2oth July 2012
Birds being what they are in our mythical history, I took special note last night when I was walking my dogs in the evening and saw five herons flying together. The most I have ever seen at a time is two. What could it mean? It's hard to know. In Cherokee folklore, an owl is a harbinger of death, in my own mythology from Scotland, the owl is good luck - but that depends whether it is on your right side or your left. I think there's something to these superstitions because of the way things work in our universe, everything intertwined, all moving patrs influenced by other moving parts like some massive mobile hanging there in time and space - no, not in time and space at all, but just hanging there by dint of some myserious force that science currently calls dark energy, but which our ancestors thought of as gods or goddesses, at any rate some kind of binding principle.
Yesterday, I was having a talk over tea with a writer friend about things literary. We were throwing back and forth ideas about what separates "Literary Fiction,' from "Commercial Fiction." I would think of a book such as "The Meadow," by James Galvin as strictly literary fiction, and something like Diana Gabaldon's "Highlander" series as commercial. On the face of it, it might look as though the division has to do with what sells the most, though for the life of me I can't imagine why "The Meadow" isn't being torn off the shelf. If we lived in Russia, it probably would be. Some might call it heavy, some might think of it as a steak dinner instead of crackers and dip, but whatever it is, it isn't plot driven. Whatever else, Gabaldon's series is, it is plot driven, and in between the two there's a vast grey area. A few years ago, I was reading through Pat Conroy's books. I thought he was a pretty good writer. But when I went to our local bookstore to buy one of his books, I couldn't find it in the shop's front section with its glossy hard backs, its "Book of the Month" endorsements. I was told it was in the back in the "Popular" section, and this seemed to me an outrage. Who is deciding what's "serious" literature worthy of a spot on the front table or trashy commercial literature stuffed at the back with all other trashy paperbacks? If Dickens were a writer today, would he be on the shelf next to Pat Conroy? No one could argue that Dickens' books aren't plot driven. And who is to say that a plot driven book can't also be well written?
Whoever is saying that, I take issue, especially because, as my editor keeps reminding me, my book "Veil of Time," due out next summer, is not going to be on that front table. I'm going to be back there with Pat Conroy! The book has time travel in it, so it can't be literary, seems to be the consensus. But I write literary fiction. None of my other books has anything approaching themes like time travel -well, except for the book in which a woman turns into a Selkie, but we won't bring that up. Truth is, my heroes are the giants of the literary world: Steinbeck, Lawrence, Bronte, yes, and Galvin. That's the kind of literature I aim to write. And if it can be commercial, too, then, who's to argue? Perhaps I'm just a straddler.
"Fifty Shades of Grey," is another question. I read ten pages of it on Amazon, and I just don't get its appeal. Of course, it's not the writing in this case, but, like Harry Potter and equally surprising to its author, it has struck some nerve. Millions of copies have been sold in four months; it has been translated int thirty-seven languages. I didn't even know there were thirty-seven languages. I wonder if it's been translated into Cherokee. But whereas the nerve that was hit in Harry Potter was easy to identify - that un-scientific nerve, which we all have in heaps at our core - I haven't a clue what a tale of sado-masochism could be hitting (no pun intended.) Has the women's movement all been in vain? Has the power been too much for us, and we all still want to be dominated by a faceless Mr. Grey? I shudder to think.
But the literary world has to take note of what is "Popular." Because those nerves it hits are the very ones litertaure coalesced around in the first place. Literature can't work in a vacuum, neither can any of the arts. It has to be a voice; it has to have something to say. Which isn't to say it has to be forced or outright political. Literature groans under ther weight of politics and goes astray. But it has to hit nerves. It has to be a harbinger in some sense. Like those five herons I saw, it has to turn the eye and then turn the heart.