Why Can’t Books Be Readable AND Great Fiction?

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.

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14 thoughts on “Why Can’t Books Be Readable AND Great Fiction?

  1. Terrific post, Jennie! Great literature and great reads truly can be one in the same. I agree – it’s time we started to support one another – across genres and publishing options – and began to rally around and support one another. Thank you so much for sharing your insight!

    • Thanks, Terri! In Leah’s Wake is one book I’d definitely place into this category — I couldn’t put it down because the plot was so compelling, but it’s definitely literary fiction. I think we’ll start to see more and more of those as the indie scene allows those of us who write on that line to get our work out there where readers can find it and judge for themselves.

  2. Like it or not, readability is part of the overall package. I certainly don’t look at anyone’s qualifications when choosing a book to read. Quite frankly, I don’t care. If your passion for your story carries across to an excerpt, if your characters are compelling and your plot well paced, I’ll give your book a try, high school grad or MFA. That passion crosses genres, from literary fiction to genre fic.

      • Sometimes people get so caught up in the rules and processes and especially in academia, it can be a rite of passage for some personalities to look down their nose at others, especially people who are having no small measure of success.

        It is really a shame. What I like isn’t necessarily what you do, but that doesn’t make me smarter or less smart than you. Neither does having a degree in my chosen field.

        I gobble up political thrillers, most of which are on the best-seller lists for weeks (or months) after release. Daniel Silva, Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, etc. You might read Agatha Cristie, or Robert Jordan, or Jonathan Franzen, or Terry MacMillan. We’re all attracted to different things in literature. Thankfully, especially with the rise of the indie author, there is room for many more authors than ever before.

    • I’m happy to know that there is a discussion like this going on. It gives me higher hopes for when I publish. To extrapolate on the ending statement, ‘let’s just see which books…’
      I wonder what would happen if all books were published with no background information on the author, then say after a period of two years,we all got to see the pedigree of who we’d chosen as our favorite. Wouldn’t that be interesting. thanks for this.

      • It would be interesting. I always thought one of the things that set HP apart was that the books didn’t just entertain, but were well-written. They’ll hold up better than Twilight.

        As for information on the author, I don’t know how much that matters now to readers, beyond the indie/tradpub designation, and that doesn’t matter to all readers. I would, however, love to see some sort of blind review contest where you had a group of judges and a collection of indie, small press and Big Six literary novels. No information about the author, nothing previously published, no idea of the breakdown among the three types of publishing. Panel would have to rank the books 1-10. I’d love to see how that would come out.

  3. Great post! I have to say that I whole heartedly agree. I absolutely believe that readability should be considered when rewarding a literary prize that is supposed to bring “the best” of fictional writing to the public. Having read a few Man Booker prize winners and short-listers, I have to say that while those works of fiction are phenomenal stories and the prose is beautiful, there are a few that I almost never finished because of readability.

    Fiction at the end of the day, is story telling. It’s a medium to allow the authors to bring their world into yours. If I can’t understand what the author is trying to say or get bored to death by irritating lack of rhythm or plot, then I think the compulsive need to be “finer” defeats the purpose of fiction.

      • Heh. Thanks 😉

        You know, this brings up a very interesting dilemma if you look at Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy. The whole thing was written in broken English, but I never, for once while I was reading it, found it incomprehensible or boring. Sure there are a few things you’d go back and say “huh? what exactly did he mean?” but for the most part, the pacing and the storyline have been excellent at keeping me interested.

  4. Excellent post, and sums up our convo quite well. (I’m not either person with the MFA, BTW.) I’ve read some excellent indie published books and some bad ones. I’ve read some excellent traditionally published books and some bad ones. Writers are writers, and books are good or bad in the eye of the reader, and sometimes how the book was published is just transparent and should be. I like good stories, and, frankly, I don’t care how they get to me. Any “good” writer should feel the same way and not attach inordinate significance to his or her publisher. Or MFA.

    And if you want to get an interesting perspective on getting an MFA, try reading, “The Portable MFA.” The first couple of chapters dealing with the pros and cons of getting an MFA are great, and the author came to the same conclusion as a person in our crit group and a person I met recently at a writer’s conference–MFA’s are a boondoggle. Frankly, I don’t have $35,000+ to invest in something I already know how to do.

    • Thanks, Maggie! I think you’re right — both publishing methods have good books and clunkers. More to come on that, but it’s enough for another blog post. 😉

      And yes, I do have The Portable MFA, though I haven’t read all of it. It reassured me a bit to see that they felt an MFA wasn’t necessary, not that I ever seriously considered one. (I spent three years trying to get *done* with school so I could get into a newsroom – why on earth would I want to go back?)

  5. Great post! I don’t look for an author with a degree or specific qualifications when choosing a book to read. I like to be drawn into the book so well that I finish it because it is impossible to put down. I don’t care if it is Debbie Macomber , John Grisham, Danielle Steel or James Patterson–I am drawn to the story, not the author and not their qualifications. I am interested in the writer keeping my interest long enough to finish the book from beginning to end.

    In my College English classes I was told (repeatedly) we’re all writers. It is that kind of encouragement that pushes me to attempt writing a book and having it published. I am a little lost to the point of being “certified”, especially for a fiction novel. If a book engages and/or entertains the reader page after page, then isn’t that the main point of writing?

    Just my thoughts 🙂

    • Thanks, Marie. This was mostly a look at TPTB in the literary fiction world – there’s a divide there. But reactions of readers, such as yours, just highlight why the “aspire to something finer” crowd is missing the point, IMHO.

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