Wednesday 24 July 2013

The L Word

Too many people seem to be daunted or scared off by the L Word.  That is, the Literary Word.

I’ve recently read Under Milk Wood and I’m sure many would recognize this as a great piece of fiction although it may not be recognised as literary fiction but to me it has all the imgredients. As I read it the qualities that made it so striking were firstly the language: At the sea-end of town, Mr and Mrs Floyd, the cocklers, are sleeping as quiet as death, side by wrinkled side, toothless, salt, and brown, like two old kippers in a box…and there’s plenty more of where that came from; secondly the characters with their colourful monikers such as Nogood Boyo, Butcher Benyon or Organ Morgan to name but a few,  and finally the voices. For instance: Me, Mrs Dai Bread Two, gypsied to kill in a silky scarlet petticoat brown as a berry, high heel shoes with one heel missing, tortoiseshell comb in my bright black slinky hair, nothing else at all on but a dab of scent, lolling gaudy at the doorway, tell your fortune in the tea-leaves, scowling at the sunshine, lighting up my pipe.

Apparently Thomas wasn’t a great one for plot.  In Walford Davies; introduction to Under Milk Wood he explains that Thomas ‘knew better than anyone that his strengths did not lie in extended ‘plots’ of any kind. The only firm frameworks that were ever congenial to him were the intricate verse-forms of his poetry. In all other respects his genius was essentially lyrical, capitalising on the vividness of parts within loose structures.’

Neither would Thomas’s work fit into the structure of a play.  When Thomas was offered the chance of having his works broadcast on the radio, the producers got round this by calling Thomas’s work ‘radio features’ rather than ‘radio plays’. Douglas Cleverdon states that  a radio feature ‘has no rules determining what can or cannot be done and though it may be in dramatic form, it has no need of a dramatic plot’.

Now all this fits in with the concept of literary fiction where plot is secondary to what may be character-driven or voice-driven or both.  There’s a lot of misconception around literary fiction: that it is lofty, flowery, wordy - maybe because of the word ‘literary’ –  it may  be, but more likely it won’t.  It is just as likely to be gritty, edgy or experimental.  Literay fiction is non-genre fiction so there is more freedom to bend the rules expected of a genre – for example experimenting with form, structure, characters, voice, language.  This is why it’s my favourite fiction and what I also like to write. Too often people review literary fiction and don’t understand the genre.  They may say ‘nothing happens’ and have missed out on acute observations of characters and situations.  They’ve missed out on fresh and poetic language.  Fine art gets the same flak.  Of course, you get Fine Art and Literary Fiction which doesn’t work or is just trying to be different for the sake of it but you also get poor genre fiction and poor commercial art too.   They say Fine Art is art’s for art’s sake, thus Literary Fiction is sometimes words for words’ sake.  Yes, it may annoy the hell out of some people but it is often – should be – at the cutting edge of fiction, rolling back the frontiers.

Some of my other favourite literary writers who also tell a great story include: Margaret Forster, Ali Smith, John McGahern, Jon McGregor, Alison Moore, Kate Atkinson, Jane Gardam, Penelope Lively, Helen Dunmore, Paul Magrs, Jeanette Winterson and many more.  

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