I’ve just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which I found a bit disappointing. My problem, I realised after a while, was that I was expecting literary fiction and it was actually genre fiction.
Which is a slightly difficult statement to justify. It’s not literally true – there is no genre the book neatly fits into. It’s about people doing magic, so I guess you could call it fantasy, but the real-world setting (Regency London) means it would be just as fair to call it magic realism, in terms of subject matter. It doesn’t have a happy ending. It has some rather literary quirks – the whole thing is presented as a C19th text, complete with footnotes.* Certainly none of the (glowing) reviews quoted on the cover suggest it is anything but literary – though they’re only excerpts, of course, and may say more about the publisher’s marketing strategy than anything else.
It’s quite difficult to put my finger on why it reads the way it does. Prose style? Characterisation? It’s not straightforwardly a quality issue – there are plenty of bad books that are clearly literary in intent, and JS&MN is competently enough written. It’s something to do with the approach to storytelling, perhaps.
I should have checked Amazon; not the reviews, which are full of idiots comparing the novel to Austen and Thackeray, but the bit where it says:
Customers who bought books by Susanna Clarke also bought books by these authors:
I might actually have enjoyed it more if I’d picked it up with different expectations – I do read plenty of non-literary fiction, including Pratchett and Rowling. Though I suspect JS&MN really needs to be cut down by a third, literary or not.
* I found the footnotes were pretty tedious, on the whole.