Last week, the Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction announced its shortlist.
Six novels are finalists, listed here.
I was pleased to see David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet on the list. It was the only one I had read. That's not surprising, as I have less time to read than I would like. The only reason I had read The Thousand Autumns is because one of my best friends sent it to me. I trust her judgment, so it shot to the top of my reading list.
Let me first say that I believe the novel is absolutely worthy of both a shortlist and a victory in the competition. The prose is outstanding and tasteful, which is not true of much of today's frequently over-styled literary fiction. The vivid, heavily-researched setting (1799 Japan) and memorable characters ensure that anyone who loves good writing is going to enjoy this book. In addition, readers may be pleasantly surprised to discover a Christian protagonist in the novel who is admirable and sympathetic. I have great respect for the author's willingness to buck the long unvoiced dictate in literary fiction that Christianity cannot be part of an admirable character's worldview. (I'm not saying it hasn't ever happened, but it's extremely rare.)
Here's what intrigued me. The plot of this otherwise-excellent novel is what genre authors would call somewhat weak. The first half of the novel feels episodic, with most of the interest coming from prose style and atmosphere rather than plot. Despite that flaw, individual episodes and scenes are wonderful, and at around the halfway point a compelling plot thread surfaces that drives the plot more energetically towards its conclusion.
I don't like a great deal of today's literary fiction because of its weak plotting, as well as its other cliches and unspoken rules. Mitchell's excellent novel made me realize I can still enjoy a literary novel, even if the plot is only halfway good, as long as everything else is BRILLIANT. But how often does that happen? Not often, in my experience. Truly brilliant writers like Mitchell are rare.
It may seem odd that I studied literary classics for seven years in grad school, and still I prefer genre fiction to today's literary fiction. But there's a vast difference between most classic works of literature and today's literary fiction. Only since the middle of the twentieth century has it become more common for "literary" to mean non-traditionally plotted. Especially before 1900, authors did not think they could get away with a rambling or disjointed plot, no matter how deep and beautifully-written their books. Nineteenth century novelists understood that the principles of narrative are universal, and they relied on those principles to construct their stories. Twentieth century novelists started to get experimental, and experiments often fail. Even when they succeed, they will attract a much smaller group of readers.
I asked my friend how she felt about this plotting issue, as I know she likes more literary fiction than I do. She responded that she likes some literary fiction (like The Thousand Autumns) because the narrative works like a puzzle, an intellectual challenge. I can see how that would appeal. She also reminded me that the problem with a lot of genre fiction is that its plotting and characterization often fails to find any freshness, and so the cliches of genre get boring. And that is true.
Personally, though, I'm drawn to a great story, and the great stories of history are not difficult to understand, or built like puzzles. The great stories have been told through poetry, drama, novels, and film, and regardless of the medium the principles are always the same. There's a reason why when you ask an educated person to tell you the story of Ulysses, 99 times out of 100, she will tell you about Homer's character, not recite for you the plot of James Joyce's confusing stream-of-consciousness novel.
It excited me to see among the nominees for the Sir Walter Scott Prize a novel called Heartstone, a Tudor mystery in a series by C.J. Sansom. I downloaded the first in that series onto my Kindle last night, and I'm really enoying it so far. Excellent writing, strong plotting, and a striking lead character make this a genre fiction choice few could scorn. Another unexpected bonus is the fact that thus far, the lead character is also a Christian, troubled by the excesses of the regime. (Hey, what's a few heretic burnings at stake here and there?)
I think I just saw a pig fly past my window. Positive Christian characters in TWO novels nominated for literary prizes? Kudos to the judges for their openmindedness. (Caveat: I'm only at the beginning of the series, so who knows what will happen to the protagonist's faith as events unfold. But I hope it's not the old cliche of losing faith and becoming completely cynical. It's much more interesting to have him struggle with his faith and its contradictions.**
**Update 04/12/11 I just read Dissolution, first in the series, and then read Heartstone. Sure enough, the lead character loses his faith at the end of the first novel. He is no better off spiritually in Heartstone, and notices every negative deed done in the name of religion while few or no positive spiritual deeds appear. Admittedly, this was a time in history when a great number of atrocities happened on both Protestant and Catholic sides, and I wouldn't expect any author to gloss over those events. But it's disappointing that the lead character loses his faith in the course of one novel and then turns into a kind of existentialist. For one thing, at this time in history, there were plenty of explanations of the problem of evil, and it's theologically immature for this particular character not to be aware of those ideas. The author is free, of course, to represent any worldview he likes, and I support that freedom. I'm just disappointed as a reader not to find something more nuanced, but instead the same spiritual plotline as usual.
Do you prefer literary to genre fiction, or vice versa, or do you like both? What bugs you or pleases you about each category? Will you always put a book down if the plot isn't going somewhere, or can beautiful writing make you give it a chance for a couple hundred pages?