The first thing that I read today morning, (even before I’d brushed), was Neil Gaiman’s delightful article on fairy tales in The Guardian. A wonderful beginning to a new day. And the question that it raised in my mind was –
Why do people find it so difficult to understand and accept that stories can be of different kinds?
There is, of course, what one calls the main-stream literature. It is often realistic many times starkly so and is meant to depict ‘reality’ in its various forms, sensitizing the readers to the problems of the contemporary society. These are the stories that critics often appreciate and these are therefore the stories that go on to win awards and honors. But if there ever was a duller race of people on this earth they would not have surpassed literary critics in their insipidness. If it were to me, I’d take all these socio-realistic novels (and most of them are quite thick and fat) and use them as bricks to build my house. Now that’s a good combination of literature and civil engineering!
Next comes the novel that is now called magic-realism. This one I like. I absolutely love Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude. As to why I like magic-realism, I have no idea. Perhaps I like it because it reeks of fantasy and I adore fantasy. But more than that, there is certain claustrophobia in magic realism that I like. Sorry, there is no better way to explain.
There are potboilers that get written by the dozen to entertain the masses. I have nothing against them but that they are mind-numbingly monotonous and repetitive.
Then there is genre fiction that is deliberately written to conform to a particular genre. Detective fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Gothic, Western, and others. I think genres are a very useful tool. Take SF for example. SF as a genre has established a particular vocabulary over the years. So when I now write an SF story I don’t have to go on explaining that my robot is perhaps an emotionless being. I can take for granted that the reader understands what it means and then go on to explore the aspects of this ‘emotionslessness’ that I wanted to explore. Saves me a lot of work as a writer!
There is politically inspired fiction where the writer has a very clear political agenda. Thus we have African American literature in the US and Dalit literature in India. We have feminist, communist and anarchist literature too. We might have some right-wing literature somewhere but I’ve never seen any.
We do have all of this and that is all well and good but as Neil points out we also have fairytales. And there is nothing better than his own words to describe what fairytales are.
Shortly after it was published, I wound up defending [Stardust] to a journalist who had loved my previous novel, Neverwhere, particularly its social allegories. He had turned Stardust upside down and shaken it, looking for social allegories, and found absolutely nothing of any good purpose.
"What's it for?" he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.
"It's a fairytale," I told him. "It's like an ice cream. It's to make you feel happy when you finish it."
So – there are stories and there are stories and some of them are just ice cream … Why was it so difficult for this journalist to understand?