves as a reminder that a tightly-plotted novel–a good yarn–can be a fabulous thing.

Meanwhile, I haven’t written a tightly-plotted story in my life. My brain doesn’t work that way.

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