Tag: literary fiction

literary fiction

The (Not So) Great Debate

 Last night, while clicking through Facebook posts, I stumbled across a post that weighed in on the (non?) issue of literary versus genre fiction. I’ll summarize in case you missed updates from the battlefield. Teams have formed around both styles of writing. Each claims ardent devotees who scorn the other side with the sort of rabid disdain usually associated with British soccer hooligans. “Literary fiction” is dismissed by genre fans as snobbish tomes with herculean word counts, as devoid of plot as filled with florid description, favored with numerous obscure literary awards but absent actual readers. “Genre fiction” is written off, in turn, as fluff scribbled by MFA-less hacks, inexplicably popular with the masses and unfairly awarded with higher sales than its worthier cousin. A skirmish in the larger battle over which is the “best” fiction involves the foray of “literary” authors into “genre” fiction and what to make of (and where to shelve) the Frankenstein’s monster-ish cross-genre works such efforts produce.
The article I read focused on the invasion of science fiction by authors better known for literary works. I’m not sure which side of the literary-genre fence the article’s writer came down on or whether she loved or hated the cross pollination. The article vacillated between extolling the virtues of literary authors bringing the perceived superiority of their MFA-sanctioned writing to the pop fiction table and blasting the same authors for obliviousness to the nuances of the sci-fi genre and for being too stuck up to admit they were writing a genre work. I do, however, know where I stand. I have both feet planted in the camp of “who cares what you call it as long as you get something out of reading it?”. The literary and genre fiction labels are artificial constructs invented by people trying to figure out where to display books in stores. The only thing that really matters about books, the only thing that should matter, anyway, is whether the book offers you something that makes it worth the time and effort you invest in reading it. You, the reader, decide what “something” is. Escape, edification, confirmation, inspiration, whatever. You’re the only one who can decide if a book is “good” or worthy or worth it to you because you’re the one reading it. You’re the one investing your precious time and brain cells engaging with the words on the page or on the screen or in the audio file. Not your mother, not your neighbor, not your spouse or child, not your best friend, nor the people around the water cooler, nor some critic opining in a publication you never heard of. Your time, your mental and emotional energy, your decision. Call it literary, call it genre, call it Bob. As long as it tells a good story—again, “good” is your call. Plot, character, language, an abundance of ninja salamanders, whatever you want—and doesn’t leave you regretting hours of your life you’ll never get back, it’s legit.

What’s your opinion about the literary vs genre debate? Favor one over the other? Love both? Think “literary” and “genre” authors should each stay in their lane? Think labels are meaningless? 

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How Literary Can A Little Murder Be?

 First off, my sincere apologies to our readers and fellow Missdemeanors. May arrived without my flipping back the calendar. In my frenzy to complete my fourth novel and finish editing my third book before my young kids finish school for the summer–diminishing my workday to the dwindling hours when the sun isn’t up–I failed to notice April’s exit. Consequently, I also didn’t realize that it was my week to blog. Mea Culpa! The book I am currently writing has been my most time consuming and challenging to date. But, that’s a good thing. Each novel I undertake forces me to think harder, not only about the intricacies of plot and character, but also about what the heck I want to say as a writer. What questions do I wish to pose to readers? In what debates should we engage? How can I craft a story that works both as an entertaining and page-turning puzzle filled with “real” characters that also manages to say something meaningful? (Or, at least, spur interesting book club conversation.)   In my upcoming book, Lies She Told (Shameless Plug: IN STORES SEPT. 12), I wanted to explore the creative process, to grapple with questions such as: Where do story ideas come from? How might an author’s own history influence the scenarios that she envisions and the characters which she invents? Is storytelling a way for authors to wrestle with their own demons? And, if so, is writing an inherently selfish pursuit? Or, is the human experience sufficiently universal that writer and reader will identify with the struggle against the same obstacles and, therefore, find similar catharsis by The End. (COMMENT BELOW!) The resulting book revolves around a writer whose fiction hints at clues to a disappearance in her actual life, forcing her to confront buried secrets about herself and those closest to her. It’s told from the perspective of Liza, the author, and Beth, the first person protagonist in Liza’s under-construction murder mystery. In addition to being an intriguing, taught, satisfying psychological suspense thriller with well-developed characters (I think all these things and pray readers do too.), I also really hope it makes folks consider some of the aforementioned questions that kept me up at night. The novel I’m currently working on was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Considered Woolf’s most experimental novel, The Waves follows six characters with distinct life philosophies from childhood through adulthood, exploring the paths delineated by each person’s inherent desires and seemingly innate visions of self. It does this through richly poetic soliloquies that made me want to cover a room in quotes. (And, it also maddeningly skips POV without warning, perhaps because—spoiler alert—all the individuals might be aspects of the same person.) Because my agent reads this blog, I should state that I am NOT writing a poetic or experimental thriller (either of which would surely negate my contract). I am, however, working on a murder mystery/ psychological suspense involving six characters inspired by The Waves’ protagonists. Each character in my third-person narrated story (had to get around the POV problems somehow) possesses a distinct world view, corresponding needs, and sense of his or herself similar to a counterpart in The Waves. But, since I’m a thriller writer, these characters’ unique perspectives also give rise to defined ideas about marriage and the relative responsibility that individuals within a couple have to themselves, their partners, and their children, which clash with the other characters’ visions to disastrous ends.  A question I’m toying with in this book, tentatively titled Shallow Ends, is does the institution of marriage require a particular worldview and type of person (or, at least, a person willing to morph into that type)? I’m also exploring my own questions concerning how much literary fiction and even experimental fiction can meld with the conventions of the mystery/thriller/suspense genre. Do mysteries allow the depth of exploration of the human experience claimed by literary fiction? Obviously, I think my favorite genre does or I wouldn’t be writing my current book. In fact, I think there are a ton of wonderful recent examples. Emma Cline’s The Girls, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, pretty much anything by Herman Koch. But the fun of publishing a novel isn’t finding out what I think, it’s struggling to communicate my ideas with readers in an entertaining way and, after executing that to the best of my ability, starting a conversation. In the end, what matters most, regardless of genre, are the thoughts of the person turning the page. 

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The Better Book Battle: Mystery Fiction vs. Literary Fiction.

There’s been renewed debate, recently, about the relative value of mystery fiction vs. its “literary” counterpart thanks to a self-described “passing remark” by Notre Dame English professor William O’Rourke that disparaged the mystery writing community as suffering from a “fatal lack of talent.” In a subsequent article in the Irish Times, O’Rourke clarified that he did not intend for his remark to insult mystery writers in particular but, instead, to denigrate the entire literary culture in America.  After reading both articles, it’s clear that O’Rourke believes our nation subsists on the literary equivalent of McDonald’s, formulaic, processed writing intended to keep readers turning pages thanks to contrived cliff hangers. Other cultures, he argues, consume the good stuff–books that make folks stop and think.  I don’t believe O’Rourke is entirely wrong in his assessment of the average American’s fiction diet. Our busy culture values easily digested entertainment. And, in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that. I like having a cheeseburger now and again. Sometimes, I want something fun to read on a plane, or at the beach, or to listen to in the car. However, I certainly disagree that mystery writing as a whole is formulaic fast food. Good writing–and there is plenty of it in the mystery realm–transcends genre and turns formulas upside down. A recent example (which guessing from Mr. O’Rourke’s criticism he’d probably dislike) is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. It’s a fantasy. It’s a mystery. It’s a family drama. Above all, it’s a story that forces readers to contemplate grief. What does losing a child do to a family? How do gender expectations limit an individual’s ability to properly mourn? Do people really survive the murder of a loved one with their former self intact or is violent loss so transformative that there is forever a person before and a person after?   Last night, I saw GET OUT, a movie by comedian, writer and actor Jordan Peele which manages to be a fantastic commentary on race and related micro-aggressions wrapped in a horror film. It certainly made me think about how the construct of race divides Americans, even when people are trying for it not to. At one point, for example, a character tries to prove he is not racist by saying how many times he voted for former President Obama, as though supporting a black political candidate was proof of post-racial colorblindness. Of course, the character brought up his vote precisely because he was seeing the color of the person he was talking to and assuming his support would create a bond.  Personally, I think the best writing is not the sort that purports to be literary from the get go. Sure, authors may applaud themselves for writing a “difficult book” filled with words intended to elevate the Flesch-Kincaid reading level. But those writers certainly don’t win many fans among readers.  The best authors aim to tell an engaging story that also makes their audience contemplate some larger issue. There are plenty of mystery books that do this. Emma Cline’s The Girls, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are examples. Each made me consider the nature of crime and punishment as much as I did when reading Dostoyevsky’s novel named for the very subject. These books, each in their own way, made me ponder what constitutes real justice. Can living with the knowledge of an immoral act and evading legal retribution prove worse than serving time?  Perhaps more importantly, these stories stayed with me long after I finished reading them, and I suspect they did for most readers. They were popular and they were smart. As I tell my daughters all the time, it’s quite possible to be both. 

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Plan Your Escape

Escapist fiction is defined by Wikipedia as “fiction which provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader in exotic situations or activities.” The term is often wielded like a derogatory club against works deemed unworthy by fanatical devotees of “literary fiction,” works that, according to Wikipedia, have “merit…involve social commentary or political criticism or focus on the human condition…and is often more focused on themes than on plot…” Literary fiction boasts of “analyzing reality” while escapist fiction, also known as popular or genre fiction, aims to escape reality. I love escapist fiction without apology. I’m not embarrassed to be seen reading a book that will never be nominated for a Pulitzer or a Nobel or a Man Booker prize. I’ve nothing against prize-winning works of great lit-tra-chure, except the prodigious heft of some of the hardback editions. I even read, and enjoy, literary novels. Several claim spots in my (out of control) TBR pile. But when I do read literary novels, I choose them based on the story they tell, not because of some important message the critics ensure me is waiting to be discovered in the 982 pages. I don’t need, nor do I especially want, my fiction to mirror or analyze society. That’s what non-fiction is for. I read the news to find out what’s going in the world. (Granted, it’s become difficult to distinguish between news and fiction these days. Thanks, Interweb.) If I want more depth or detail than a newspaper article can provide I turn to the non-fiction section of the bookstore. Non-fiction has come a long way since the days when it all tended to read like dust-dry textbooks. It’s become “creative” and often reads like a novel. I read fiction for entertainment. There, I said it. I feel no shame. Entertainment is not bad. Humans have always sought entertainment. True, we’ve created some sick forms of entertainment over the centuries but we’ve come up with some good stuff, too. Like fiction. I’m not hiding my head in the sand when I seek entertainment in fiction. I’m not trying to pretend what’s happening in the world isn’t happening. I know what’s going on. You can’t turn on a TV or open a social media feed or, depending on where you live/who you work for/what you look like/where you worship/who you love, step outside your door without getting a wallop of reality right upside your head. Sometimes I get so much reality my head hurts. I want to scream. I often cuss. Worse, I start to think things that make me worry I’m turning into a person I wouldn’t like very much. I need to get away from reality to save my sanity. I need to be entertained. I need to lose myself. I need to escape on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo or down a rabbit hole with Alice. I need to bring murderers to justice with Marple and Poirot. I need to poke a finger in bureaucracy’s eye while saving the universe with Jame Retief. Of course, genre fiction can have “literary merit”. Many literary novelists have jumped the pop fiction fence and created “cross-genre” or “genre blurring” works that leave bookstores scratching their heads about where to shelve them and prize committees fielding complaints about prizes being awarded to books that are “too popular.” A popular book can make a profound statement about our society and the human condition. Science fiction has a tradition of skewering societal norms and trends. Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Laumer’s Retief series are just a few sci-fi novels that do this in entertaining (and in Laumer’s case, hysterical) ways. It’s possible to be capital-m-Meaningful and entertaining at the same time. For example, a fictional detective can solve a fictional crime while saying something about the society in which a particular victim succumbs to that particular crime. Plot doesn’t have to be sacrificed at the altar of significance. So, genre fiction, more power to you. Keep teaching us while you entertain. But, mostly, entertain. Tell me a good story. As Sana Hussain said in her essay, “Literary or Not: The Reality of Escapist Fiction,” let me “doff the burden of [my] problems and inhabit a world…that makes up for the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the real world by offering rationality and resolution.” Bring order to chaos. Strike a blow for truth and justice. Let the good guy win. Remind me life isn’t always as twisted and ugly and painful as it seems. Entertain me. My overwhelmed brain and bruised soul thank you. Do you think the escapist vs literary debate is artificial? Is escapist a bad word? Why do you read escapist fiction? 

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