Thursday, 2 February 2012

Popular fiction

You know that thing that authors do from time-to-time? Where they take a short story they've written and expand it into a novel? And it never turns out to be a good idea? It just doesn't. Because the idea that can make a brilliant short story rarely can be stretched into a whole novel. Sometimes short stories (or novellas) are just the right length, and anything else is padding.

Take Flowers for Algernon, for instance, by Daniel Keyes. This is a quite brilliant short story. (If you haven't read it, you must.) The novel, however, isn't. It's not bad, by any means, but it comes nowhere near the brilliance and impact of the short story. Daniel Keyes might have been better advised to leave it as a short story and write something else for his novel.

Which brings me to this blog entry. Actually, this blog entry isn't about short stories or novels, nor the adapting of one into the other. In fact, it's about something else entirely.

But it is the blogging equivalent of turning a short story into a novel. I'm writing a blog entry that is based on a couple of tweets I twitted yesterday. The fact that I summed up my thoughts succinctly in a couple of tweets isn't going to stop me turning it into a blog entry.

A couple of days ago, a pompous fool desperate for publicity was quoted in the Guardian laying into the current poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Now I don't really care whether he's right or wrong about her being a bad poet. I'm not qualified to judge as I rarely read poetry.

What really bugged me was the 'defense' in one of the comments, which basically said that we shouldn't worry too much about people reading Duffy because they would probably go on to read other stuff.

This is a really old, and really condescending, 'defense'. It's the 'literature as a gateway drug' argument. I see it used over and over again, for fantasy and science fiction, for romance, for children's books, for thrillers, in fact, for anything popular. Don't worry about them reading J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer or Stephen King or any of a thousand other popular authors, because after that they might go on to read something 'better'.

Better, in this case, always seems to mean something more literary, about big, intellectual, philosophical issues. Something inaccessible and difficult.

The only value of popular fiction, the argument goes, is to hook readers onto the hard stuff.

Well, it doesn't work like that.

Popular fiction is worthwhile by and for itself. Fiction doesn't exist only to interrogate intellectual problems. There is nothing wrong at all--in fact there is enormous value--in writing for entertainment (and that much-derided word 'escapism'), rather than dry, intellectual stimulation. There's nothing wrong at all (and much to recommend) being accessible and easy to read. Being inaccessible is not a merit in and of itself.

Storytelling has always included a high degree of entertainment, right from the very earliest recorded stories. The lessons in those stories, the models for living lives, were delivered through the medium of entertainment, and that is what popular fiction does. And even if it only entertains, there's nothing at all wrong with that.

So, please, don't defend popular fiction as a gateway drug. Don't say 'at least they're reading something, and they'll eventually go on to read something better', because it's not true. Popular fiction is worth reading. It's not there to lead you to something else. It's there for itself, whether the pompous fools like it or not.


Ewan Lawrie said...

Dickens was popular fiction once - and Mark Twain. Both were sold by subscription, in fact.

Anne E. Johnson said...

Agreed. Your penultimate paragraph is key. Pompous fools, indeed, who pretend they don't need entertainment.

Patrick Samphire said...

I've decided I like calling people pompous fools. I shall probably do it more often. :)

Patrick Samphire said...

Absolutely. And Dickens was sneered down upon for absolutely ages (much like Jane Austen). It took a long time for them to be considered 'literature'.

Patrick Samphire said...

Just realised I can reply directly to people's comments, so am busy fiddling and deleting and re-posting. Sorry if you subscribed to comments and are getting them multiple times...

Anne R. Allen said...

Great post. I agree with you other commenters. Dismissing "popular fiction" means dismissing authors like Wm Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, and Trollope. Not to mention Homer, Aristophanes, Virgil, and Plautus. I suppose there have always been academic writers who write for a small segment of the intelligentsia, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the stories that become classics are the ones that appeal to the masses as well.

BTW--Great comment on my blog. I love your expression "offense junkies" (which includes some academic writers) It's even better than "insult ferret" because they are definitely addicted to being offended.

Patrick Samphire said...


Okay, fourth attempt at a reply. Let's see if blogger will let me this time... :)

I think you're absolutely right. It's actually really difficult to think of a great, classic author who wasn't writing popular fiction for their age. And, no doubt, many of them were criticized for it at the time.

Lisa Campbell said...

I just discovered your blog and I love every post! I also do a little graphic/web design and I want to be a writer, so your subjects are perfect for my interests.
This post, in particular, is something I can relate to. I hear this argument about YA fiction all the time, but honestly, I prefer to read fiction for entertainment. And if the best sellers are any indication, so do most people.

Patrick Samphire said...

Thanks, Lisa! Good luck with your writing!