We’re living in weird times, and I’m not just referring to America’s apparent slide into Medieval Theocracy. Guys like me are in charge of most of the big media the world consumes – TV and Movies – and we are producing endless love letters to our childhood selves. Comic book movies, Sci-Fi epics, reboots or remakes of the films we grew up with, sequels that have taken decades, tv shows that fill in gaps that, quite frankly, most people didn’t care about or notice.
More than one critic, and a few film-makers, have said this childishness is unseemly. That superhero movies are all very well, but they’re not Art, they’re not what the medium is about, and so on and so on.
The same snobbery is alive and well in the publishing industry. While the big Five are happy to publish anything that will sell, there’s still this weird perception about what is a “proper” book. Romance is a derided genre, but sales pay for most of the rest of the books. People might sniff at Danielle Steel books, but she’s topped bestsellers lists for decades and shows no sign of slowing down, and unlike some James Pattersons I could mention, she writes all her books herself.
Speaking of James Patterson, the Mystery/thriller genre doesn’t count as high-quality stuff either, even if it’s a gritty Norwegian thing. People went wild over the Stieg Larsson books, but then people went wild over Harry Potter too. Doesn’t mean it’s literature, Darling.
I hardly need mention that Sci-Fi, despite being able to trace its roots back to Mary Flipping SHELLEY, is still the awkward Uncle at the family barbeque.
Which just leaves general fiction. Now, a lot of that can be discounted too, because it’s just stories. Good stories, fun stories, heart-wrenching stories. But not the real thing.
And now we get to it, because the figure in the Opera mask, playing the organ in the basement of this baroque construct is none other than Lit Fic! Yes, Literary Fiction, stories that are, by some esoteric definition, more than their genre cousins. Or perhaps not more, but “better”.
Let me be honest here: I don’t like lit fic books. If I see a book and the author bio says they just got their MFA and this is the book they’ve been working on for five years, I will eye it with suspicion. If that author is a white male and he teaches Creative Writing, I will hurl it from me with great force.
“But Dim!” I hear you cry “Isn’t this a terrible prejudice? How can you condemn all these works without reading them?”
And that brings me to the reason for writing this post. I do read lit fic from time to time. After all, I work in a library and I like to read. I will actually check out a book just because of the title, or the premise, or even the cover. There, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.
Over this last week, I’ve been short of books to read. A fire at my branch of the library has shut off access to the main collection, including a couple of holds I was waiting on, so I grabbed a book from Mrs Dim’s TBR pile (TBR = To Be Read). It was by an author I had read before, and I hadn’t liked that book, but I prepared to cut him some slack and read this one.
It wasn’t as bad as the other book, but it was bad. And I know, that’s a subjective opinion, because he’s an award-winning writer who’s had two books made into movies (one of which is the aforementioned bad book). I read this one because the premise was interesting and I wanted to see how the story turned out, but along the way I had to listen to the writer chuckling to himself about his wonderful command of the language and his wonderfully poetic sentence construction, regardless of the effect this had on the characters he was using to prop up a preposterous and unwieldy plot. The story progressed, and then it ended in an unsatisfactory fashion, because the author had said all that he wanted to.
Stephen King (who knows a thing or two about writing) says that you should write the first draft of your story with the door closed. In effect, write that first draft for you, telling the story to yourself. Don’t worry about the language, or the themes, or maybe even the continuity. Get the bones down, get some flesh on them. Then, you open the door. You write the second draft with the reader in mind. What you want them to feel about the story, what effect you want to have, what themes you want to emphasize.
I don’t think Lit Fic authors ever open the door. If they ever write with a reader in mind, it’s the Art Critic, or that girl who sneered at them when they were fifteen. They want to impress people with their cleverness, light up the sky with the fireworks of their prose. And if you ask about story, about a satisfactory narrative, they will smile condescendingly and say “Oh, well, if you’re looking for that kind of book, the Maeve Binchys are over there.” and they would laugh with their friends, but they don’t have any.
I heard about an interview with a Lit Fic author who had written a book with Science Fiction elements. In fact, what he had done was taken a long-established sci-fi trope about what makes someone human (remember “Frankenstein”?) and trotted out a thin volume of his own. When the interviewer asked him, naturally enough, what Sci-Fi books he had read as he prepared to write his variation on this ancient theme, he (probably) smiled condescendingly and said “Oh, I don’t read genre.“
And that was apparent to anyone who read the jacket of the book, since the same idea has been done over and over and much more interestingly from Mary Shelley herself and on down through the years. But this guy, he thinks he’s being so damn original, so clever, so incisive, as he ponders questions that have been old hat in Sci Fi since before Jim Kirk took over the Enterprise from Pike. Because he doesn’t read genre, darling, so he doesn’t know what he’s missed.
So, I may not like Lit Fic, but I will continue to pick them up from time to time. The same way I read romance from time to time, or thrillers, or horror, or YA. Because I love books, and stories, and just because Sci-Fi is my wheelhouse doesn’t mean that’s the only thing I’ll ever read. I don’t want to become as provincial as that Lit Fic author. It’s ok not to like something, but I’m quite happy for other people to go on reading Lit Fic if it floats their boat. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I want it gone.
And one day, I shall finish writing my own lit fic book, currently stalled at 7,500 words because I keep wanting it to have a plot and a point…