literary pretenders

The blogosphere’s literary elite are up in arms because things are changing at the New York Times Book Review, and they don’t like it. The paper is talking about more non-fiction reviews, fewer reviews of novels, and a shift in focus.

Here’s what I don’t like: first, the leaning toward more non-fiction (they had too much to start with, in my humble opinion). Mostly I don’t like the way this discussion feeds into the frenzy over that old four letter word PLOT and the idea of serious fiction.

Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition has this entry for serious:

1. Not easy to do, achieve, or master: arduous, difficult, hard, laborious, tall,tough, uphill. See EASY. 2. Full of or marked by dignity and seriousness: earnest, grave, sedate, sober, solemn, somber, staid. See ATTITUDE, HEAVY. 3. Having great consequence or weight: earnest, grave, heavy, momentous,severe, weighty. See IMPORTANT. 4. Causing or marked by danger or pain, for example: dangerous, grave, grievous, severe. See HELP. 5. Marked by sober sincerity: businesslike, earnest, no-nonsense, sobersided. Idioms: in earnest. See HEAVY, WORK.

The wider debate has been framed something like this: “what’s happened to the relevance of the serious novel, and how can we restore it? Or can it be restored at all?”

So the distinction here seems to be between people who write fiction that is serious and those of us who opt for the easy. The question can also be put this way: why does Stephen King sell, and John Updike languish on the shelves? The answer is (and they don’t want to hear this): you can’t. People want a story; it’s a part of the way the human psyche works. Give them a great story and they’ll come, even if the novel is otherwise deficient.

There are a few litbloggers who do see some of the bigger issues here, ala The Literary Saloon. [correction follows; wrong attribution in original post] And there’s this lovely little bit (also from The Elegant Variation):

But the other, more serious issue for me is the insularity of the contemporary fiction landscape. I find too many novels that feel like MFA projects that are little more than auditions for teaching posts to grind out more MFA students. Now, this is my own personal bugbear, but if I read one more novel about an academic or a writer I’m going to blow my brains out. Are you all so bereft of invention that this is the best you can cobble up? These arch, self-indulgent self-portraits? My question to all of you is why do you think that any reader would care? What do you offer them to connect to? How are you speaking to them? And that, in my opinion, is why it’s easy for the NYTBR to cut you – and the rest of us, by association – off. You have no constituency, no one who will not only defend the need for your work but who will back it up with their pocketbooks.

I appreciate anybody who takes on the MFA elite (also known as the MaFiA). Because they are powerful, even if they aren’t very big. Is this sour grapes on my part? Good question.
I’ve been in both camps — the elite MFA and the PLOT crowd (this may be an overly simple way to draw the distinction, I admit); I gave up the first for the second. My first novel (written under my real name) won the PEN/Hemingway award, which is pretty much a “you’ve arrived, welcome” pass from the MFA crowd. But then I went off and concentrated on this series of big, plot driven historicals, and by doing that, distanced myself. I’m a good girl gone bad. Or at least, gone easy.

Bottom line: If the NYTBR wants to give up literary gatekeeping and widen the scope of fiction it reviews, I’m pleased. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

[title size=”2″]Comments[/title]

Your attributions are skewed. The large chunk you excerpt does not come Literary Saloon, it comes from my posting.

By the way, Updike hardly “languishes” on the shelves – though he certainly doesn’t approach King’s sales. Nor does an episode of Six Feet Under draw the same numbers as an episode of Fear Factor. But I suspect you’d concede there’s a difference between them. Or perhaps not.

Serious fiction in this context, by the way, is generally agreed to be fiction that’s a bit more challenging, makes you work a little harder, go a little deeper. King may be perfectly entertaining but I doubt you’d characterize him especially challenging.

Delighted, by the way, to have graduated to the “elite.” My mamma will be proud.

Posted by: TEV at January 29, 2004 11:30 AM

Thanks for bringing the mistake to my attention, I’ll fix it immediately.

Is this the equation: Updike=Six Feet Under; King=Fear Factor? In which case, I don’t agree, you’re right.

Finally, I have found that a discussion that starts “it is generally agreed” tends to chase its own tail. If you’d like to rephrase, I’d be happy to respond.

Say hey to your mama.

Posted by: rosina at January 29, 2004 11:42 AM

Fair enough – substitute “it is generally agreed to be” with “can best be defined as”.


Posted by: TEV at January 29, 2004 01:17 PM

“Serious fiction in this context, by the way, can best be defined as fiction that’s a bit more challenging, makes you work a little harder, go a little deeper. King may be perfectly entertaining but I doubt you’d characterize him especially challenging.”

Well see, the problem is that I don’t agree with your definition of serious fiction. You like challenging fiction. What does that mean? A teenager told me recently that The DaVinci Code is the best book ever because it made him interested in history, and made him reconsider some things he held to be true. Obviously that novel (which I disliked, intensely) worked for him as challenging, and it made him dig deeper. So for him it was successful and — you can’t avoid the word — serious.

Here’s my contention: a good novel will be thought provoking (but not necessarily challenging); it will also have a good story to tell. The average reader ranks Good Story above all else. Most of the literary elite continue to act as if story and plot are to be (at best) tolerated, and more usually, disdained.

Posted by: rosina at January 29, 2004 01:43 PM

By the way, these are exactly the kind of conversations I hoped my post would inspire, so I’m delighted at the back and forth.

You say much that I agree with, and I’ll get to that in a sec. But to use your example of the DaVinci Code, the book may have inspired interest in this kid’s case, but it’s still not serious fiction. It’s a yarn, a page turner, a good time. But it doesn’t really do much to illuminate The Human Condition (an overworked phrase but one I’ll use here). The effect of that title is secondary, and owes more to the reader’s own traits.

Where we do agree completely is in the notion of disdain of plot. I think (and I argue this elsewhere, at greater length) that what happened in fiction is comparable to what happened in the visual arts. The camera doomed realist painting and forced artists to explore other realms, abstraction, cubism, etc. I personally love the modern art movement and think that despite the abstract, there is still meaningful content there. It’s only when we get to postmodernism and contemporary art where it becomes (in my opinion) empty, ironic, self-referential and purely about form.

Form questions are interesting and I like seeing the form played with. But let’s face it, after Ulysses, the form of the novel was totally up for grabs. Creative people want to push the form, to see how much it can take, how far it can bend. One of the ways to do that is to subvert traditional ideas of narrative.

And I think that’s all fine and good and acceptable – as an intellectual exercise. But when it becomes the bread and butter or novel writing, intellectual exercises that don’t connect to anything recognizably human, that’s when you lose audiences. I think the most subversive thing you can do today is write a traditional novel.

BTW, the found DaVinci completely unreadable. Could not get past the first chapter.

And my mama sends her best.

Posted by: TEV at January 29, 2004 02:24 PM

“And I think that’s all fine and good and acceptable – as an intellectual exercise. But when it becomes the bread and butter or novel writing, intellectual exercises that don’t connect to anything recognizably human, that’s when you lose audiences. I think the most subversive thing you can do today is write a traditional novel.”

Very well put. A.S. Byatt (in her essays on writing) explores this theme quite fruitfully, I think. She’s also an author who (usually) manages to challenge form and still tell a cohesive story. I think of her Possession as a mixed-media novel.

But I’m still at odds with what seems to me a fairly narrow definition of what you’ve been calling serious fiction. I agree that The DaVinci Code is a poorly put-together novel, but it has caused a lot of discussion among readers, sometimes very deep discussion of complex themes, and in that way it fulfills one of your criteria. It fulfills one of my personal criteria in that there’s a plot that engages the reader (or at least, most readers; I was highly irritated by it).

Or to put that novel aside, what about something like King’s Pet Sematary, which does address a particular aspect of the Human Condition (to use that term again) and explores it in an unflinching way? I’m choosing a King novel here only because he’s a touchstone in these discussions generally.

My point is, the distinction between “a yarn, a page-turner, a good time” and “serious literature” is an artifical one that has more to do with dogma than a real examination of what makes fiction work. I would call most of Austen and Dickens page-turners, and certainly I have a good time when I’m reading them. They are also thematically rich, highly plotted and full of interesting characters. The no-pain-no-gain approach to reading strikes me as perverse, and truly unnecessary.

Posted by: rosina at January 29, 2004 05:58 PM

falling onto the floor

The Chronicle of Higher Education is a publication I don’t look at much these days, but in today’s online issue there’s an essay by Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage and many other novels, essays and articles). It’s called “A Boot Camp for Creative Writing.” (Note: I don’t know how long this link will work before the Chronical starts charging for looking at it, be forwarned.)

In this essay Johnson outlines his approach to teaching creative writing, both in theory and practice. It is rigorous, to say the least, and full of good thoughts and suggestions. Anybody who worked with him through this curriculum would certainly come out a better writer and thinker.

And still there are aspects to Johnson’s approach which bother me. First and foremost: his reverence for John Gardner and all of Gardner’s teachings. Johnson begins with this quote from his former teacher:

If our furniture was as poorly made as our fiction, we would always be falling onto the floor.
— John Gardner

I have, and appreciate, Gardner’s books on writing. By all accounts he was a fantastic teacher; I’m willing to believe that, but this particular quote doesn’t make that case. It’s a general condemnation, and those always set my teeth on edge. On the other hand, it’s true that Gardner’s exercises, which Johnson has adapted for use as part of his own curriculum, really are excellent.

I’m always uneasy — and, I have to admit it, suspicious — when there’s such an outpouring of unconditional love. There’s a lot of it out there for Gardner; poke one of the big names (Johnson is a case in point, but he’s in a crowd when it comes to Gardner adoration) and they’ll tell you to read Gardner. Maybe the Emperor really is wearing new clothes.

Another odd thing: Johnson lists his requirements for excellence in writing fiction:

“1) a story with logically plotted sequences; (2) three-dimensional characters — that is, real people with real problems; (3) sensuous description, or a complete world to which readers can imaginatively respond; (4) dialog with the authenticity of real speech; (5) a strong narrative voice; (6) rhythm, musicality, and control of the cadences in their fiction; and finally, (7) originality in theme and execution.”

I wouldn’t quibble with this list, but I am confused by his demand for authentic dialog and real conflicts, real people… to be followed up with the admonition that the serious writer should be reading the dictionary from A to Z .

“In class, I write a new word each day on the blackboard to see if students know it — ullage, gride, yirn, or kalokagathia — and give a “prize” (usually a copy of a literary journal) to the students whose fiction discussed that day exhibit the most delicious, perception-altering use of language.”

This link between stiltified language and deliciousness I find odd.

Mostly I am bothered by Johnson’s tenacious hold on the old-boy network; the works he cites (and this is not to say they might not be excellent, one and all) are homogeneous in a variety of ways. But it’s a thought-provoking essay, and worth reading — in my opinion.

on writing dialog


As most of us aren’t Tom Stoppard (in fact, I’d guess nobody reading this is Tom Stoppard, but do compare your face in the mirror to the picture to be absolutely sure), and as I get a lot of questions from people on the mechanics of writing in general and dialog in particular, I thought I could put up a few points. Not all at once, but now and then. These are from my teaching notes.

(If it turns out that you are Tom Stoppard, we’ll carry on without you. On the other hand, if you find this kind of thing interesting or of use, please let me know.)

Before beginning, a word to the wise in the form of an Italian proverb: Do not remove a fly from a friend’s forehead with an axe. (I ask you, who but an Italian would think it necessary to state this?)

So here goes.

1. Dialogue must never convey information alone. It must accomplish more than one thing at once to earn its keep. It may:
advance the action,
provide exposition
(introduce theme/characters),
provide setting,
convey information.

2. Conversely, a line of dialog shouldn’t do all those things at once because then it will probably slip over the line (or march proudly over the line, better said) into the realm called (so elegantly) info dumping. Here’s an example (it’s fun to make examples of info dumping; but then I’m easily amused).

“But Joan, you went to law school because you adore your mother who has a law degree from Yale and worked for two years in the Eisenhower administration as White House Council.”

That is, never convey backstory in dialog. Very tacky.