Confused of Sussex

I cannot define ‘literary fiction’ but I know it when I read it.

I love ghost stories ( as anyone who reads my Wedding Ghost blog will attest) . I read a lot of them and at the moment I am enjoying the Virago Book of Ghost Stories. It’s fascinating to read women writers that I might not have expected having a go at the genre: how about Stella Gibbons with a strange Cornish story ‘The Roaring Tower’ and Mrs Gaskell’s first person ‘The Old Nurse’s Tale’ ? Both disturbing and memorable in their own way, they have a strong forward momentum that draws the reader on.

A different sort is Edith Wharton’s ‘The Eyes’ . This story only makes sense at the end, and demonstrates a more subtle psychological approach than many others. Yet still there is an inherent drive for the reader to know more. There is a plot.

‘The Happy Autumn Fields’ by Elizabeth Bowen is another story in the collection. She is a much admired writer and this piece was full of beautiful language. It suggested this and implied  that and hinted at another thing. The point of view shifted between heaven knows how many people. It was all awfully clever, terribly literary – and it annoyed me no end. It annoyed me almost as much as Henry James’ ‘What Maisie Knew’ ( one of the very few books I have actually flung across the room).

For me this sort of writing has a shifting sense of implication – and if you don’t get it, if you don’t appreciate the the oh-so-subtle references and sub-texts; well, you’re ignorant. I will cheerfully admit that sort of tone has a similar effect on me as The Oxford Voice on D. H. Lawrence.

Yet part of me, the part that went to Wakefield Endowed High School for Girls and took ‘S’ Level English Literature and actually read ‘To The Lighthouse’, feels I ought to value it. I ought to find ‘literary fiction’ somehow better and I ought to aspire to writing such quality work.


That’s where I am truly puzzled. But my one consolation is that there is a far bigger audience for more populist fiction ( which one is encouraged to sneer at)  than there is for the clever stuff.

Spectrum by Chronon6.97 on Flickr

Where do you stand on this continuum? 

Summoning up the past

On Wednesday 7th December, I went to the opening of a Christmas Tree Festival at St John’s Chapel, Chichester in aid of Chestnut Tree House Children’s Hospice. The lights were switched on by Kate Mosse and the twinkling trees were a delight. But the thing that struck me most was the smell. I wasn’t the only one: a lady lost in thought murmured:

‘it takes me right back, that scent.’

Inspired by the event and with the help of a little mulled wine, I decorated our Christmas tree. Out came the wonky angel made by my middle son at playgroup, the toilet roll mini Christmas tree made by my youngest at nursery, and the dangly felt and bead caterpillar my eldest once sewed ( they are all in their twenties now). So many memories.

I put on Radio Four to keep me company – and caught one of their Weird Tales. It was, I thought, suitably spooky. It started me thinking about ghost stories and Christmas.There are fine literary  antecedents: M. R. James, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton – not to mention the oral tradition. What is the link?

At a simple level, the dark months make us hungry for brightness – and a light casts shadows. Could my Jewish or Hindu readers tell me if here is a similar need for the uncanny around the festivals of Hanukkah and Diwali?  Humans love the contrast of light and shade – few things better than being safe indoors while the storm is out there, or the wraiths.

But there is more. Ritual brings us closer to those who have gone.

I cannot attach the one remaining little bird with its spun glass tail without thinking of my Nanna. I feel that pinch to the nose, that puckering of my forehead which show sentiment has got the better of me. I see her fingers pinching the tiny clip. This physical resonance is much deeper than creepy stories to out-scare the ghoulies and ghaisties and long leggedy beasties.

Some call up benign spirits – I think happily of L.M.Boston’s Children of Green Knowe – but others fetch more furtive shades. Not all memories should be recalled. Nonetheless, I think that’s why love ghost stories at Christmas – they close up the gap between the living and the dead.