September 18, 2009

Do I write trash?

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 7:54 pm

As y’all can probably tell from the title of this blog, I love commercial fiction. To me this is a euphemism for a good story well told. How can you argue with that?

But people do.

Genre fiction, according to some, is a lesser beast then say, literary fiction. National book award winning fiction. New Yorker fiction.

This article offers a counter argument. What makes for a good read? Is it trash if it’s not hard to digest? Or dissect?

I would offer a grayer distinction. I’ve read literary fiction that seems like so much puffed up tomfoolery, albeit with a great deal of flashy, showy sentences. Or sentences so pared down you wonder where the writing comes in.

And I’ve read commercial fiction so deep I’m still trying to climb out of the chasms into which the authors drew me. There is no deeper meditation on death than Pet Semetary as far as I’m concerned. And probably no subject deeper than death.

Is this just a simple question of one camp–and I mean that in the little kid, neh neh neh neh sense–saying, We’re the best, and the other trumpeting, No, we are? Is there a real distinction here at all?

Read the article and tell me what you think.


  1. This is an old argument. I believe it goes back to Gutenberg. Monks arguing about proper illuminations, authors and publicists arguing about proper categorization of ever book, in order to design proper marketing programs. That was back in the day when publishing houses put together marketing programs for the books they produced. Some of those even involved paying expenses for authors to traipse around the country. Charles Dickens is said to have complained that he felt his publisher did too little to push his work. But that’s a bit off the target, right? In my view there are good books and not so good, interesting stories and not so, well-developed characters who compel us to follow their adventures and shadow characters about whom we never give a lick of interest. These good and bad attributes, along with several others, occur in books and stories in every genre, and all fiction, I note, is in some genre or other. My point? Doesn’t matter the genre, except in the minds of some snobs who probably don’t read anyway!

    Comment by CARL BROOKINS — September 18, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

  2. Wow! Fantastic to see Proust and Gaiman mentioned in the same article. That author knows his stuff.

    I have always felt that entertainment value plays a vital role in the arts. Otherwise…face it, who cares? I liked how the author also pointed out that Dickens weighed readability into his fiction. The “greats” from the 20s that are mentioned in the article were all very enjoyable books.

    I never could pick up and read Joyce, though I try, oh lord how I do try. When fiction becomes all about the style or breaking with norms, it stops being about the story, to me.

    Comment by sapphiresavvy — September 18, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

  3. Very well said, Carl. Thanks. Savvy, I think you nailed it…is it about story? Or something else–style, theme, symbol? To me all those things either arise from or are in service of the story.

    Comment by jenny — September 18, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

  4. Fascinating article — and I’d have missed it but for your blog. As a writer of mystery novels that have been both praised and criticized for being ‘literary,’ whatever that is, I read it with great interest.

    Comment by Vicki Lane — September 18, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Vicki! I look forward to checking out your books.

    Comment by jenny — September 18, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  6. I totally absolutely agree with Lev, the author of the article, and since ’79 I’ve not only been saying this but living it, writing genre fiction. I am a paperback writer whose books have always been in the drugstores and grocery stores, and I have always written the best book I can with the strongest plot possible. I detest novels that are straight line stories wherein nothing happens; characters are on the front porch, never get off the porch, talking heads…or in a diner, never leave the diner, the entire novel is in the diner…what a bore. The siesmograph of a story ought to be peaks and valleys, and twists and turns, and fun atop fun. Great article and I hope the rest of the world wakes up to these facts. I teach at a university and when one of my books is published, I get the snobbery directed at my book and that means at me–the snobbery that says Hemmingway is the way into the light and nothing you, Rob, can do to improve on that so why try? Frankly, I think Hemmingway and many of the authors mentioned in the article are boring as hell. Give me a David Ellis legal thriller, an Ed Gorman Iowa-based mystery, a Dean R. Koontz suspense, a Kathy Reichs medical mystery any day of the week. Reading should be entertaining and fun, just as writing ought to be fun. What makes a work of fiction worthwhile, whether chaacter-driven or plot-driven or a nifty combo of the two is in its effect, its lasting effect on its readers. For exaple, I will never forget Dean Konntx’s Phantoms, the best in horror or Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Just my two cents.

    Comment by Robert W. Walker — September 19, 2009 @ 12:05 am

  7. Maybe I’m lowbrow, maybe I’m not. I find most literary fiction so boring I can’t get past the first two pages. For the most part, if you tell me it’s literary and won all these critical awards, I won’t even try to read it. I want a good story. I love it if the language is wonderful and lyrical or deep, but first and foremost I want good story with well drawn characters. They DON’T bore me.

    Comment by Pat Brown — September 19, 2009 @ 12:51 am

  8. Robert and Pat’s substantive comments beg the question: what is literary fiction’s aim? Surely these authors wouldn’t say, We set out to use glowing language but to write a boring story. I would love to hear from some writers of so-called “highbrow” fiction–some award winners even. On what do you place the most importance when writing a novel?

    When I am writing I am driven by the need to find out what happens. That’s why I don’t outline (although I do take plenty of notes). I want a galloping race along toward a surprise ending, and many twists along the way. Are genre writers in particular entertained by that kind of story? Robert mentions Koontz and King, two who excel in this respect. Do literary writers want something else?

    Comment by jenny — September 19, 2009 @ 7:35 am

  9. I actually just had this discussion with someone recently. She didn’t have a problem with someone classifying a work as commercial literary fiction. I thought that sounded really strange. I prefer a term like commerical, with a literary bent, or literary, with a commercial bent.

    Comment by Judy — September 19, 2009 @ 9:46 am

  10. Very good article. And very good blog post. I especially like what you said about PET SEMETERY. I would also suggest that King’s MISERY is the best work of fiction out there about the agony of writing. (Taken to Kingsian extremes, of course.)

    And those of us who write commercial fiction know how hard it can sometimes be to make it look effortless. I’m reading THE LOST SYMBOL right now. While Dan Brown’s prose doesn’t remotely come close to being good, he knows how to keep a reader turning those pages. That’s a talent quite a few “literary” writers could use.

    Comment by Todd — September 20, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  11. You know, we watched NIGHTS IN RODANTHE last night (even I, albeit a lover of commercial fiction, couldn’t quite bring myself to read it), and as I groaned over the banal expressions of generic love (“You have such passion for everything you see”) I kept saying, Sparks is reeling ‘em in by the millions. (Hundreds of thousands? Not sure. But anyway.) He is doing something really, really well, even if vivid, true-to-life characters aren’t one of them. And we could all benefit by figuring out what that is.

    One question I have is whether Sparks’ fans are willing to overlook his shortcomings–which I think most of us writers have in one element of the craft or another–because he does something else so well. Or whether those shortcoming just don’t appear to his readers.

    I think Annie Wilkes is one of the best crazy characters ever written, Todd. Ever. Thanks for commenting!

    Comment by jenny — September 20, 2009 @ 10:09 am

  12. Okay, Jenny, I’ll try to speak up for the “highbrows” as you call them! Your question: what do literary writers want?

    First, it’s not that easy to define literary fiction. Fiction can be commercial without being trash (e.g. Lolly Winston’s Good Grief) and literary without being unreadable (The Great Gatsby). The classic distinction between literary and genre fiction is that the former is character-driven while the latter is plot-driven, but the lines blur all the time (King, Koontz, MacDonald, LeGuin).

    As a so-called literary writer, I observe something about human nature I want to express and can only convey through fiction. I write and read for the characters, and I perceive plot as a vehicle to manifest the characters. (I’m also a pragmatist who realizes no one will ever read what I have to say unless I make it entertaining.) Now, literary writers who are not me are often prose-driven; they are interested in linguistic possibility. The words of a sentence and language itself is more meaningful than the content to them. For them, the thrill is neither the what nor the who, but the how. (They win awards for this.)

    When I read genre works whose characters exist only in servitude to a sequence of events (e.g. novels by two bestselling New Hampshire authors whose initials are DB and JE), I don’t find them entertaining; I find them as meaningless and difficult to drag my eyes through as I find Joyce’s Ulysses. Neither satisfies my need to get under the skin of people who are not myself, to expand my range of empathy and understanding.

    But that doesn’t make me high-brow. I’ll pick one kind of book for my bedside table and another for my carry-on luggage. I enjoyed breezing through Bridget Jones’ Diary even though (despite the slower pace and more formal prose) I ultimately got more out of Pride and Prejudice. I can appreciate both the clever beach read and serious social realism if they have interesting characters. What bores me are the commercial novels that are structured by a formulaic sequence of ever-larger explosions or ever-hotter sex scenes.

    Comment by Sara — September 20, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  13. Thank you, Sara, for offering the “other” perspective…and I meant the lowbrow to question myself, not to make the literary folks sound high falutin’! I think what you say is wise and the traditional character/plot distinction remains an apt one. But since the line does blur all the time, as you point out, it raises other questions. For example, I am most fascinated by what happens. Action. Plot. But if this doesn’t happen to people I’m fascinated by–characters–then the book loses my interest. Maybe the distinction is between story versus style, not literary and genre?

    (So circumspect are you, I can’t figure out your references, but I’m dreadfully curious!)

    Comment by jenny — September 20, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  14. Hmm, here I are again. I re-read Lev’s article after reading the comments here and following the dust-up over criticism of Dan Brown’s novels. I should be editing. I once read several weighty Russian novels, one version of the Bible, Ulysses and most all of Shakespeare. Lots of action in the Bible, but too many characters to keep track and the plot gets a little salacious in places. It is apparent (to me) that the community of readers struggles a lot over some of these issues, which is good, I think. Amazes me that folk who love (insert author_name here) get incensed over criticism because they see it as criticism of them, their taste. So? take a little breath and ignore it. I tend to agree with Lev, I’d rather read a good story with interesting characters a fast-moving plot that makes me think about things, AND is really well-written. Who wouldn’t. The devil is in those details. Personally, I’d LOVE to be getting the quantity of criticism Mr. Brown is acquiring….along with a portion of his income.

    Comment by carl brookins — September 22, 2009 @ 8:47 am

  15. So many people confuse standards with snobbery. I have high standards for any book I read, and I love genre fiction and I write genre fiction, and I find much of so called literary fiction awful, and I am burned in effigy on college campuses for getting onto such as Hemmingway, the darling of the academics. My favorite author is Mark Twain but did he FAIL often in his work, absolutely. In fact, he wrote some books that are terrible. Ever try to read his Joan of Arc? At any rate, when I call out foul in a book people get all bent out of shape…people who have doted on the same book, and they take it really, really personal that someone would shout out that there are flaws, weaknesses, silly stuff, or flat out misinformaiton claiming to be researched fact when the same book is unable to get a character across a city without making mistakes or is filled with outlandishly structured sentences, or has characters sighing and choking out words rather than speaking words–elementary stuff gone awry that any first year editor ought to have corrected. This is not snobbery. Snobbery is when academic types poo-poo the fact it is a mystery and so not real fiction. Here is a question, why is it OK to post how wonderful a book is and to go on and on about a book that I find repulsive, but if one posts remarks of a negative nature about a book then that’s FOUL and shouted down. People who like the book take in the negatives as direct attacks on them. Should I take it as a direct attack on me when someone praises a book I can not stand? I believe readers are far, far too willing to accept lazy, weak, crummy writing for a juicy plot and in my estimation that’s a fine guilty pleasure but don’t try to turn it into an argument about snobbery. I have been the victimm of true book snobbery while working on college campuses when my books are published when another professor or a chairman will say, “Oh, that’s just one of Rob’s mysteries.” In other words not a real book.

    Comment by Robert W. Walker — September 22, 2009 @ 9:13 am

  16. OOPS – when submitting last comment a word moved at the last moment, so the word book is terribly out of place….should be last word in the comment.

    Comment by Robert W. Walker — September 22, 2009 @ 9:14 am

  17. Thanks, Robert and Carl, for adding these thoughts. Me too, Carl! And Rob, I agree with your distinction: it’s not snobbish to prefer well crafted writing. I too cringe when the characters are stock, the dialogue is wooden, or the plot predictable. But I stand by my feeling that when an author sells hundreds of thousands or millions of copies, s/he is doing at least one of the main elements of craft really, really well. Perhaps well enough that the glaring and clumsy errors can be forgiven.

    Comment by jenny — September 22, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

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