Monday, April 11, 2011

Story Time

[Deeply embarrassing as it is, I started writing this post last summer, and let it languish. Although it is not really finished, I have decided to post it anyway. Maybe some day I will use it toward something else, but in the meantime it might actually help me write something new to have this out of the way. There's another post in a similar state in the pipeline. Reader, be kind.]

After my post re Let the Great World Spin, I was reading some of the reviews of LTGWS on, and it struck me that the book is often referred to as a "short story collection." While reading it, I never had the feeling that I was reading short stories. I felt the book was made up of long chapters with overlapping characters, some of whose relationships were not immediately apparent. So that got me thinking more about the literary fiction vs. genre fiction split, specifically the assertion that speculative fiction tells a story better, while a literary story is seen as a stringing together of minor epiphanies with little plot development. Michael Chabon has ranted against the "contemporary quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story."

While I disagree with the point of making such a split, I do understand the complaint. While I would not hold up LTGWS as the ultimate example of the kind of literary fiction that scifi lovers would love to hate, I found it ironic that a novel that one could say strings together various minor epiphanies without much direction uses the story of Philippe Petit as a framing device. (I'm not going to say jumping-off point!) The story of Philippe Petit is one in which something definitely happens. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has suspense--quite literally. A version of it has been written as a children's book. It is a traditional, pre-postmodern STORY.

In the foreword to the recent collection Stories, Neil Gaiman writes that, in compiling the stories, "[W]hat we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. Yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that." These stories are mostly what-if fiction. Speculative fiction seems to give a little more weight to the author's intent. For instance, it seems easier, or more expected, for the science fiction writer to say, "Well, what I was trying to say by writing this story, is that virtual reality could go too far and have unforeseen, scary, bad consequences." (Yes, I did start reading "The Veldt" to my kids; did not go over too big as a bedtime story.) So is the science fiction writer better, smarter, more admirable? Of course, all good postmodernists know that authorial intent is worthless. One can only read the text; it does not matter what any author intended to "do" in his or her writing.

Colm Toibin wrote in a review of an E.M. Forster biography: "[N]ovels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors; because the lies and metaphors are chosen and offered shape and structure, they may indeed represent the self, or the play between the unconscious mind and the conscious will, but they are not forms of self-expression, or true confession." Trying to impute any characteristics to the author based on the text is a fool's game. What matters is the experience of reading.

Of course authors have an intent. They must have some purpose when they choose to start writing,  instead of doing something else. They can choose to write any form, any genre, a short story, a novel--something of their intent is inherent in this choice. Whatever the label the author puts on his/her work, or the reader later--science fiction, realistic, literary, experimental, romance, chick lit--does not matter in the slightest, because it is all a pack of lies. All fiction is speculative; all writing is speculative. Every story postulates a reality that is not the real reality. Whether it "tells a good story" or not, depends on the reader's taste. It is meaningless to say one kind of fiction is better than another.

Maybe some authors would say they are representing the real reality, or at least to the best of their abilities. Others may say they are deliberately representing an alternative reality in order to make some point about the real reality. (Is there a real reality? That is another question entirely.) It may be interesting to know what the author says he or she was trying to do, but again, it hardly matters. If he or she did a good job of doing whatever it was he or she was trying to do, then the reader will get the point. If the author did a poor job, or if the reader did a poor job of reading, then the reader will not get the point, or will get an entirely different point. Or don't we all as readers get our own individual points, that may or may not come close to each other, or to the author's original intent?

The only genre fiction I read in any quantity is mystery. How is my experience different when I read mystery as opposed to “literary” fiction, and therefore what am I seeking when I read mystery? I admit the experience does offer a prurient thrill, which I enjoy, and also the satisfaction of questions being answered. When I somewhat unexpectedly found myself pregnant for the first time, the first thing I read was the complete Sherlock Holmes. Faced with an staggering mystery in my own life, I derived satisfaction from the fictional solving of mysteries by an unflappable, ingenious protagonist. While of course some writers write better mysteries than others, and the best transcend the genre, there is a certain similarity to the experience of reading mysteries. One is reassured--however speciously--that there is some sense to the universe after all.

What is it readers of romance are seeking? Of scifi? Of fantasy? I will have to leave that to others to answer---but there must be a similar certain similarity to the experience of reading any genre. What then am I seeking when I read an author touted as more literary than genre? I daresay those authors do also tell stories, but they also pay more attention to the language that they use to tell them. What seems to be missing from these discussions—both the Franzenfreude movement and the storytelling vs. literary debate—is artistry. A great novelist is a prose artist, the kind of writer who can sweep you away with a description of a field at night, or a devastating dialogue.

I recently read The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, one of the early Zuckerman novels (part of my campaign to read more Roth). It tells a story—the story of a guy who spends the night at another guy’s house. What a boring story—how could anyone possibly care what happens in such a story? Yet I found out to be a "gripping" "page-turner." The story is not about a serial murderer or an alternative universe; rather it is about love, family, sexual attraction, cultural heritage, the responsibility of the author, and most of all artistic influence and artistic creation itself. Why and how did Anne Frank create her diary? It could be a subject for a dry term paper, but Roth makes it riveting. How? Could it possibly have anything to do with how he uses language?

Bookstores often have a section called "Fiction and Literature"--where the line falls is different for every reader. However . . . the populist Franzenfreuders (viz. Jennifer Weiner) seem to want to erase the differences between cookie-cutter novels of whatever genre, and truly great writing. The question of artistry is ignored. Some readers can't tell the difference between pedestrian and excellent writing, and I suppose for some it does not really matter. The book publishing industry certainly does not care, as long as people buy the books. If people enjoy reading whatever books they read, I applaud them no matter what, for not succumbing to the mind-numbing pop culture of television and celebrity culture. In fact, I think we've reached a point in our culture when picking up a book (or Kindle, or Nook, etc.) is a radical act of independent thinking, whether it's obscure Latin poetry or Twilight.

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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag.


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