This month’s column topic readily sprang to mind as soon as I heard about it: one of my online author friends (who shall remain nameless) had received an email from some wag who said “I’ve never read your work and I never shall, because you are not a real writer. Real writers don’t write about the supernatural.”
Now, apart from the complete pointlessness of the exercise (why would anyone go to the trouble of emailing someone just to tell them that in the first place?), this is in effect dismissing the work of some of literature’s most revered writers and playwrights: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Goethe, Shelley, Dickens, Kipling, Elizabeth Gaskell, D H Lawrence, George Eliot, Edith Nesbitt, James Joyce and even Truman Capote. And that’s just for starters. How about those supernatural elements (however tenuous) in such classics as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights? Or the supernatural-infused short stories of Sir Walter Scott, to say nothing of Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Then, of course, there’s John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – a very fantastical work which is, nevertheless, firmly grounded in earthly theology and morality. Who could forget the creepy (and very supernatural) transformation in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Don’t forget classical authors like Euripides, either. These writers are all adjudged to have achieved the pinnacle of artistic merit in their works of literature, works which have been absorbed into the canon of essential reading and worthy of study. As part of my A-level curriculum in school, I studied Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a supernatural tale if ever I read one, woven with not just strange and ethereal creatures from myth and legend, but also strands from magic, alchemy and the occult.
This kind of snobbishness toward genre material is surprisingly common, given that so many of our lauded authors, poets and playwrights have used the supernatural as hooks in their material. It is easy enough to deride what one doesn’t like, but it is also churlish (not to say downright hypocritical) to pooh-pooh a writer simply because they use supernatural elements in their fiction when some of the greats have done so. As someone has pointed out so eloquently elsewhere, the supernatural is a useful metaphor for those forces which lie outside and forever beyond our control. There are, of course, other suitable metaphors and analogies an author could employ no doubt – but authors choose their themes and tropes carefully to suit whatever it is they’re trying to say (at least the good ones do). Just because the supernatural is used as a literary vehicle to carry the subtexts pertinent to the story doesn’t mean that it lacks any merit – it’s simply a different way of expressing certain concepts.
I am quite aware that such biased attitudes are abound in every field of human endeavour. Music in particular seems to be particularly prone to it: listeners are dividing into ever smaller groups of devotees focussed on one specific genre, with each niche genre claiming superiority over all others. I am not as arrogant as all that to say that I haven’t been prone to it myself with regards to music – especially when you consider just how much of an accountant-led business it has now become. One can extrapolate that into the publishing industry, too, to an extent: self-publishing has become an enormous money-spinning business, with no gatekeepers monitoring the quality of what’s being uploaded onto whatever platform, inevitably meaning that some absolute rubbish gets out into the public domain. Most of that rubbish seems to fall squarely into the genre category, most particularly the horror subsection. Equally inevitably, there will be those who read some of this sub-par material (some of it barely reaching beyond the level of teenage fan-fiction) and assume that all genre literature is of a comparable quality.
Conversely, there is a suspicion amongst some that lit-fic is all empty verbosity – that it is how one writes that is all-important, not the story itself. Certainly there are books that appear to scream “Look at me, I’m being clever with words” which possess very little in the way of anything else, but there are also those tomes which combine story with verbal precocity. Umberto Eco springs to mind in this context. I particularly liked Anna Richards’ Little Gods when I reviewed it some years ago – there’s definitely a story in there allied to an acrobatic facility with description and metaphor. Above all the book is accessible and a lively read into the bargain. As I have written elsewhere, in my capacity as an editor it is incumbent upon me to read widely across the literary spectrum, not just the genre I most favour. This is something I have found with many of my writer friends: look at their choice of reading material and it extends far further than most people’s. In other words, just like me they stretch themselves by reading across so many different literary categories. This is all to the good – it’s mind-expanding, for one thing, and it’s also educational in the context of how one can improve one’s writing.
But, let’s be honest: humans are, in many senses, hard-wired for story, by which I mean a discernible plot, heroes and villains, action and adventure, and the triumph of good over evil. We’ve been programmed so from the very first moments humans put abstract ideas into speech, and created stories, myths and legends to tell the tribe around the campfire. It was a form of enhancing social cohesion amongst members of the group, of reinforcing bonds, and strengthening family and tribal ties. Despite leaving all that behind with the creation of modern civilisation and all its accoutrements, we still have a need for those very elements in our tales – by reading such matter it is almost as if we need to get back to our primal roots. After all, we still seek meaning in a world and a life which on the whole appear to be meaningless. The interminable modern workaday routine has seen fit to that (but, thinking about it, hasn’t it always been thus?).
Much of modern literature seeks to find answers to the human condition, or the endless quest for some kind of meaning. If you but choose to look deeper into the horror novel you’ve just sneered at, it could be that it’s about the human condition too, albeit expressed in a different manner. Or, perhaps, that science fiction tome you have turned your nose up at might just be preoccupied with the search for meaning in a universe that resolutely appears not to hold any. Furthermore, with works of the order of Erin Morgernstern’s The Night Circus or Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, magic and fantasy are often interwoven into a grounded narrative based very much in the real world, yet critics seem absolutely unaware that nevertheless it is magical and fantastical. They’re no different from many genre books out there – the only difference apparently being that they have the approval of the self-styled ‘guardians of proper literature’.
As examples, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a detective novel couched in deeply philosophical terms and abstruse language, one which is set against the backdrop of a horrific medieval word that is ultimately a lot scarier than anything horror fiction can come up with. The same writer’s Baudolino is most definitely a fantasy, yet is based entirely on a very real medieval European view of the world (and the myth of the kingdom of Prester John) that was as real to the people then as the motor car and skyscrapers are to us now. The same thing could be said of his novel, Foucault’s Pendulum set in the modern day period. Do those fantastic elements automatically negate the beauty of Eco’s prose, or the philosophical foundations upon which it is built? No, of course not – it would be very shallow of anyone to think that it would.
As most people do, I choose to read whatever interests me, whether it happens to be horror, ghostly, fantasy (albeit contemporary), science fiction, the classics, literary fiction or non-fiction. Many others choose to stick with what they know best. It’s all personal choice in the end. But, whatever you choose to read, high-brow or low, let it be said that your choice is no indication of level, of intellect, or any other spurious derogatory notion. After all, those who choose to dismiss literature they deem to be beneath them are the ones with the problem, not the readers.