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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

This Blog Lacks Literary Merit

I recently listened to a great interview/discussion between Shelagh Rogers and Louise Penny on a special podcast extended interview section from Shelagh's CBC Radio show The Next Chapter.

It's a great discussion about Penny's Inspector Gamache series of crime novels, but one of my favourite parts are when they start talking about crime fiction and the Canadian literary landscape.

It was interesting to hear how when the Crime Writers of Canada has put in requests with the Canada Council for the Arts, their requests for money or support inevitably come back with the stamp LACKS LITERARY MERIT.

Penny also talks about how crime fiction is rarely ever even nominated for major literary awards for the same reason, and her and Rogers try to determine who decides what lierary merit is and why great crime novels which also happen to be just plain good novels are constantly overlooked.

Of crime fiction, Penny says, "These books are not about death, they're about life. The murder is a vehicle to examine all sorts of issues about human nature."

I feel the same way about good horror novels.

Horror, science Fiction and other speculative genres, of course, are also often similarly overlooked, as if the speculative elements, or their dark subject matter make their stories any less serious, the tales any less true. 

Not all that long ago, a colleague of mine who was extremely well read, balked and insisted she did not like science fiction when I recommended Robert J. Sawyer's novel Rollback to her. After I forced the book into her hands, telling her to ignore the genre label and just start reading the story and to stop when it got to writing or a part of the tale she didn't enjoy, she read the whole novel and loved it. Then she went on to read other novels by Sawyer, her initial hesitance tossed aside.

She realized that the novel was a beautiful love story.

As Sawyer has said, a good science fiction novel must be about something, it can't just be some half-baked "wouldn't it be neat if this happened" idea. The characters need to be real and the book has to make the reader think, engage them at a level that makes them consider something.

Rollback, while seeming to be about a person given the chance to extend their life using cutting edge technological advances in order to work on an important generation-spanning celestial communition project, is really, at its heart, a love story.  It's about a couple who have grown old together their whole life, and what happens to their intimate relationship when one of them has their body rejuvinated back to that of a twenty-year old.  (In other words it examines how a relationship is affected by a sudden and dramatic change taking place in one of the people in that relationship)

Similarly, Sawyer's FlashForward, on the surface a tale about what happens when humanity passes out for two minutes and receives a vision from their future, isn't about the speculative phenomenon so much as it's a novel about freewill (ie, if you were able to see what your future might be and didn't like it, would you be able to change it or are you destined to follow some pre-scripted plan?) - the premise came from Sawyer's own experience at a high school reunion in which "God, I wish I knew then what I know now," was a regularly repeated phrase when everyone was looking back on their teenages selves and how they imagined their lives might be twenty years into the future.

Me & Robert J. Sawyer at the McMaster launch for his novel, WATCH

So yes, this blog lacks literary merit.


So too do many fantastic novels if you judge them merely by the "subject" area assigned to them for the purposes of marketing them to readers, shelving them in bookstores and the online browse paths they fall under.

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