Monday, July 14, 2008


Notes on Craft

Finally! A constructive critique on what is wrong with contemporary literary fiction. So much of the bitching and moaning about lit fic is that it's dead. It's dying. No one's buying it and fewer people are liking it. Well, if this is the case lit fic has been pulling a Hamlet for the past 40+ years in that it keeps coming back from the brink to deliver another little jewel to all of us.

This is a two part blog by contemporary lit fic (gasp) Darin Strauss. Part 1 and Part 2 have been extremely thought provoking. Not in the I see the light! Save me Jesus! sort of way, but in it got me to rewrite the opening to a novel I'd been toying with for a while but I thought was too much like a movie and not enough like "literary fiction" for me to write. (And I think it's a pretty hot little beginning now, too.)

What got me going was the PTA laundry list that he describes. Seriously, it's an atrocious opening to a novel -- who wants to listen to PTA minutes ever? even if you're on the board you want to be someplace else when that happens -- but for some reason I probably would have just patiently swallowed it. I would have likely put down the book in the first thirty pages, but never would I have that God what an awful opening! Why isn't literary fiction giving me drama! And it might be because I'm (sadly) growing acclimated.

Strauss makes reference to
Dreiser — who understood the advantages of thrill-ride storylines — was also the first post–Civil War writer really to show poverty and the everyday defeat of American morals. He was a social novelist. And he wanted to get at the full spectacle of our native life with blood-and-thunder plots. ... Henry James, on the other hand, didn't write much about what his contemporaries feared, but what they actually lived through — the great trailblazer of psychological and artistic intricacy ... lyrically, and without relying on complex plot machinations or gauche devices.
and he refers to all this as the split that occurred after Melville. But more important than the split is the fact that Melville had it all. The implication being that contemporary writers should give it a go and try for that "all" thing.

I, sadly, read some other blog (where the commenters obviously skimmed the article and didn't latch on to the key points) and someone cried out salvation lies in genre fiction! All hail the pulp novel, it is our promise land! While I've got nothing against a good genre novel now and again, the way to make literary fiction go from boring to intriguing isn't to scrap it altogether.

Obviously, Strauss doesn't go far enough with his train of thought for the flock to understand where the promised land is. I don't think I've found it, but my guide through the desert is something from Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream. He states that the one thing genre writers have in heaps, the one thing they never forget to give their characters and share with their readers is yearning. The girl wants to fall in love, the boy wants to slay the dragon, the agent wants to stop the IRA terrorists and save his pregnant wife. So often literary writers forget to let their characters yearn and to let that come through the page. Instead they walk around entire novels just seeing faces and touching objects.

There's more to writing stories well than just writing well.

Highly Recommended