Yet more thoughts on Literary Fiction

January 10, 2011

I don’t know why I’ve become impelled to attempt a codification of my views on this topic. But here’s more thoughts:

I recently read a  reviewer saying she loved literary fiction because she would find herself so captivated by an expression or phrase that she would stop reading to savor it, spending several minutes dissecting the words, comparing them to how she might have expressed it, and wallowing in the incredible ‘eptness’ of the expression. Now call me ignorant, but doesn’t that mean she’s not caught up in the story? Certainly I, too, will pause to consider a comment, a description, an irony, but not to the degree this person seemed to be implying. I am more likely to return to it after I’ve finished the story or think about it at odd moments. If the story is compelling, I don’t want to be pulled out, I want to be absorbed.

Then this morning, a blog in the Guardian ( ) uses the wonderful sentence:  “Good writing, for many English readers is the kind that does not remind you that it is being written.” This is how I feel.  And this is true in all aspects of life. The anecdotal story about the artist who takes up his brush and draws a perfect circle to the amazement of all, then pulls open his cupboard to show the hundreds upon hundreds of sheets of paper all covered with circles – he practiced until it seemed effortless. I can watch a skilled craftsman knitting, or wrapping a package, or grabbing a piece of fish that is almost exactly the weight I requested – these are ‘effortless’ skills that come from years of practice. To me, the perceiver, they are a simple, complete act. No pretensions, no struggles, no drama. Just a simple, pure accomplishment.

Good literature should be the same. You should get lost in the writing, not pulled out by it. The words are the tools that create a reality, a place to explore, to experience new ideas, new emotions, new actions. If I keep stumbling across a precious phrase that has to be admired, I have been pulled out of that experience. And if at the end, I close the book with that so tragic ‘So what’ response – then what purpose did all those gloriously crafted phrases serve? Back to my analogy – if when I buy fish I am called to admire the skill of the fishmonger in selecting a piece of the right weight, if I have to praise and applaud before I can get my fish – will I shop there? Like reading a novel, I am there for a purpose, and if I am distracted from my purpose, if I have to stop and praise, I am no longer a shopper, I am an audience. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not what I came for. I do not read a novel to analyze its prose, but to experience it.

Let there be clear labeling. “Warning: this book contains little or no plot, and what plot there is makes no sense. There are no worthwhile ideas, no realistic sympathetic characters. There is gratuitous sex and violence (to delude you into thinking something is actually happening) , apathy (always apathy, alas) and despair.  But the words-choices and sentence structures are amazing!”

Most books, I think, serve as mini-vacations. Good books add to that a few ideas or characters to consider after you finish the story. Great books offer ideas to ponder, insights to take into your thoughts and turn over and over, seeing new facets and examples in the world around you.  Brilliant word choices and phrases are the bonus – you recognize in a person at work the clever portrait from a novel, you have an experience and reflect on how deftly an author put your nebulous feelings into concrete words. That is a great book – one that brings insight and perspective into your daily life.

Books can also serve as psychotherapy – identifying problems, creating an empathetic character or situation in which we can see ourselves or our world and recognize our failings. But – and this is critical for me – if all the book does is maunder and moan about the problems, what good does it serve? No, it needn’t be all sweetness and light at the conclusion, but there needs to be a real sense that the main characters actually learn and develop over the course of the book. I’ve read novels where  the protagonist is simply the target of life and villains, and never seems to be able to get out of the cycle. Sure, that’s a real life, but is it one anyone can learn from? Did we need the author to tell us life can be miserable, and that people suffer? Are we that stupid? What we need is for the author to look at that life, and then show us possibilities – ways the character could overcome, adapt, perhaps even help someone else get out of a vicious cycle even if unable to help themselves. Gloom, doom, despair,  ‘modern angst’ are not all that life is about. If you think it is, then why are you alive still? What keeps us going are the moments when life opens us to possibilities, beauty, humor, and yes, that ever-elusive hope. Leave those out of a novel, and you’ve left out real life.

A doctor cannot diagnose a patient by listening to a litany of woes – the positives have to figure in. If nothing else, the patient is alive. And there may be a way to make them better. Yes, examine the illness, understand its cause and effect, but if you aren’t going to do anything positive about it, why be a doctor? A doctor takes that insight and tries to heal, or at least offer pain killers.

If you aren’t going to offer insights and ideas, or at least a temporary break from everyday life, why be a writer?


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