Well, I drafted an astonishingly perceptive and witty blog entry at home last night, which would have thrilled and amazed everyone as well as instantly doubling my on-site traffic, but I’ve left it on my hard drive at home, so instead of that I’m just going to blast slightly randomly about Cervantes and stasis.
There’s a great moment about halfway through ‘Don Quixote’ where Cervantes takes on other writers who’ve been writing their own knock-off Don Quixote stories. He blasts their legitimacy in no uncertain terms, pointing out that he and he only is the writer of the real Don Quixote.
In modern terms, he’s pointing out that Don Quixote isn’t open source – and for me, that’s a key point in the definition of what the modern literary novelist is. Literary novelists don’t write open source material; they create self contained worlds that exist purely to support the narrative / thematic points that their novels are making. Their books, like Cervantes’, are entirely personal and entirely self-contained.
But – as pointed out yesterday – substantial portions of genre writing are very comfortable with open source worlds and characters. And there’s an interesting structural point to be made off the back of that.
That kind of world relies on characters with relatively static, clearly defined characteristics being thrown into a variety of different plot situations. The interest doesn’t come from watching the characters develop and change – rather, it comes from seeing their familiar strengths and weaknesses tested in new situations.
Hence in part literary critics’ often rabid criticism of genre writing. This kind of stasis is antithetic to one of literary fiction’s core concerns; the tracing of emotional change through a clearly defined, highly significant segment of a character’s life. A set of fictional structures which make a virtue of stasis, such an opposed value, can only seem deeply problematic to a literary writer.
So perhaps that’s one way of understanding the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? In literary fiction, change is internalised, understood as tectonic shifts in character emotional definition. In genre fiction, change is often externalised, understood to be a new environment or other challenge for a clearly defined set of characters to explore.
And how does that relate back to Cervantes? He wasn’t happy to see his characters, his fictional world, changed by other people. But genre writers who create open source characters and worlds know that – in their essentials – their creations won’t change. Rather, new writers will introduce new situations to challenge them and excite readers. They’re not taking control from the original writer; rather, they’re testing his creation in new ways, which is a very different thing indeed.