Sunday, May 31, 2015

In the Defense of Literary Fiction: Exhibit One

I tend to get on my soapbox quite often when I see literary fiction dismissed as less important than "informational texts."  Anyone who works in a college or university English department knows what I'm talking about. I sometimes suspect it comes from the same mentality that kept shutting down the London theaters in Shakespeare's day believing that anything based on fiction was sinful since, technically, untrue.

Today's opponents may be less philosophically opposed to serious literature than misguidedly pragmatic.  (The same mentality has led to the elimination of cursive writing instruction in elementary schools because, some say, "We just don't have the time.") For whatever reason, though, I think of all the people who won't ever get the chance to fall in love with books because they were never exposed to the right kind.

I mentioned in a post last week that I was overwhelmed by the desire to return to books I've already read because of recent sequels or other forms of perspective shifts.  Such was the case as I moved through Kate Atkinson's newest novel A God in Ruins. I had certainly enjoyed reading Life After Life, the novel in which the author considers all the ways in which an earlier death of Ursula, the protagonist, would have changed not only the lives of those around her, but history in general.

This new novel doesn't follow that same path, moving in and out of altered worlds, but Atkinson shifts the story to Ursula's younger brother Teddy, his mother's "best boy." While much of the action focuses on Teddy's experience as a RAF bomber pilot during WWII, readers spend just as much time with him before and after the war.  And even though it is clear that he would survive his harrowing experiences, since the narrative is told in fragments out of chronological order, the suspense is just as powerful.

First of all, I don't know when I have found a more likable, sympathetic character than Teddy Todd, and yet his only daughter Viola is his polar opposite. Totally self-centered, she belittles her children and then leaves them for others to raise--and doesn't even choose those others well. Still, I was pleased when Atkinson allows Viola a tender moment of redemption when she sees her oldest child Sunny after a separation of ten years.

The overlap between this novel and the earlier one, Life after Life, is so subtle and slight that it felt like a memory jog. In this case, since she didn't use the same literary device throughout the narrative, I was caught off guard by the bit of sleight-of-hand she does use. All through the story, though, I kept asking, "How does she do this?" The deft way she moves back and forth between parts of the narrative--especially when she uses the mind drift of an aging Teddy--left me envious of her narrative skill.

I try to imagine how the author of "informational text" could engage a reader quite as skillfully, requiring inference and extrapolation.  Another characteristic of literary fiction noted by researchers is its penchant for helping readers to develop empathy toward people--characters--unlike themselves.

I suspect that Teddy Todd is a character I will remember longer than many I encounter on the page or in life. I hope so.

2 comments: said...

I'm so glad I 'stumbled' upon your blog post here. I don't even take seriously people who 'dis' (put down) literary fiction. Nonsensical. I really enjoyed Life After Life and now, because of your blog, and am anxious to read Atkinson's next book. Going to order it right now!

Nancy said...

I'm glad you stopped by, too. Do let me know your response to the book. When I taught high school, I used to tell the guys, "If you don't read good books, you'll have to marry dumb girls." Maybe an overstatement, but...