‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke

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:
J.K. Rowling
Terry Pratchett
Jonathan Stroud
Jasper Fforde

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.

3 Comments

  1. 2 December 2005 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Harry – you’re using terms like literary fiction vs genre fiction. Can you educate me on what you mean by this? What is “literary fiction”?

    I’ve always been confused by the term. I know what horror is: a novel that sets out to scare you, possibly involving vampires. Sci-Fi (speculative fiction) and fantasy (speculative fiction with magic and dragons) are similarly understandable to me. Historical romances, historical fiction, chick-lit: I think I know enough to avoid many of these. But what is “literary fiction”?

    Googling’s thrown up some interesting thoughts about how to categorise novels:
    – reality-based vs speculative
    – character driven vs plot driven
    – stylised vs conversational vs objective prose
    – sequenced vs disjointed time
    – consistent vs inconsistent point of view
    – philosophical vs plain

    But do any of these contribute to defining literary fiction? Or am I left with a core canon of books defined as “literary” against which all other books can be compared to see if they can be included or excluded?

    I should be working, but the question keeps on distracting me …

  2. Harry
    2 December 2005 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Fair question.

    I think it’s really a publisher’s term, and so as much to do with marketing as anything else. On the other hand, the post above makes it clear that I think of it as a real distinction, even if I can’t put my finger on what it is. In a way, the simplest definition of ‘literary fiction’ is ‘the kind of books that might win the Booker prize’, although all that tells you is that, like me, the Booker judges think they know it when they see it.

    I suppose in all the arts there’s a tendency to draw a line between the commercial side – produced as a commodity – and the ‘art’ side which is what – more ambiguous? more ambitious? more complex? less popular? less approachable?

    Actually, no, scrap that, the ‘commodity’ idea creates more confusion than it resolves.

    I don’t know, really. But I’ve read a lot of sci-fi, fantasy and romance over the years, and there seems to me to be a similarity in the way they’re written that makes the ‘genre fiction’ label make sense, and makes me want to extend it to a book like JS&MN which isn’t actually in a genre. And, conversely, it seems misleading to call Jane Austen a ‘romance novelist’ even though the plots of her novels fit the genre exactly.

  3. 2 December 2005 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Okay. Here’s an idea.

    We identify some key, subjectively quantifiable issues and give them ranges on which we can plot a novel’s attributes. Then we take a selection of novels – chosen because they represent specific genres – and plot them. These can be used to determine the boundaries between genres (there can be overlaps across boundaries to keep things interesting). We then take a random selection of novels and validate our boundaries and classifications.

    For starters, I’d be tempted to include measures for:
    – reading age of the text
    – plot development (from none to strong)
    – philosophical depth (have fun defining this one)
    – speculativeness

    Course, I’m not offering to do this work: I’ve got paid work to be getting on with …

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