Today’s Toronto Star article on the readability controversy that plagued the Man Booker awards this year was the perfect connection among several writing bits that have been floating around in my brain lately and coming up in conversations with other writers.
For those who missed it, Man Booker award judging panel chairwoman Dame Stella Rimington announced this year that “readability” would be a factor in the award selection this year, and a segment of the literary fiction world gasped and clutched their pearls at the concept. They went so far as to announce last week they were creating The Literature Prize for “writers who aspire to something finer.”
Finer than what, exactly? At the end of my writing critique group last week, discussion turned to the pros and cons of MFAs. I don’t have one. I have a bachelor of journalism degree, so I suppose you could argue my degree’s in writing, but it’s not the same thing. The person in the group who does have an MFA questioned whether it’s worth pursuing, especially given the cost. That led to a discussion of literary fiction written by the MFA crowd that has beautiful prose but just lies flat. I don’t tend to look at the credentials of the writers I read, so I didn’t have an opinion on that one.
But then an MFA grad I know posted a blog post with what I consider a cheap shot at people going the indie route toward the end. That’s fine if he feels that way — we both know we disagree on the subject and we just keep our discussions to writing rather than publishing. But it led a mutual friend and I into a discussion of the idea of MFA elitists and how they’ll fare in the changing world of book publishing.
I’m not saying every writer with an MFA is an elitist. And as somebody who’s writing literary fiction — or at least fiction that’s straddling the boundary between commercial and literary — I’m not opposed to the genre. Far from it. But a line toward the end of the Star article summed it up best:
“Good writers write good books; excellent writers write good books people buy, read and enjoy in great and lasting numbers.”
In the Man Booker controversy, one of the issues was that some said Rimington was setting up an artificial divide between readability and excellence. Well, OK. But by criticizing the idea that an award for fiction should consider readability, aren’t you the one setting up the divide?
When I read and reviewed Jim Grimsley’s “Dream Boy” a few weeks ago, my biggest criticism was its ending. I never was quite clear on what of the last few chapters was real vs. Nate’s “dream,” and that was part of the reason it left me unsatisfied. Up until that point, I found the book to be excellent. And yet the book has won awards and is critically acclaimed. Pushing boundaries is good — without The Crazy Ones, we wouldn’t break new ground in writing or any other field. But to me, it’s more of an achievement to write great literature that people actually read. Those are the books that have the impact, that change things. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” to use my favorite book, is both great literature and a compelling, well-told story. The night we started reading it my freshman year of high school, I stayed up until midnight finishing it because I wanted to know what happened. That’s the magic of a great writer.
Which brings me back to another comment from another person I consider a great writer:
“While I’m all for smuggling meaning, depth of character and complex ideas into entertainment programs, it’s the wrong platform for preaching.” — Jesse Stern
He was talking about TV, but the same applies to novels as well. The best stories, the best works of art, come from writing that takes us to a place we couldn’t get to on our own, that shows us something we didn’t see. We accomplish this by creating a story and a world so compelling that it draws the reader into it and refuses to let go. Not by starting out trying to write Great Literature.
Donald Maass, literary agent and author of “Writing the Breakout Novel,” among other books, has been talking about what he calls the “21st-century novel.” Lev Grossman, the Time book critic, described the concept in a WSJ piece as “a basic belief that plot and literary intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive.” Maass is leading a session on the topic at this year’s Writer’s Digest conference. It’s that idea of novels that straddle what we’ve defined as the commercial and literary genres. It’s smuggling those meanings, depth of character and complex ideas into a compelling story with a plot that pulls readers through the pages, virtual or paper.
We’re writers. We tell stories. To people. If we tell them well, more people want to hear them. It’s the difference between the uncle who starts stories that don’t go anywhere and your town’s version of Riordan, who spins a great yarn over a cup of tea or a pint of beer. And if that’s controversial, well, let’s just see which books are still being read in the 22nd century.