I’ve just finished Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
I wavered before buying, drawn by the praise of writers like Ruth Ozeki and Ursula Le Guin, made hesitant by the memories of the Jane Austen Book Club (which wasn’t for me) and by the subject matter itself. (Fair warning: read no further if you’re not up for spoilers.)
But it was a compelling, harrowing, unputdownable read. I succumbed to tears just as many prior readers had done. Even though the last section of the book, where it all comes together, where the family lives as best they can with the past, was somehow unsatisfying. Though what else could Fowler have done? Any other ending would have been to deny the nature of Fern and to gloss over the realities of what had happened and what could be done. The last scene, though, was devastatingly sad and altogether beautiful.
But why was it so compelling for so many people? Perhaps because, like Rosie, we all feel a little of the Monkey Girl: out of step, misunderstood, misunderstanding. Wanting to be wild, but choosing the wrong moments to express that wildness. Perhaps this is a quite extreme version of a common story. And if that is so, how can it be true? How can so many of us feel like outcasts? To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?”
So it goes.
Mostly when I think about genre classification, I think the distinctions are not really worthy of discussion. Too many blurred lines. Poor Mr Banks, for example, forced to gain or shed an M., depending on the book. Same author, same mind. Right now, I’m happily reading Jennifer Egan’s Black Box as a twitter feed from The New Yorker. There’s definite science fiction, techno, thriller aspects there. And it’s wonderful literary writing.
Sometimes I feel something like this cartoon by Tom Gauld:
But, every now and then, I feel embarrassed, apologetic, shy about my love of spec fiction and my desire to write something beautiful and literary and yet full of robots, magic, time travel and portents (or a similar mix!)
Lev Grossman’s recent article in Time has some very interesting points to make about genre. I love his idea of plot as a meaningful literary device. I am intrigued by his categorisation of literary fiction as a genre. Typified by an intense interest in the psychology of the characters, perhaps? (having just read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom) Although as soon as I write that I think: unfair. What about Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire, a literary fantasy if ever there was one, and very preoccupied with character psychology and interactions. I do think Grossman is right to say criticism has failed genre writing. It will be interesting to see if it ever catches up.
Ursula LeGuin advocates another approach altogether and she makes some good points.
But finally, some Kurt Vonnegut wisdom:
The arts are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.
And what else really matters?