Monday, July 28, 2008

Guilty Pleasures and the Two-Track Mind

I'm guessing most of the people who read this blog would classify themselves as writers of "serious" fiction and they may, by default, also be "serious readers." And 'serious' can mean several things - enlightening, poignant, thought-provoking, and (at its most watered down state) educational. Chekhov is serious fiction. So is Welty and Bellow and Hemingway - we all know the list.

And yet, I know more than a few "serious" writers who often indulge in literary fiction's step-siblings. That would be:
Westerns (???)
Young Adult (or a percentage of)
and what have you.

I will out myself right now and admit that I have read a book...or two...of Indian chick-lit. These books are frivolous, unrealistic, hackneyed, and they come with pretty covers featuring clothing and shoes that no "serious" writer could ever afford. Their benefit comes from the fact that absolutely zero brain cells are required to read them. Oh - and, though it hurts to admit it, they're entertaining. As readers, I think many of us can claim to have dual personalities - we may dip in and out of genres as we please.

But what about as writers?

Which brings me to the point of this whole entry - an article in today's Washington Post that profiles John Banville, an Irish author who won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. An earlier book, The Book of Evidence, was shortlisted for the Booker in 1989. Banville is, by all accounts, a writer of serious fiction.


He's got an alter-ego, a pen name, another writing personality who is named Benjamin Black and who writes thrillers. And while John Banville can take years to finish one of his novels, Benjamin Black finishes writing in months.

Is this so different from the fiction writer who pens travel or food articles on the side? Or the newspaper columnists who transform their experiences into psuedo-fiction? Which form of writing is catharsis for the other? And if a writer of literary fiction also writes genre fiction, does that automatically make his/her genre novel more worthy than a novel from a writer who ONLY pens genre fiction?

And what about the differences in plot?

Read the article. And let me know what you think.


  1. Ah, I hate to see zero comments. This is a good post, Priyanka. I have been reading only literature lately because I have been of the mind that writing and reading are like playing tennis; if you read stuff that isn't more of the literate bent your game gets worse. But I'm not sure of this, and I'm not keen to dismiss all genre fiction. At this stage of the game I'm happy to see people reading almost anything.

    And, I mean, I don't personally like Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy but there is some kind of skill going on there. It takes some kind of skill to get people to write a page-burner, I think, I just wish those guys would use it to better purpose. And all that research . . .

    And Tony Hillerman is pretty good, actually.

    And then there's science fiction . . . don't Asimov and LeGuin and Bradbury and Atwood sort of transcend their genre?

    And then there are people who got slapped with the label "chick lit." Maybe I don't know what "chick lit" is. I didn't think Curtis Sittenfeld's "Prep" or Melissa Bank's "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing" were "chick lit" and it kind of ticks me off that marketing people shunt books like that off into a little category, although I suppose Sittenfeld and Bank were pretty happy they sold pretty well.

    So. Benjamin Black. I found it strange that Banville loathed his literary work, although I think I kind of understand the happy feeling of being able to charge through a plotty book in a few months. That must be nice. Should we assume that since he wrote a Booker prizewinner we can hold his Black books to a higher standard? I don't think so; I think Tony Hillerman, for example, sets the bar pretty high for mysteries. And even writers who wrote primarily literary fiction, like Steinbeck, put out a few works that were pretty lousy by any standard.

    That's me.

  2. D - totally agree with your statement about reading literary fiction to keep in practice of writing in the same direction, but I've also found myself reading those "other" books and wondering a)what about the book appeals to a general audience and b) how to pick out those desirable qualities that may be present and use them in my own writing.

    For my part, I struggle with plot in my own writing, and so I'm always fascinated by these page-turners - Harry Potter for example - where I don't even have the time to analyze character/structure/etc. because I'm just so invested in the story and the what-happens-next factor.

    In the end, don't we just need a break? I know I couldn't go through the entire year, day after day, of reading just pure lit, of watching just one type of film, eating one type of food, listening to one type of music. Maybe Banville uses Black as a break from his usual art, as his the taste of variety we all need in life.

  3. No, I agree. I really like Harry Potter as well. And right about now I think a break is a good idea, actually. I did say "only" but I meant "mostly."

    It does sound like Banville stresses himself out so much; it must be cathartic to write as Black.