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Nath Jones Guest Post

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 saw somewhere else that the focus of literary work is on our suffering.

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?

 It’s because we must be acknowledged in real ways. Where escapist genres offer a quick fix to erase the irritations of a given day, literary fiction offers lasting ways to quell a mind and heart in upheaval, soothing both by saying simply: yes, I know.

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.

 If I have made it through an entire day of navigating the niceties, pleasantries, and conventionalities of life in this world, I’m sorry but I do not want Clarke’s:

“Newlyweds!” sang out a woman’s voice. Mrs. Nelson, the coach’s wife, appeared. ‘Only newlyweds hug in the grocery store.

 It’s what many people relish. But for me, it’s not enough. It is more avoidance and exhaustion, another fake façade. I don’t adhere to it, nothing grips me at my core. I want Conrad, slowly recounting the story of one coal ship on fire. I want everything about the moment when his protagonist is in the damnation of uncertainty:

 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.

 But I do believe Conrad. Because I need to be acknowledged in the way he acknowledges my internal existence. First, and simply as a human being, I relate to the instinctive skittishness that the sailors must feel, running back and forth on a deck that could be ablaze in a moment on an ocean that will of course consume them if something does not change—if they do nothing. That is the plot, the genre aspect of his story and I am with him every instant in that physical fear. It is better than any genre writing in that regard. Because what can they do? The entire hull is filled with coal. It is not a fire that can be put out.

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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