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Mar 2, 2009

Writing Levels

In the discussion of literary vs genre fiction, two points were brought up regarding litarary fiction. One, is that it is especially important in literary writing to make every single word shine. Two, literary fiction should bring up existential questions.

Scott Bailey put it like this on Lady Glamis' blog:

Literary fiction, as far as I'm willing to define it, is as much concerned with form as with anything else, and where the subject matter is the experience of life, and the purpose is to give the reader a chance to experience life in a broader way than before. Or, to quote C.S. Lewis, "passion is present for the sake of imagination, and therefore, in the long run, for the sake of wisdom or spiritual health--the rightness and richness of man's total response to the world."

I don't consider myself a literary writer; I reserve the right to toss magic-wielding barbarian hunks and kung-fu ten-headed rakshasas at my heroes, as well as to marry them all off to live happily every after. However, there are aspects of literary writing I try to sneak into my books in between the gratiutious magic, sex and cannibalism.

Even a pulp fiction hack like me has to make every word count. Mary Lindsey addressed this in her blog. An early rejection told her, essentially:

Your story and characters are intriguing. I was disappointed that the writing didn’t live up to the premise.  

Ouch. (Note, she doesn't have this problem any more!) This is exactly what I fear agents are thinking about my work. (My other fear is that they might say, "The writing is lovely, but the story makes no frinky sense." Or even worse, "The quality lacking in the writing of this manuscript perfectly captured the hackneyed plot.")

Writing quality is even more crucial if one is trying to slide existential questions into a plot-driven story. I suppose the difference between what I write and a literary novel (as I understand it) is that I seek to conceal weighty questions of Life and Death beneath a frosting of mind candy. This is the purpose of having Death as a living, breathing (and, in my story, mortal) character. You can accept the story on two levels. If you want, you can read it as an exicting action scene, in which a hottie in black leather fights off a bear.

There is also another level to the story -- nothing so crude as a straight allegory, but hopefully a fairy tale or mythic level, like the folk tales from around the world. That's what I hoped to capture, it's what my writing ability may or may not be able to express. The best fantasies all work on many levels: The Earthsea Trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, The Curse of Challion, Harry Potter and several other favorites. 


Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

If your blog posts are any indication of your fiction writing, Tara, you are an excellent writer. I always enjoy visiting. Thanks for the mention. :)

Sara Raasch said...

All good stories should have those two layers. There's only one bestseller series I can think of that doesn't (Twilight), but that's an exception. Having people pick apart the deeper meaning of your novels is part of the fun of writing!

The Screaming Guppy said...

"However, there are aspects of literary writing I try to sneak into my books in between the gratiutious magic, sex and cannibalism."

I would like to give you a virtual high five for that one, please! :D

scott g.f.bailey said...

I read the Earthsea trilogy when I was a kid, and The Left Hand of Darkness a couple of years later, and there's a lot to be learned about human nature and morality from any kind of fiction, as long as it's well-written and thoughtful. I don't see why works of writers like Le Guin, who is awfully, awfully good shouldn't be considered literary fiction when, for example, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream is. Is Margaret Atwood's work science fiction or literature? I don't have an answer to that. The novel I'm currently writing doesn't have any sex or cannibalism, but it does have the devil. What's that make it? I don't know, but I don't care so much, either. I just want it to be a book I'd enjoy reading.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

As sraasch says, Twilight just doesn't have those two layers. I kept trying to find the second layer and it just wasn't there. It really irritated me. I'm glad to know you are aiming for both. I certainly do! Thanks for a great post! I'll bet you write phenomenally!

Carrie Harris said...

Mmmm. Curse of Chalion. If I could write something as deft and layered as that, I would be a happy woman. Call it genre, call it literary... I just call it good! :)

Kristen, spinning said...

This is such a great topic. I love your take!

Kristen, spinning said...

This is such a great topic. I love your take!

Tara Maya said...

I love Lois Mcmast Bujold. Another one I forgot to mention, who I think is a genuis, is Connie Willis. The career arc of these women inspires me too, because their early books are good reads, but their later books are just masterpieces.

I know I'm not capable of a masterpieces. Yet. And frankly, it would terrify me if I were to accidently write some masterpiece which I had no idea how to reproduce.

But if I could start out able to write good reads and keep improving, and really become a consistant master of the art...

Anonymous said...

I think the stories with multiple layers are the ones we remember most and reflect upon in the long run.

I've read lots of interesting, fast reads -- but I forget them soon afterwards. The ones that stick have endearing characters and great plot, sure, but they also have heart and soul.

Fascinating post, Tara! :)

david heijl said...

Interesting thoughts. I find this firm distinction between "genre" and "non-genre" or literary fiction a bit puzzling. It's a notion that seems to be very important to publishers and market in general; but it also seems to imply that genre work "should not" be of high literary standards.

And if it is (for example, I'm thinking of The Yiddish Policemen's Union and other recent genre work) much effort is made to avoid those novels being classified as genre.

Somehow, there seems to be this idea that SFF should be simple, should not have high literary style... or perhaps that's just my impression from reading too many author/agent/editor blogs.

Tara Maya said...

I don't think the marketing angle is necessarily to be pooh-poohed. The fact is a lot of readers (including agents) who love The Yiddish Policeman's Union, would not love your typical fantasy or sf novel -- and NOT because of the writing quality -- rather, because of the writing FOCUS.

Example. My dh loved the film Children of Men and decided to read the book. But he found the book to be dreary, dragging and slow. Where was the stunning action captured in the film?

I read the book and understood. The book is not about action, it's a character study and an anthropolotical study. It's not that the movie is untrue to the book, but the book has to take a stand in a way the movie doesn't as either genre or literary. And the book is firmly literary.

david heijl said...

Well said. Focus is a good way of giving the difference a name.

Just to throw in an extreme example, my MA dissertation was an analysis of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Weirdness by the truckload in that more-or-less historical work, and all of it in a pseudo-eighteenth-century style. It was very hard work to read but once I had made the effort to become familiar with the language and the setting, it was just so... rich.

All this to say that if I hadn't had the motivation to put in the effort, I'd never have made it past the first ten pages.

On the other hand, I'm now reading Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, set in a similar timeframe and also using a (tiny tiny bit of) archaic language here and there. And those novels I have difficulty putting down to get enough sleep to function properly the day after.

Which sort of goes to prove your
point, I guess :-)

Tara Maya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tara Maya said...

Yeah, I think that captures it, David. Literary novels can feel almost like school assignments, because they often ask for a lot of work from the reader. At the end, like a good run on the tread mill, you might feel better for it, but it's still a workout. Other books are like leaning back into a lounge chair with a dry martini.

From the writer's perspective, writing a lounge chair might not be easier than writing a tread mill, but for the reader, oh, quite a difference!

Unknown said...

I agree with you about the levels of writing and I try to include those levels in my own writing. In my novel Writing in the Margins I include thoughts of depression, and the loss of living an unfulfilling life through two similar, but very different characters. I also try and explain my intentions through my use of language and dialogue. My only fear is that my readers won't be able to follow my logic, but so far they have. The link to my website is below if you are interested. Thanks for the blog and the insight into writing and reading good fiction.
Kenneth Rogers Jr.