What is ‘good’ literature?

Salman Rushdie, the luminous sage of modern fiction, tells us:

‘What we mean by truth in literature is human truth: […] what is the meaning of our lives?  Once you accept that stories are     not [literally] true then you understand that a flying carpet and Madame Bovary are untrue in the same way, and as a result both of them are ways of arriving at the truth by the road of untruth’.

One of the great pleasures of reading fiction is that it allows readers to escape themselves: to fly on the wings of words to other worlds and times and minds.  The writers of fiction are at liberty to create anything.  One tends to find, however, that the established literary canon is not quite so adventurous as Rushdie.  When one looks at a “Top 100 Books” list, one can be fairly certain that most of the texts will be Realist: texts set in our familiar world, concerned with the lives of (somewhat) ordinary people.  The canon breathes recognisable life, with hardly a single flying carpet amongst them.  I can’t help but be disappointed by this.  It’s as if writers are refusing to play with all their toys.

The nameless faces who create canonical lists tend to scowl down their noses at the fantastic.  Rushdie, the beautiful genius, straddles the divide between an allegorical kind of magic in his novels, and the Realism we tend to expect.  But he is an exception to the rule which otherwise excludes.  Consider, for example, Mervyn Peake’s brilliantly dark, cerebral Gormenghast.  Gormenghast castle is locationless.  It is a psychological labyrinth: a prison of stasis for its inhabitants who are insane and wonderful and eccentrically human.  Though it is anything but, the tendency is to define such a piece of work – which is by normal standards unrealistic – as “fantasy”, and it is therefore, by association, thrown into the desert of bad fiction.  I would be the first to agree that most dry, ballsless, genre fiction needs to stay well ensconced in the desert, but it is entirely unreasonable to reject a piece of fiction by default.

This is not at all to say that Realism is a bad thing.  I am a canon-loving man.  But my point is that a long established tradition of “what it is that is good literature” can feel rather more exclusive than inclusive, and one tends to miss from the lists the likes of Peake.

Originality challenges traditions, be they traditions of genre, or of entire forms.  With defensive haste, new art forms like comics and video games tend to be rejected by the canonites for their inherent artlessness.  This is an unreasonable curse from the mouths of those who have not discovered Hideo Kojima, or Frank Miller, or Alan Moore.  (You might be aghast that I choose to describe video games as art, but ask yourself: why is film considered more artistically viable than video games or comics?  And now: with which did you grow up?).  This scoffing rejection is both a curse and blessing.  Newborn forms have to prove their worth.  In the meantime, though, they get to mature in their own side of the playground, and experiment with all the toys that the grownups are neglecting.

Art forms develop because brave artists play games with the rules of their own form.  Graphic novels are, first and foremost, visual, and this can be exploited in lots of really cool ways.  Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a really powerful narrative about the personal tragedy of the Holocaust.  It is cleverly metafictive: the artist Spiegelman is a character inside his own text, struggling with the very telling of the story (the Holocaust is a topic untouchable).  The text foregrounds the fact that this is a text being written, because the artist feels he has to excuse or explain the very writing of it.  There is a profound guilt because he was not himself involved, and so what right can he possibly have to tell this story?  This is a very important struggle, and one which needs to be seen.  One of the visual techniques of MAUS is to portray all Jews as anthropomorphised mice, the Nazis as – appropriately – cats, the Poles as pigs, etc.  This is a really clever way to distinguish between nationalities; a distinction so important at the time.  When the mice have to hide their mouseishness, they put on “pig” masks.  This is of course surreal, but it foregrounds the fact that, though as humans we all look the same, as animals, the characters’ national identities – the distinctions the Nazis care about – are untransmutable.  The surreal does not feel unreal: anything but.

I think it’s important to note that this would not work on film.  It is possible in Maus because graphic novels are able to avoid the jarring distinction we see in film between reality and computer generated imagery.  Every visual in a graphic novel is painted with the same brush.  In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for example, the Norse god Loki feels as much a part of the text’s real world as, say, the visual telling of an African tribal myth, or Satan in Hell.  The stories of witches and women are told alongside each other: one is as real as the next.  In this form, Gaiman is free therefore to realise a character like Morpheus, the King of Dreams, who has at his fingers all the imaginings of men.  Gaiman weaves a massive narrative that draws on the entire history of humanity.  Which other form could so naturally construct such an epic?

One of the very pleasing aspects of all the graphic novels I’ve read is that they are the sum of their smaller parts.  They are often printed first as serials.  Sandman, for example, was written over almost a decade.  Readers will have certain self-contained Sandman chapters seared into their brains, all the while admiring Gaiman for never letting slip his overarching structure, and ultimately pulling together a tangle of intertwining narrative threads into a terrific conclusion at the end of volume 10.  Alan Moore uses serial chapters to create terrific tension in Watchmen.  At the start of each, there is the repeated image of a clock which is counting down.  As the reader gets to chapter six or seven, they begin to notice that there is blood seeping from the top of the page towards the clock which ticks ever closer to… something big.  I can’t imagine how pleasurably unbearable it would have been to read Watchmen as it was first published, desperate with each chapter to continue the countdown.

The graphic novel has grown into a respectful literary form.  Moore’s texts are beautifully written, complex political dramas.  Gaiman is a master story teller, a modern epic writer.  Spiegelman’s Maus and Satrapi’s Persepolis are wonderful, and ever important.  There are of course many bad examples, too, but to disown an entire genre or form due to the lack of sophistication of some, is to blindly deny the quality of exciting and original art.  There are many roads to truth, and many toys to play with.  The idea is to allow originality to constantly redefine what it is that we call good.

By Jamie Redgate

(Originally published in Edition One, October 2012)}