Thursday, February 17, 2011

Aliens vs Academia: A Look Into the Literary/Genre Debate, Part 3

Welcome back faithful readers! I apologize for taking such a long time to get this post up. I felt a little like last week's post seemed a little rushed. In all honesty, however, I think I may have taken on too broad of a subject to squeeze all the issues within a blog post for each side. I suppose that's the point of having an ongoing blog, though--so I can continuously comment on these subjects in more detail as the mood or relevance strikes me. Anyhoo,onto the next post!

So last week I commented on what genre writers need to learn from literary writers. It's now your turn to listen up, writers of the literary camp. Yes, you...the writer scanning the shelves for the latest Booker Prize winner while furiously cuddling your copy of Franzen's The Corrections!

Alright, finish your low-fat soy latte and then listen up!

I have a bone to pick with you, so before you start complaining about how unappreciated your works are by the public, I'd like you to consider the following advice from your genre cousins:

1. Remember that the characters are individual creatures, and the story is a story.

I know. You may want to address complex issues in prose. You may have read Nabokov, Hawthorne, and Voltaire and wanted to use your story to poetically and metaphorically capture the mind and inspire them to your cause. You may also frown on popular fiction and how superficial and cut and dry it is. Now let me tell you now that you need to get off your high horse and listen. What often happens when you write a novel on an issue without any experience in writing stories is that your story will not sound like a story, it will sound like a lecture. Also your characters will often act as nothing more than metaphors or mouthpieces for the issue--resulting in wooden characters with no life of their own.

Hell, you may as well just give them t-shirts.
Sure, it is possible to address complex issues while avoiding these problems, but first you must learn the basics of plotting and character development. I have two suggestions on learning how to do this: A. read popular or genre fiction and pay attention to what themes are being presented and how the author addresses them. And B. Read one of the classics and pay attention to how the author builds suspense, works the plot, and develops the characters rather than what his themes or metaphors are.

2. For a story to be a story, something must happen.

This is one of the biggest complaints I have about the literary crowd. The assumption many misinformed literary writers have is the story does not need a plot as long as its well written--the "slice of life" so to speak.  The reasoning behind this is that a good writer does not need to resort to explosions and other tropes to write well and keep a reader's interest. This idea is a load of bollocks. When you tell someone about your average, run of the mill day, how long does it take for their eyes to glaze over? When you talk about putting together a spreadsheet for work, do you describe it in poetic and metaphoric detail? Try doing it. How long did it take for their eyes to glaze over?

Bored now!
Now try mentioning something like your co-worker left a note on your desk saying "lunch, 12 sharp, don't be late" on it, did not show up for an hour, and when you returned, your building was reduced to a smoldering pile of ash. Are the eyes glazing over now? Probably not, and the same works for fiction. For a novel to be a story, it needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This does not need to be in a linear timeline, but it still needs to be a moving journey whether the journey be in a character's mindset, or in a fight to save the world. A plot-less story reads like a giant beginning, and often leaves the reader unsatisfied as if they were shown a giant menu of food, were allowed to smell them, were told what was in every single one, and then handed them the check without tasting, eating, or even watching them being made.

Mmm...tasty food pictures!
 You may have created an interesting, complex character, but would you really want to read 400 pages about him being bored with his life and doing nothing about it? What you must ask yourself is: what is it about this particular day of his sets it apart from all the rest of them? Why should the reader commit to reading 400 pages when he could read the first and last page and not tell if anything in the story has changed?

3. Language should not be a stumbling block.

I know, you may want to craft beautiful language and metaphor to bring out the themes of the book. You may want the reader to carefully read the text and force them to think. However the average reader is going to read that particular sentence three times and get frustrated that it's keeping him from continuing the story, and more than likely put down the book in favor of someone who actually makes sense. Remember that writing is a form of communication and language is a carrier rather than the content. If the reader cannot understand the basic meaning of a certain sentence, it's not the reader's fault, it's yours for not communicating effectively.

Nope! Still don't get it!

The biggest tip I have for this problem is for you to be subtle and relevant in your writing. Make sure the sentences make sense when reading them! If it takes five times of reading to understand that your character scraped their knee on the pavement, it's time to simplify! The best hidden meaning is the kind that sneaks up on you rather than the kind that sets up a roadblock and expects you to figure it out before you can continue.

4. The reader is your friend.

This is the literary writer's biggest sin. I have seen complaints all over the board about how people need to raise themselves to a higher standard of reading so literary novels will sell better and not die out. This is stupid. What many writers often forget is that fiction is a part of the entertainment industry. Just like an actor wouldn't expect people to buy tickets to see their films for the "good of the industry", you shouldn't expect people to buy and read your books because it's "good for literature". Another complaint is that readers should be reading "what's good for them".

Nothing like a good, heaping dose of literary castor oil!

Let me ask you this: Would you rather have someone start reading your book because they have to, or because they want to? A successful story establishes a solid relationship between the teller and the reader. You can't expect readers to obligate themselves into enjoying something that's good for them, but not enjoyable. However, you can still give them the entertainment they want without sacrificing the nature of your story and pandering down your skill. Whether you need to make your characters more identifiable, or you need to add more suspense--you need to make the read worth reading to your readers (try saying that 3x fast!). When the reader opens your book, they are trusting you to make the experience worth their while. If you can't offer them something that will draw them in and keep them interested, then you are betraying their trust. An ending doesn't always need to be happy, but it still needs to be fulfilling. A character doesn't have to be a goody-goody as long as he can incite interest or sympathy in the person reading about him. You don't have to write like everybody else out there, but you need to give the reader a reason to care otherwise you are wasting your and their time as your beautifully written book rots on the shelves of English professors or used bookstores.

Don't let this happen to your novel!

5. The literary genre is also a genre.

That's right. I hate to be harsh, but the literary genre still follows its own conventions. I blame this a bit on the literarti trying to impress each other so much, that they often imitate the critically-acclaimed authors to death. That aside, don't fall into the trap of thinking that the literary way of writing is the only good way of writing. A good, effectively told and well written story is what it is whether or not it has a dragon, a murder, or a mid-life crisis in it. Write in a genre if you enjoy writing in that genre, not to satisfy the critics in the New York Times!

 So yeah, I think I've spent far too much time on writing this post. However I hope that what may be gleaned from all this is that everyone stands room for improvement, and that it is the writer who is responsible for the success of his or her work. Students of writing should be open to improvement, and instructors of writing should be open to what their writers desire to accomplish with their works. Hopefully with time, the literary and genre debate will no longer be a debate, but rather just a part of the discussion on the craft we love so much.

Until then, here are some great resources on the debate:
Kay Dacus's blog post "Literary vs. Pop Fic"
An archived discussion on the conventions of literary fiction
An excellent post on "The Literary Fiction/Thriller Divide" with the opinions of several published authors.
Donna Sirrani's post on "Literary Fiction and Writing Workshops"
Leah Raeder's post: "To Write Good Books, or To Write What You Love"

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