Friday, January 27, 2012

What the *%$#^! is "literary fiction"?

Come on.  You can't tell me I'm the only one who's fed up with this bizarre little term, which, to be honest, I never even encountered until I started going to writing conferences and reading writing blogs and following writer's chat groups.  Isn't it a little redundant?  According to my big fat Webster's Dictionary, "literary" means bookish or related to learning or books or literature.  Um - isn't that inherent in the term "fiction"???  When did we decide to use this to describe a special subset of fiction?

If Google, the 21st century's lazy woman's research tool, is right, the term started being used in the '60's some time.  Figures.  (Oops!  Did I say that out loud?).  But I'd swear the widespread use among agents and editors is a later development.  At any rate, I'm really developing a dislike for it.  At times it seems to imply that "other" fiction (sometimes called "genre fiction" or "popular fiction" or "commercial fiction") is  NOT literary - that it's for simpletons, that it's less educated or complex or nuanced.  On the other hand, sometimes "literary fiction" is code for "stuff that won't sell" or "dull and plotless".

There's no lack of efforts to explain and define this term.  Nathan Bransford has a nice, succinct one on his blog:  "In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface."  He also makes a decent case for the concept, and puts up a good defense of what quality literary fiction ought to be.  Still, I can't help feeling like this term can cause nothing but trouble, heartache and bad writing.

The best of "literary fiction" pays intense attention to detail, and finds breathtakingly perfect ways to describe small nuanced moments while tracing the arc of a character's internal journey.  The best of "commercial fiction" pulls you along with strong plot elements and pacing.  My question is, shouldn't the best of ANY fiction have all of the above?  Achingly spot-on description, meaty nuanced character development, layered thematic arcs, gripping plot, strong pacing.  I want it all!

I guess that's why I don't get the whole need for a term like "literary fiction."  It just rubs me the wrong way.  It makes my shrill, opinionated, loudmouthed self absolutely insist on coming out to play.  Thanks for putting up with her.  I shall now return to my more level-headed, conciliatory persona, who will dutifully look at all sides and recognize the value of a variety of perspectives.  Let the comments commence!  

(Today's blogpost is brought to you by an evening of reading literary fiction magazines while drinking coffee at Portland's Press Club eatery.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Playing with Point of View

As you know, I've been rereading WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  It's gotten me thinking again about point of view.  Bronte tells her story through so many layers of different POV characters that it's sometimes hard to remember who's narrating.  First, there's the outsider who's come to live at Thrushcross Grange.  Then, there's the housekeeper, who bore witness to so much of the story as it unfolded.  Then, there's the characters who related events to the housekeeper when the housekeeper wasn't actually present.  All these POV shifts aren't straightforward shifts.  They're layers through which we view the story.  It's the outsider telling us what Nelly the housekeeper told him about what Zilla and young Catherine and Isabella told her.  Whew!

I'd completely forgotten this element of Bronte's novel.  And now I can't help asking "Why?"  Why all the layers?  Why all the distance?  It seems like such a convoluted approach to the story.  Is it a flaw, or a masterful and intentional device?  At a minimum, I feel compelled to identify the effect that this approach has on me, the reader.  Because, when you're reading as a writer, that's the trick, isn't it?  Not "Do I like this technique?" but "What effect does this technique have on the reader?  How and when could I use it in my own writing to best advantage?"

In Bronte's work, maybe her choice of layered viewpoints relates to the unadorned, unimpeded level of viciousness and cruelty she's laying before us.  All that viewpoint distance functions as a kind of protection, allowing us to look into the dark abyss without risk of falling in.  A large part of an author's choice in point of view relates to the balance of risk and safety for your reader.  How close can you take them without scaring them off completely?  How far back must you stand in order to keep them from running away?  How safe do you want them to feel?  The answers vary from genre to genre, story to story, writer to writer.

One of my favorite books to reference as a point of view example is THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG.  There are 3 different points of view, each with a different level of distance.  The least sympathetic character actually has the most immediate point of view and gets the longest stretch to tell her side of the story at the outset.  The most sympathetic character, in my mind, has the most distant point of view and the least page time to tell his side.  In this case, distance seems to function in direct reverse proportion to sympathy, in an effort ultimately to present a fully balanced, three-fold version of events, leaving the reader to judge.

Back to WUTHERING HEIGHTS, then.  If the closer you are, the more an unlikeable or sympathetic character might gain your sympathy, then Bronte clearly wants as little sympathy for Heathcliff, and any of the characters directly involved in her tale, as possible.  She seems to be demanding our harshest judgment.  And she wants that judgment to extend to every layer of the narrative, except, perhaps, the outsider.  Yet over the years, we've developed this rose-colored view of Heathcliff as tortured romantic hero.

Maybe Bronte feared exactly that.  She desperately wanted to prevent us from falling in love with him.  She wanted to present a fully unvarnished vision of him.  Maybe he was drawn from someone in her own life who pulled her into his whirlpool so completely that the act of writing about him honestly could only happen through the safely removed distance provided by those layered viewpoints.  Sometimes we writers have to do that when we're writing about something raw and close to the bone.

Point of view is a powerful tool for writers, and a critical decision.  You can go straightforward, or you can play around.  Multiple viewpoints.  Varied levels of distance.  Unreliable narrators.  Yes, it takes skill to pull off the more experimental approaches, but for the right story, it can have amazing results.  Have you ever experimented with point of view?  What did you discover?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Can You Wrestle With Your Critique Group?

I think I have one of the world's greatest critique partners.  She is reliable and she is relentless.  We've been part of the same weekly writing group for several years now.  The members have changed, but the two of us have stayed consistent and kept it going.  We have really different, complementary styles.  But the best thing about her is that I can argue and wrestle with her and she laughs and forgives me.

Now, I realize I shouldn't abuse this privilege.  I have no patience for people who can't handle feedback.  Why be in a critique group if you're not willing to be critiqued?  However, I've discovered something about myself.  I learn by wrestling through things.  I learn by arguing, discussing, disagreeing.

I don't get biblical on this blog too often, but I'm about to do it now.  You've been fairly warned.  There's a passage in the Bible where Jacob wrestles with an angel.  It's where the name Israel comes from and it means "he who wrestles with God."  I LOVE this story, because it absolutely contradicts the notion of blind obedience.  In fact, Jacob goes at it with the Lord Almighty, wins the match, and gets a blessing for it.    

My teacher self has another example.  The latest brain research shows that you build more neural connections from working on a difficult problem, whether you get the right answer or not, than from solving a problem you already know.  In fact, kids who struggled and wrestled and were taught the value of that PROCESS actually did better on post-assessments than students who were simply told how smart they were.  I have a feeling I'm not doing this particular bit of info justice, but the summary is - when you struggle to understand something, your brain grows.

So, back to my critique group.  As much as I fear I may drive poor Suzanne crazy with my questions and responses and arguments, I am so tremendously grateful that she doesn't write me off and let annoyance get the better of her because the process of wrestling with her is making my work better and me better as a writer.  And that is a blessing.

What battles and struggles have you found valuable?  Who are your favorite folks for a good intellectual wrestling match?

Friday, January 06, 2012

Setting - Finding the Magic Anywhere

A depression-era circus, the Florida everglades, a dystopic future society, Nazi Germany - all settings of great books I've read in recent years.  What makes these books great, among many other things, is that they find the exotic, the magical or the deeper meaning in their settings and draw it out for the reader.  Traveling in your mind to another place or time is part of the appeal of fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction.  But what if you aren't writing in those genres?

Karen Russell, whose novel and collection of short stories continues to fascinate me, has a gift for finding the magical in the places she writes about.  Her short story collection is chock full of locales that began as someplace fairly ordinary and evolved into someplace well beyond extra-ordinary.

Lately, I've set myself the challenge of finding the magical, the exotic, the eerie, the disturbing in the places I write about.  A backyard.  A city park.  A creek in Virginia.  An old house.  A playground.  The issue isn't whether I have traveled to exotic places, or chosen characters in some far-off place.  The issue is whether I can unveil the remarkable in the world around me, look beneath the surface, put on a new pair of lenses and see the world around me the way a writer should.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Likeability Factor - Rereading WUTHERING HEIGHTS

Having reread PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to see how it changed for me since I first encountered it in high school, I thought it was time to take a look at a classic that I absolutely loved when I first read it - Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which I read in college.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that, just as Austen's work has improved for me with age, Bronte's work has lost some of its appeal.

What strikes me most is the utter absence of likeability, or even redemptive qualities, in the characters.  Cathy and Heathcliff are passionate, but they are also selfish, vain, narcissistic, cruel and brutal.  It seems on this reading as if Bronte intentionally wrote them with absolutely no redeeming attributes.  They resolutely refuse to act in any redeemable ways, even when Bronte gives them multiple opportunities to do so.  Even in the childhood scenes, it's clear Bronte is confronting us with the germ of their worst traits, already deeply ingrained.  Is the novel a condemnation of unbridled, self-destructive passion?

Well, no.  The other extremes, the Lintons, are foolish, weak, insipid, easily led, even whiny.  What of the intermediary characters, then?  The various narrators of the tale, who are removed from the center of the story?  Well, they're not completely abhorrent.  But they don't do much to make us care about them either.  

I had somehow deluded myself over time, as many of us have, into thinking of Heathcliff and Cathy as tragic, passionate, misunderstood romantic characters - much like Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.  They are not.  Passionate - absolutely, with a passion that destroys themselves and everyone in their path.  Tragic?  I'm not so sure.  Their inevitable downfall is brought about by their intense passion, but that element of sympathy or empathy that I think of when I think of a tragic hero is definitely lacking.  Their passion and selfishness and cruelty are not tragic flaws but defining traits.    

Where is the novel's appeal, then?  As a writer, I've always believed that even my villains should be complex and multi-dimensional, and my story needs a protagonist that we can care about, flawed, but sympathetic.  This re-read of WUTHERING HEIGHTS has me questioning that.  Because, the thing is, as violent, brutal, fatalistic, unrelentingly hopeless and without redemption as this story is, I can't seem to stop reading it.  Granted, I set myself the goal of re-reading it, and I'm not one to leave a book or goal unfinished.  But still. WUTHERING HEIGHTS is a classic for a reason.  And my college-age self consumed it with gusto.

Is it simply the power of human extremes painted in livid detail?  Is it our natural fascination with villains, cruelty and passions, sort of a literary equivalent to the obsession with soap operas?  Is it the compulsion to watch the gothic horror of the thing unfold and reach the inevitable conclusion that is laid before us in the very first chapter, much like the "how" of a murder mystery?  Do we keep reading because we keep hoping, just like the poor deluded Isabella Linton, that redemption lies ahead?

I don't know yet.  But re-reading it has forced me to question my maxim that a story must have a protagonist who is both flawed and likeable.  And I have a new kind of respect for Bronte because she was able to write a compelling literary classic in which there is not a single likeable character, and in which the most memorable characters really have no redeeming qualities at all.


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