At work the other day, I found myself trying to explain to one of my fifth graders, for whom English is a second language, the difference between popular genre fiction and literary fiction—at least in terms of literature for grown-ups, not kids. In light of my recent decision to ‘go literary,’ I was heavily pushing the literary agenda. But trying to explain it all to her made me question the current state of literature in general.
“So…Popular fiction is bad? And we shouldn’t read it?”
“No…Genre fiction can be quite good. But…literary fiction is better to read, I think. You learn more from it.”
“So literary fiction is always best.”
“Well, no…but literary fiction generally tries to tell us a truth about life and living, and is more enriching to our brains—“
“But is harder to read!”
“It shouldn’t be, but (*sigh*) it can be.”
“But if popular fiction can be good, and literary fiction can sometimes be bad, who decides what books are best?”
Good question. It used to be much more clear-cut: There were the Gatekeepers, the big publishers, the big review publications, award committees and academics and teachers who were able to sort the grain from the chaff and dictate their decisions to us. Not that we mere readers always agreed with them, but at least you had the establishment of ‘classics’ and quality writing. Then self-publishing exploded and all hell broke loose. A huge surge of bad writing poured onto the marketplace like a tsunami, and what I think happened is that a lot of ordinary readers and also some of the Gatekeepers themselves forgot what quality writing was all about. We’ve begun to confuse ‘popular’ writing with ‘good’ writing. When I was learning to write, popular fiction always seem synonymous with poor-quality writing. Now it seems you have to prove your popularity—through reviews, and through sales and general publicity—in order to have any standing as a writer, despite the quality of your work. This is NOT a good time to be a serious writer. And it’s a confusing time to be a serious reader.
You could argue that the reading public have become the gatekeepers, and that among the crushing trove of books out there, there are gems that otherwise would not have made it to print if their authors had not taken the time to put them out there themselves. But if we readers are the gatekeepers now, what are our standards? And should we try to force them on other readers?
Just for the record, here are my own standards, my requirements for ‘good’ fiction. Let me state right away that I read almost exclusively literary fiction, or as a publishing professional might say, ‘mainstream fiction with a literary sensibility.’ I don’t read fiction at all when I’m in the thick of writing one of my own novels; then I generally turn to historical non-fiction. I do not read genre fiction of any type—not because I’m a snob, but because most of the time I just can’t ‘buy’ into it. And I have to really ‘buy in’ to a book in a big way to get all the way to the end. This is what I need:
–Graceful language. Or, language used gracefully and beautifully. Not over-written. Not overly detailed. But a work in which the words fit together beautifully like a well-constructed puzzle. There’ll be a sentence or phrase that will make you stop and just admire the simple beauty of it.
–Truthfulness, or authenticity. Even though it’s fiction…I desperately want a novel to be as close to real life as possible. I want to believe it’s completely plausible, and real, because I want it to help me figure out life and people in general.
–Intimacy. I want the novel to feel like a secret pact between the author and myself; rather like a late-night conversation in bed. And I think the novelist achieves this by being brave, and forthright; by not using distancing language (pretentious or unfathomable words), and also by being completely honest, even if it’s unflattering, in his/her depiction of a particular character or situation.
–Intelligent exposition. The writing teachers always crow: “Show, don’t tell!” But I like a little explanation from the author; it gives a book more of a storytelling feel and helps round out the fictional picture. And sometimes a book that’s nothing but stark scene after scene feel sterile.
–Strong, well-defined characters. I want to be able to recognize the protagonist and other players in a novel as real people, who I might encounter down the street or anywhere in the real world. And they should talk the way real people talk. Stilted dialogue, or dialogue heavy with messages or some kind of agenda is the worst.
–An intriguing setting. Someplace you wouldn’t expect a novel to be taking place. I’m really weary of novels that take place in New York City—I lived there and still live close by and feel like I know all I need to about it. And also—sorry to say because it’s a region of the US that I dearly love—the rural South. I feel like I’m seeing too many new novels about depressing rural Southern people, maybe because writers think that’s what publishers are looking for.
–a theme or Big Idea. Some modern writers will jump all over this, claiming the insertion of meaningful ideas into a novel is artificial, reducing the book to a kind of genre fiction. I don’t agree. The trick is to get the Big Idea in skillfully and discreetly without the reader realizing …until after they’ve finished the book. I love it when I read a novel, then think a few days later…Wow, that’s what that book was really about!
So, you may say, if you have such strong opinions about fiction—Kathy!—why don’t you review more books by other writers? You’re right, I should. And I’ve decided to rectify that situation very soon, via this blog. I’m intending to add a new page, solely for reviewing promising new novels. Maybe in February. It will be, of course, intensely personal and idiosyncratic, but my mission is to find serious, hard-working and talented writers, particular those who might be unjustly ignored or overlooked by the publishing establishment…as well as the general reading public.