Why Literary Fiction? By Nath Jones
First, what is literary fiction? I’m fine with what Wikipedia suggests that literary fiction asks us to analyze and focus on reality rather than allowing the reader an escape.
I do want to escape—as a reader and a writer. There is nothing I want more, really. So if I’m not offering a romance—erotic or sci-fi, a thriller, a western shoot ‘em up story of horse hooves slipping down arroyos, or an adrenaline-pumping plot of best-dressed espionage, what am I giving to anyone? Why should a reader trade his or her precious evening hours for a world I’ve created, one that instead acknowledges suffering and forces us to watch fate, as acetone, take us all on like butterflies suffocating in tightly sealed jars?
Take two books, just a couple I’ve grabbed off my shelf at home. One is Kathryn Ann Clarke’s The Breakable Vow, a romance. The other is Joseph Conrad’s Youth: A Narrative.
“Newlyweds!” sang out a woman’s voice. Mrs. Nelson, the coach’s wife, appeared. ‘Only newlyweds hug in the grocery store.
The first thing I did was to put my head down the square of the midship ventilator. As I lifted the lid a visible breath, something like a thin fog, a puff of faint haze, rose from the opening. The ascending air was hot, and had a heavy, sooty, paraffiny smell. I gave one sniff, and put the lid down gently. It was no use choking myself. The cargo was on fire.
I suppose it would be nice to relate to two newlyweds hugging in the grocery store. I would like to suspend my disbelief for the two of them, for myself even, but I cannot. I can’t even if I would love to dive headlong into some fantasy.
Beyond that when I combine the essential grip of that peril with the literary aspect of his work, remembering that the whole piece is an extended metaphor for Youth? Then not only do I believe him, not only am I with him, but I thank God for what he has been able to acknowledge and articulate about this life. And suddenly there is no need to escape. Because nothing is more true: that kind of reactive terror, of fumbling futility in the face of circumstance, that hopelessness and unrest of sailors on a burning ship on the ocean is Youth.
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