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Too true Edward Docx. Too true.

December 13, 2010

Genre versus Literary Fiction

Today, Edward Docx, whose latest novel is set to be released in April 2011, wrote an article for the Guardian (see URL above). I happened across this article online during one of my many periods of horrendous procrastination. Docx was writing about, mainly, the contrasts between genre fiction and proper literary fiction. I like to think of myself as a consumer of both but a disciple of the latter, and wholeheartedly agree with what Docx had to say. While there is something compelling about the way writers such as the late Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown tell their stories, they are undoubtedly formulaic. While the details and specifics of name and place vary from novel to novel, the basic formula is the same. It is this following a strict formula that Docx argues forms the distinction between genre fiction and fictional works of true literary merit.

It is, sadly, none too often that I come across a novel that leaves me with an impression of “newness”, thinking “Wow! I’ve never read anything like that before!” The last time I had even a vague suggestion of this sentiment was after reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire, which, as the musical proves, has become vastly successful. Even that, though, was not based on an original idea. If seriously considered for too long, it could actually be quite depressing to think how little fiction in this day and age, “genre-fiction” or not, is truly “new” and capable of inspiring that “wow” reaction.

I have never been a fan of Dan Brown’s writing. After reading The Da Vinci Code, I realised that the plot was rather boney, fleshed out with extensive descriptions and inner monologues that served only to fill the pages and make the novel a more acceptable length. If I were to draw an analogy, it would be with one of those grotesque cartoons where skinny men pump themselves full of air to give themselves an impression of muscle. The Da Vinci Code was much like this. Skinny on the inside, but pumped full of air to make it look more appealing. Stieg Larsson, on the other hand, I quite enjoyed reading, and was not expecting to see him so slated in Docx’s article. Of course I was aware that his writing wasn’t original, but his characterisation of Salander, despite being exactly what one would expect of the heroine of a thriller (in that she is the last character you would expect to be the heroine that solves the mystery), is contemporary, alternative, and gives the reader something that makes them want to proceed from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo onto The Girl Who Played With Fire and then The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest to learn more about Lisbeth, learn what makes her tick, find out why she is so damaged. The art of compelling characterisation is something that no amount of following instructions can teach, and it is Lisbeth Salander’s character that makes The Millennium Trilogy what it is.

In spite of my praise of Larsson, I will be proceeding into The Girl Who Played With Fire with trepidation. Docx’s article has opened my rose-tinted eyes to the formulaic nature of Larsson’s thrillers and I will be reading the remaining installments of The Millennium Trilogy skeptically, always keeping an eye out for the secret ingredients that give away the recipe Larsson was following. I’m sure it won’t stop me from enjoying them, but I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. Apparently there is no such thing as reading for pleasure any more. Once a critic, always a critic. Such is life.

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