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Graham Greene's short story "The Destructors" does not fit into the genre of commercial fiction, or fiction written for profit, in part because of its absurdist language and theme. Absurdism involves the philosophy that life is without meaning and that the human effort to make meaning is useless, and absurdist literature is not generally commercial. The author sets the absurdist tone early in the story by referring to the gang's meeting at "the site of the last bomb of the first blitz." This type of wording, while referring to a serious historical event, casts that event in an absurdist light. The idea later in the same paragraph that the leader of the gang, Blackie, could not possibly have remembered the blast during the Blitz, as he claims (he was one at the time), is also absurdist. The way in which Mr. Thomas subjects himself to going to the outdoor loo is also absurdist, as he is just too cheap to rebuild the bombed-out bathroom in his house.
The theme of the story is similarly absurdist. The theme is expressed in the line "destruction after all is a form of creation." The members of the Wormsley Common gang claim that they are building something by destroying Mr. Thomas's house, and this is absurdist in message because it negates the idea that human life really has meaning.
The term "commercial fiction" references the fact that it is fiction created for a consumerist purpose. These are works created specifically to sell. This trumps all literary value, and as a result, these writings tend to be escapist entertainment. They often follow genre conventions and end tidily with nothing much left for the reader to consider. They are meant to be disposable.
"The Destructors", on the other hand, is a work that defies any sort of genre convention. Ostensibly, like a lot of Greene's work, it is tinged with a hint of the thriller. However, it lacks suspense because we follow the perpetrators from the beginning. There is no mystery here. The boys are not punished for their actions, and Mr. Thomas never gets retribution for their crimes.
By defying conventions, "The Destructors" does not allow the reader the safe escapism of commercial fiction. The reader is instead forced to confront the dark side of humanity. People commit awful acts. Evil is as prosaic as a group of schoolboys mindlessly destroying an elderly man's house. This lack of clear cut morality and conclusion opens "The Destructors" up for further analysis and discussion. This is therefore not a disposable work. It is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1954.
"The Destructors" has several key features that make it literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction. While Graham Greene's use of challenging language and the disturbing content of the story are the most obvious evidence of the story's genre, the message must also be taken into account.
The vast majority of stories classified as commercial literature have an uplifting message or perhaps forgo having a message in favor of entertainment value. Literary fiction, however, usually has a more complex and realistic point to make. This is very much the case with "The Destructors," as the story grapples with the idea of destruction as a form of creation.
Commercial fiction may use uncommon words and phrasing, have disturbing content, or even have a complex and cerebral message. However, it will almost never feature all three of these aspects. It is relatively easy to tell commercial fiction from literary fiction when one takes this into account.
In Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, author Laurence Perrine distinguishes commercial fiction from literary fiction by dividing the literature we read into two distinct categories: escape literature and interpretation literature.
Escape literature is specifically designed to help the reader escape the stress of daily life by providing a light (though not without substance) read. Its purpose is, primarily, to entertain. Much commercial fiction falls under this category; it becomes popular because people crave escape and like to be entertained.
Interpretation literature is designed to give the reader the opportunity to analyze, search, and learn. It provides insight into the human condition and, while it may be entertaining as well, the overarching goal of interpretation literature is to teach the reader something. Graham Greene's "The Destructors" falls into interpretation literature because of the use of characters (particularly T.), setting (a war-torn London), and symbolism (the house of Mr. Thomas that is ultimately destroyed) to teach the reader certain life lessons and allow the reader to interpret the human condition in a new way.
When looking at any story or novel, asking the question of "is this work mean to be escape literature or interpretation literature" can be a first step in determining how the work falls inside or outside the commercial literature category.
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