Literary as Excuse

As an independent editor, I am exposed to a wide variety of fiction. Among first-time novelists are a number who have written nonfiction, such as news articles or professional papers. They are drawn by a subject, such as overcrowded jails in California, and wish to employ such fictional elements as dialogue. Because they are writing the novel only as a hobby, they regard commercial fiction with distaste—they want to remain in the literary province. 

Yet somewhere along the way they realize that the novel is turning out to be flaccid, lacking narrative drive. They’ve written a bunch of scenes that, they have to admit, may not captivate the average reader. So they add a murder or two, and because they find that adds a nice dose of suspense, the book may gain law enforcement officials, a villain of cartoonish proportions, and perhaps an international chase for the climax sequence.

They have wandered into the genre best described as “hodgepodge.” They have not delineated their aims as they would automatically in their own field. If you are writing a paper featuring game theory, for instance, you would stick close to statistics. The world of fiction also has distinctions. Many bookstore browsers are keenly aware of which type of book they would like to read tonight. They may pick Canada by Richard Ford because its central subject of a bank robbery sounds like fun, but they still want a Ford-like reading experience. 

The same is true at the other end of the scale. If a novel starts with a murder, a mystery reader expects that the culprit has left clues that a competent character can solve, as well as suspects to whom these clues are assigned at regular intervals. If the novel instead veers into a long sequence of whether to award tenure to a professor, that reader’s interest will wane. So the author is left with the worst of both worlds. They end up with a book that does not please literary readers and bores thriller readers.

The reason stems from an ignorance of what a literary experience really is. Literary refers not to subject or level of diction, but to the narrator’s depth of  penetration into their characters. The narrator offers such a clear, immediate vision that readers are captivated from the onset. They will head wherever such a guide wishes to go, because the depth of the writing reflects the way we all think. Unfortunately for a first-time novelist, this depth of penetration into a character is the finest achievement of any writer. Resorting to devices is not a cure. The only way to literary is the hard, long slog through to a higher clarity of vision.

 “Writers are always selling somebody out.” —Joan Didion

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.