I suppose, in a sense, this post is a kind of manifesto or, more modestly, the beginnings of a statement of intent about where I see ReadySteadyBook heading over the next couple of years.

As many of you know, I wear two hats: I'm editor here at ReadySteadyBook and I'm also, in my day-job, lucky enough to edit The Book Depository (TBD) website. As editor of TBD my role is to make sure that the frontlist titles that I choose to review and feature on TBD's pages, and the authors and publishers I interview, reflect in some modest way the astonishing range of books that TBD customers buy every day. The breadth of their purchases is amazing; I want TBD's homepage to be, in a small way, similarly catholic.

Here on RSB I have a different role. Certainly, it is one that I'm making up as I go along. I started RSB thinking of the site as an online literary journal that would reflect many opinions, air many voices, and I still think that that aspect of the site is important and needs growing (if you want to contribute, email me), but principally RSB is -- like it or loathe it -- me and my musings. My thinking about literature and books over the last three or four years has developed and, I hope, deepened. RSB facilitates that ongoing learning by forcing me to attempt to articulate what it is I think I feel about literature, and engaging with others in the blogosphere about those ideas.

When I talk to folk, especially publishers, about what kinds of books I like to feature on RSB, I often reach for the phrase Literary Fiction ... and then I quickly backtrack. Literary Fiction is one of the genres of fiction that I'm happy to feature on TBD's homepage, alongside a host of other types of books. And Literary Fiction is, undoubtedly, the genre that many of the books that have been reviewed on RSB in the past have belonged to. But, editorially -- and by that I mean, via the blog, and from my heart -- I'd actually like RSB to be seen as being anti-Literary Fiction. Indeed, what I've taken to calling Establishment Literary Fiction is, to me, the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential.

Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre. Proust's In Search of Lost Time isn't literary fiction, but a novel that destroys the idea of the novel in its very realisation. Beckett's famous lines from Worstward Ho -- Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -- are in themselves a manifesto for writers and writing. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.

Simon Critchley writes (in Infinitely Demanding): "When I pull myself out of the slumber of my inauthentic existence and learn to approve the demand of conscience, which for Heidegger is the demand of my finitude confronted in being-towards-death, then I become authentic, I become who I really am." This "I" -- as Simon recognises -- is conflicted, multiple, but it is the demand of which he writes -- of ethics, of art -- in the face of finitude, of silence, that I'm interested in here. This demand, taken up by art, by literature, is infinite. Literature can approach, help negotiate, begin to articulate, that demand; Literary Fiction withers in the face of it, never having heard its call, deaf to it.

Readers Comments

  1. Mark, what a remarkable and eloquent statement about what is considered "literary fiction" and why it isn't! And this is manifesto I would sign up on, in 100% in agreement.

    I think also Faulkner made a similar remark as Becket when he called most of his work, especially the true literary "Sound and the Fury" a "magnificient failure".

  2. Hello Mark,

    For what it's worth I concur with you too.

  3. Antoine Wilson Sunday 22 April 2007

    Establishment Literary Fiction is just the term I've been looking for, thanks.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Hope you're well. I must say I agree with this completely. Establishment Literary Fiction is a perfect term, and while I've read and enjoyed a fair bit of it, to pretend it's anything more than another genre is silly.

  5. I'd agree, but by not naming names, not defining ELF, you leave every reader believing you share the same ideas.

    Name names Mark. Define ELF.

  6. Sam, the above is an attempt at definition. A faltering one certainly, but an attempt nonetheless. It is something I'll keep coming back to. Hopefully, future attempts will convince you more.

    Actually, I'm writing a longer piece now -- to appear in the Guardian in the not-too-distant ... It will appear on RSB too, of course.

    If you want me to name names, I'd say Ian McEwan is the quintessential writer of ELF. Most Booker winners would do it to. But I'll say more anon. Let me get back to this piece I'm writing!

  7. Mark

    Still keeping an eye out for this piece. Any news?

    Meanwhile thank you for the Infinitely Demanding reference, an inspiring book.

    P.S. Did RSB ever discover a transcript for Gabriel Josipovici's speech at Commonwealth Institute?

  8. Apogs: I think I meant to ask about the essay on which it was founded.

  9. Hi Sam,

    Do you mean Gabriel's piece on Modernism? It is in TLS 5461 actually -- last week's edition.

    My piece on ELF is still being written. It is growing!


  10. Paul A. Toth Monday 01 June 2009

    At least McEwan actually writes about something. I'd say the quintessential ELF writer needs no name; the subjects are enough: the couple plagued by the death of a child; the philandering professor; the divorcee "finding herself" in Maine. I find these topics described on the flaps of so many new releases that I can hardly stand to visit the section. But if you must have a name: Updike.

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