December 19, 2007

Reaching Up

During the previous quarter of graduate school, in an assigned chapter of “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama,” I found the following distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction:

Reading literary fiction (as distinguished from fiction as a commercial product–the formula kind of spy, detective, Western, romance, or science fiction story), we are not necessarily led on by the promise of thrills; we do not keep reading mainly to find out what happens next…Reading literary fiction is no merely passive activity, but one that demands both attention and insight-lending participation.

I’m an unapologetic reader and writer of romance, and I’m not going to defend the genre here because I think others have done it eloquently enough (Eloisa James in particular). But lately I’ve been thinking about what elements make a romance transcend genre parameters.

I read Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm or Pam Rosenthal’s The Bookseller’s Daughter and they bowl me over every time. How do they do it? Every day I search for the elusive qualities that will make my WIP extraordinary. The perfect metaphor, the rich historical detail that will bring it alive, the most precise adjective.

George Orwell wrote that stale phrases choke writing like “tea leaves blocking a sink.” I want this novel to be clog-free.

Sherry Thomas, author of the upcoming Private Arrangements, wrote a post on her blog about authors who choose to do the extra work to craft beautiful writing. I loved her acknowledgment of the difficulty involved in rising above the quotidian.

It is hard work constantly searching for fresh images, ruthlessly eliminating cliches, spending hours researching historical detail for one sentence. Sometimes I feel like I’m lashing words together like bamboo scaffolding to support the weight of my ambition. The bamboo bends and bows and feels like it may break, but each day I climb higher.


9 thoughts on “Reaching Up”

  1. I think the association of reading to find out what happens next with passivity is a false one. For me, the most pleasing passive reading experience is one in which I already know (or else am encouraged by the author to not really care) what happens next, but am led by a pleasingly ornamented route to the expected destination.

  2. I feel the same way–particularly when in the throws of a “shitty first draft”. *G* I look to the unique prose created by Judith Ivory, Pam Rosenthal, and Jane Feather, and it gives me hope that I’m working towards those elusive heights of prose that makes a novel stand out above most others.

  3. Boo on that false dichotomy between literary and genre fiction. I think it does a disservice to authors of both types. As if literary fiction authors can’t be bothered to come up with an actual story or something. Of course we read to find out what happens next. Isn’t that why we do just about anything?

    That said, when I write, I do not write to “challenge” the reader or make them work for their reading experience. I strive to do the exact opposite – sweep a reader into a story that will engage and entertain her without imposing big demands on her. So yeah, that’s not terribly “literary”, I suppose, but it’s no less important, IMO. We need books that give us escape (at least, I know I do!), and that doesn’t mean they can’t be well-written. I think (and I’m just making this up as a type) maybe there’s an “easy” and a “hard” way to create a story that reads as effortlessly as possible. The easier way is to rely on the familiar genre shorthand and conventions that all readers bring to the book. The harder way , perhaps, is to find a style and language that is fresh, yet equally effective in making the reader feel “at home” in the book. I wish I had more of the second and less of the first, but I hope that’s something I’ll achieve in time. Regardless, I think hospitality toward the reader is a hallmark of genre fiction. We invite the reader into the story and invite her to make it hers. If those literary folk want to keep drawing lines that keep our work on the outside, well… I guess it’s not surprising. It’s what they do.

  4. What are you doing reading blogs, Tessa? You’re on vacation! Thank you for continuing the discussion, though.

    I’m certainly not trying to challenge readers either, but I think someone like Laura Kinsale is, with her arcane dialogue and misunderstood characters. That’s why her books generate such polarized reviews.

    I’m going for the same thing you are I think. I want to sweep the reader into, as Huar put it, a pleasingly ornamented route to an expected destination. It makes me so mad when people say there is something wrong with that. Pleasure haters.

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