One hundred years and part of a century ago, someone from the psycho-sexual school of thought–Freud, probably; he had issues–stated that after escaping from his mother’s birth canal a man spends the rest of his life wanting to crawl back inside it. Quite how he came up with this idea is a story sadly lost to time–though I have my suspicions. These shifty types, who in another age would at least have the decency to wear dirty macs distinguishing them from more regularly single, aging gentlemen, were a self-congratulatory kind of people. They conglomerated at psychology seminars smoking cigars and quailing at the sight of anything resembling a mammary teat whilst resolutely denying their theories to which they attribute the fears and desires of the world’s entire population in any way resemble their own sexual hang-ups. In a former life they might well have been the kind of prep school prefects who’d corner some blubbery young prag in their studies, forcing him to strip to his nethers then tossing him off; all the while Piggy’s squealing and Sigmund’s friends are laughing as he calls the poor boy a queer.
At those meetings–all tweed jackets and proto-Nazi half-moon spectacles–Sigmund’s friends–who sometimes remember Piggy’s shrivelled cock during arousing night terrors–clap the man on the back after he reveals to them his new theory concerning the inner workings of the human mind. “It’s zimple,” he says, shrugging off their commendation with false modesty. “It’s like Oedipus, ja?” And to his peers he never reveals that the idea came to him while he was at a play park, watching small children trying to climb back up a slippery side while getting distinctly hot under the collar.
Freud and company’s works are fanciful explanations of why we think the way we do. If they’d embraced global philosophy as opposed to studying their own bottom gas while frantically denying they’d dealt it, hey, I could get down with that. God knows I try to right the world’s wrongs often enough here, but at least I’m always willing to admit my opinions might just, you know, be my opinions alone–I don’t think Freud ever concluded a lecture about men wanting to fuck their mothers with “But hey, maybe zat’s just me.”
For all their–shall we say–unsettling focus, those psychologists had one thing absolutely correct: most of us are desperately unhappy with life, and spend our lives looking for new worlds in which to live.
For Freud, that was his mother’s womb–and I don’t deny there might be others like him who are forever seeking a relationship to replace the one they had or didn’t have with their parents. In lieu of friendly, sexual or romantic relationships other people buy cats–lots of cats, cats ‘til cats come out their ears, ‘til they look a bit and smell a lot like a cat and they name each of their pets after characters in Downton Abbey, the television programme cats would make if they could operate cameras with their paws.
But enough about cats, what about genre fiction?
It’s interesting that genre fiction is so popular despite being roundly looked down upon, and strange that it’s still considered niche despite it being so popular. I’m not really interested in so-called literary fiction, and while there are certain lines dividing the two–space vampires are a dead giveaway you’re not reading literary fiction–if someone hadn’t segregated the stuff that’s nominated for Hugo awards from stuff that wins Bookers, I wonder if anyone would have named literary fiction in such an aggrandising way in the first place.
Not being a literary fiction reader I’ve often wondered what defines fiction as literary–beside it being boring, I mean–and after a lot of thought I think I’ve found the answer.
Literary fiction is fiction that’s happy with the way the world is. It’s happy with it being happy, or sad, or angry, or violent and looks down on genre fiction because it spins new worlds for the readers, selling them escapism to read on the tube.
Though I don’t go out of my way to read literary fiction, like pop music I recognise it when I see it. The last book I read–Jeff Noon’s Needle In the Groove–had certain science fiction trappings, but for lengths of the book–and certainly for the first few chapters–it was literary, what I tend to think of as straight fiction. It was told in a very inventive way, constructed from sentence fragments that bordered on slam poetry, but these regular characters with their regular lives, living in their regular world–if it hadn’t been Noon at the controls, pissing with EQs and the cross-fader, I might have considered it/yer know/just a little bit/dull.
Genre fiction takes you places. Science fiction has an obvious destination, and so do horror fiction and westerns, and maybe even crime fiction. You are: a reformed criminal, down on his luck; a detective on the case; a disgraced beat policeman looking for vengeance. Whether it’s some dame’s noirish cigarette smoke or a thick period fog and who’s that shadow lurking in the pea soup with eyes and blade glinting by gaslight you’re elsewhere, bringing down organised crime or pushing Ronnie the Squealer into the bay, concrete flippers, say hi to the harbour crabs, Ronnie.
Emotional states can be a place, too. Thrillers and romances edge ever closer to literature’s dull heart, but former CIA operative Lance Slate is too busy fiddling with exhaustively described machine guns and evading the global conspiracy snapping at his heels to notice; meanwhile Eleanor DeVois is swept into the muscular arms of rugged Chet Manliman, on a whirlwind affair where nipples are always like bullets and blouse buttons never stay sewn on for long.
Spiral further inward: what about law thrillers, where villainy forces mistrials and plucky barristers seek to out the truth? What about chick lit: what if Eleanor DeVois was, in fact, Ellie Granger, dimpled of thigh and faintly varicose of breast, who’s less likely to bathe in champagne than neck the bottle with Tesco’s stripy orange juice, and who lifelong lusts are Married Boss and Can’t-Walk-In-But-Must-Have-Shoes?
And we read these books not to experience the hardships of the world in which we live–because hey, we already live here; we know how bad things can get–but to spend time in the company of characters a little brighter, in worlds a little more beautiful than our own.
Those who don’t read have their own escape to another world in the form of television, where just about anything can be passed off as entertainment so long as it has celebrities attached to it. Have you noticed the dearth of human interest on television? In the past decade regular Joes in regular jobs, with regular families just like ours have gone the way of the dodo. In place of the mirrors television once held up to our lives–not quite literary fiction, but close enough for jazz–we have televisual trompe l’oeil that paint life by turn as both fantasy and freak show. Care in the community’s having problems? Send the Hairy Bikers to fix it. The youth centre’s closing down? Looks like a case for The Secret Millionaire. People who aren’t celebrities or business tycoons do get a look in from time to time, but when they do it’s usually because they’re an oddity, because they share their liver with a congenital twin or because they’re the size and weight of a minibus. It’s bad enough so many TV shows these days are conceived title first: you could tell me the creators of the show Seven Dwarfs didn’t start with that title, then look for a concept to fit it, but I’d call you a filthy liar if you did.
I’m sure many of today’s human interest programmes started life in a similar fashion. If you name a show The Man Who Looked Like a Tree before looking for people with extreme skin conditions of course it’s going to come out dehumanising, a modern day Barnum & Bailey designed to make viewers forget their own humdrum existence for an hour.
Whether making you feel satisfied with the life you already have or making you pine for something better, our lives are filled with windows upon other worlds. Perhaps the greatest window of all is the concept of an afterlife: that there is, in fact, another world we’ll visit once we’re dead. As fantasies go, Hell and Heaven fulfill similar roles to shock documentaries and Jilly Cooper novels, helping us deal with our lot in life and giving us something to look forward to once we’re done with it.
“The grass is always greener on the other side.” That’s something Freud never said; in fact the aphorism didn’t come into use until well after he’d popped his clogs–crying for his mummy, no doubt–but the sentiment behind it is something that’s plagued us throughout the ages, as far back as Cain killing Abel because his brother could grow a better moustache than him. Just think, Cain must have thought, what my life would be like if I had a moustache like that. Unable to lose himself in this better, moustachioed world Cain did slay his brother, and trimmed from him the hairs that stood on his upper lip, and with Pritt Stick did his fix them to his own upper lip and proclaim himself to be The Man.
Just think how differently history might have turned out if only Cain could have watched Magnum, P.I. and indulged his fantasy of owning a bushy lip wig there instead. Much as I love space vampires, without envy and a preponderance for daydreams I’m sure the world we live in would be a very different place.
But hey, maybe that’s just me.