How to write a book

Storytelling in literary fiction: let’s discuss

New_dress_DSC09958There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.

That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .

An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).

Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?

When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.

Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:

Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.

Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.

But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.

And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.

The conflagration spread to Twitter

And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’

Stop, please

It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?

It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.

Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?

This is something, as writers, we must avoid.

I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.

Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.

We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?

Brideshead Re-revisited

Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.

Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.

Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.

So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?

Again, I’ll let Dave speak:

In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.

Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’

So, er, what?

I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.

Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.

So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.

Thanks for the pic “New dress DSC09958” by Владимир Шеляпин – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, the floor is yours.

42 thoughts on “Storytelling in literary fiction: let’s discuss

  1. the issue that is misleading is conflating emotion with excitement or story. It is perfectly possible to evoke emotion through words, through lyricism, through a thought revealed rather than action on the page.

    I don’t like the label litfic, but I suppose that’s where my work would be pigeonholed. And as a writer I proudly affirm my complete disinterest in story both as a writer and a reader. There are only 6 or 7 basic stories and everything is a variant of one of them. What makes each one unique is the voice with which a staid story is woven. Any book I write asks the question, why is this character telling this story in this particular way? It is more about the storyteller than the story. I like to push at making different narrative forms, not ones with beginnings, middle, ends, no redemption, no character arcs, no use of conflict as a device to create tension (not to say I don’t employ conflict, just not as a device). Why do I approach writing in this way? because to my mind it is more akin to real people and real life. (This is not to say I am pursuing realism either). Rather the aim is to explore the relationship of fiction to revealing ‘truth’ in the real world. And what is ineffably the lone absolute truth in fiction? – The emotions prompted in any reader.

    But I agree in one respect, most comments on either side of the argument seem to be motivated by defending the writer’s own stance and perceiving the other ‘camp’ somehow as a threat to that.

    1. Hi Marc
      good point about considering the author’s purpose. What we have to hope is that the right readers pick it up and are struck by it in the intended way. We’re all much more flexible and complicated than a set of rules would ever allow.

  2. I say aye, and I think Neil Gaiman would agree. This is what he said in the foreword to Stories (co-edited by Al Sarrantonio):

    “What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. Yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that.”

    A story that makes us care should not be the aspiration only of YA and genre writers. An author who fails to make that their fundamental priority doesn’t deserve to be read at all.

  3. What winds my spring is the equation of literary fiction and “beautiful language” or description of sentence-making. It seems to come from a certain kind of desperately turgid kind of historical doorstep that Booker has been increasingly obsessed by. It bothers me most because I love literary fiction and it is this kind of Mantellian turgidity that turns readers off it and means they never come into contact with the likes of Murakami, Jelinek, Atwood, Yoshimoto, Ballard, Banks, writers who can turn your world upside down. I have to say Ishiguro is part of the problem rather than the solution – coolness is a good word to use – but not the kind of minimalist detachment that works so well in the likes of Murakami or Tom McCarthy, but rather, as Dave suggests, an inability to dig under the language itself to the emotion it is intending to convey – it’s a problem a lot of overly formalist proseurs and poets have, and it disengages readers. On the other hand, some of the most experimental, abstract writers there are can deliver the most powerful emotional punch – take Elfriede Jelinek, David Foster Wallace, or Djuna Barnes. Form isn’t the enemy of substance, rather a false assumption that form is the goal of the writer rather than the tool.

    1. Hey Dan! That’s so, so true – there’s a lot more to litfic than language and form. Love your phrase there about the Booker doorstops – though I have to say I enjoy spending time in Mantelworld. (However, I find she can’t plot!)

  4. Aye!

    To paraphrase Frederick the Great: intrigue, intrigue, toujours l’intrigue!

    Although, perhaps in the sour-grapes department, I’ve wondered for years if here in the States there isn’t a certain tendency to define “literary” in a hyper-technical and/or cliquish sense. It’s in the sour-grapes department because of the rejection slips I get for short stories. My favorite noted that the story I submitted had “an interesting conceit.”


    I just spent the last five minutes trying to come up with a pithy comment on the subject, but I think the truth of the matter, for me, is that the job of the writer is to make his story, a subjective creation if ever one existed, resonate with the subjective world-views of his audience to the point where they hopefully don’t even notice they are turning the page and when “the end” comes with a feeling of poignant regret.

    If you can achieve that as a writer what do labels like “literary” matter?

    Interesting question, though. Maybe there’s a different correct answer for every writer on every new day.

    1. Tom, I love that observation of yours about the reader not noticing they’re turning the page. As far as I’m concerned, that means I’ve done my job. The print disappeared and they were immersed.

  5. Interesting debate.

    One could say the secret of being read lies in one’s talent and ability to read one’s inner psychic world, even when filtered through one’s most personal and eccentric imagination … from my last blog post, ‘How do I read.’

  6. I’m encountering this in a writing/critique group. My friend and I are both lit majors and poets now working on other things. The rest of the group are teachers/educators who are just starting to write. I’ve been slowly setting the poetry aside to focus on my novels, all of which are genre.
    One of the chief criticisms of my work (outside the group) has been that it’s too literary, too character based, too wordy, and while I see the literary influence in my work, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I’ve also been studying structure, outlining, and writing craft on my own.
    My poet friend has just, in the last year, branched out to write a short play and now she’s working on her first novel, which is traditionally literary. When we discussed it in group, I encouraged her to think about structure a bit, to think about how to pull her readers into the story. Her reaction was that she didn’t want her novel to be commercial.
    I had to swallow a good number of frustrated words.
    She’s very well-read across genres and I was dismayed that she, too, had drunk the CanLit Kool-Aid. She is working with a mentor, however, and is slowly coming around to understand that good writing is good writing and that buiding logically, though not always directly, to a climax and engaging readers along the way are qualities of all good novels, literary or otherwise.
    This false dichotomy between lit and genre is one of the things that irritates me no end, but there seems to be no foreseeable end to the argument. It simmers for a while and them explodes into social media with extreme views on either side of the divide.
    I feel like Charlie Brown shouting “AAAARGH!” at the universe.
    I’m sure the pendulum will swing. Writing and writers will change. We always do.
    In the meantime, I’m going to write what I want to write. Because that’s what I do 🙂

    1. Hi Melanie! Oh dear, the idea that structure means sticking to a commercial formula. I’m sure you managed to persuade her otherwise.
      I like your point about the false dichotomy of genre vs literary. I prefer to think of a spectrum – some writers are deeply literary, some are completely about the surface. In reality we’re probably all at different mixtures. And meanwhile, it’s fun living and learning.
      Thanks for a comment that was virtually a post in itself!

    1. I don’t know about it being logical, but it makes perfect sense to the book marketers and publishers’ sales teams who see the need to differentiate the two in order to market them. To the denigration of reader, author and book itself I feel, but there you go…

  7. I love Ishiguro, but I haven’t read his latest because, well, I can’t afford it. The civil war between literary and genre fiction, however, is something I can comment on. Make it stop!

    This is as senseless as the debate between ‘mind’ and ‘body’, or ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. Real human beings contain both of the former and are created by both of the latter. And by analogy, a good story is crafted using all the tools in a writer’s toolbox.

    Whether the finished product gains acceptance with readers is up to the opinion of each reader. Creating artificial absolutes helps no one. 😦

  8. As I’m reading Chekhov’s stories at the moment I cant resist saying that perhaps he is the benchmark – along with Tolstoy- for others to rise to! Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych and Chekhov’s Ward 6 have plenty of emotional depth – I would say spiritual depth. Which contemporary writers can we say that about? Am I alone, for example, in thinking Banville’s, The Sea VERY overated?

    1. Love this comment, Erik. I haven’t read the Chekhov stories or the Tolstoy, so am unable to raise you a comparison with any certainty, but I’d argue that Jose Saramago has an extraordinary quality of depth. Hope I’ll think of more during the day, but for now it’s too darn early!

      1. I read his Blindness last summer and must admit I was impressed. As usual Colin Wilson nails it in his Craft of the Novel. Lots of writers have gone through the mill and got MA’s in creative writing and know all about style! Can they actually say anything which is deeply felt and thought though?

  9. I ran up against the same thing Melanie mentioned at a writer’s conference several years ago. Three of the moderators (NYTimes bestseller-list authors) read the same three chapters of mine – two were very complimentary, the third left red marks all over the page. As I started examining that reader’s comments, I realized he’d simply excised anything having to do with character and texture and quirk. I was left with plot, which is like giving me the bones of a chicken and telling me to eat. Genre or literary, our job is to throw a light on the world around us. And, as creative artists, it’s our job to ignore piles of rubbish thrown at us by those who (think they) know exactly how things ‘ought’ to be done. After four ‘lit’ books (my own quirky versions of such), I’m finding a very stark light in genre that helps make my point these days. As long as we’re sharing something genuine from our hearts and guts, ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ are just different tools with the same goal – a flathead and a Phillips-head, simply means to an end.

    1. Interesting situation, Ted. It’s tricky to assess excerpts anyway. Your character and quirk passages might have been perfect in the context of the whole book if you’d cranked up the reader’s curiosity about them. How can anyone tell that from just an excerpt?

      But I like your point about the heaps of advice – to which I add every week on this blog, of course. Take every rule and find the exceptions, then decide what you want to do. Truth rocks.

  10. Aye. A writer of the literary capable of implanting thought-provoking steams of theme within a compelling plot is a rare beast. Maybe that’s because to combine the two is not an easy task.

  11. This just came up as we recorded the next LRH and then the first LRH bookclub about The Heart Goes Last. There was something about both the short story we read and the book that missed it’s mark. As we began talking, this current modern scale with emotion on one side and depth/layers/nuance on the other came up. It’s a problem and it worries me as a writer because I wonder if I even can get published if I don’t have this current modern literary “sound. ” Thanks, good post.

    1. Maya, that must have been a fun discussion – I bet you guys gave the idea a good workout.
      As for whether you’d get published if you don’t have this detachment, just write in a way that satisfies you. I can’t imagine that a story told warmly will ever go out of style.

  12. Good article. Lots of food for thought. I do believe it was useful because it encourages critical thinking, which seems to be out of vogue at the moment.

    Roz said: “It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.”

    When I first started learning about writing fiction, I came across frequent reminders that the primary goal of a writer is to give the reader an emotional experience. Granted, much of my study was related to genre writing, but still, it hardly seems likely that boredom or confusion would be logical emotional goals for any writer who wishes to produce something readable (much less enjoyable).

    Roz said: “I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.”

    And we’re back to emotions. Marketers will tell you that most people make decisions based on their emotions and then justify those decisions with their intellect. The non-critical thinking you describe here is a good example of that. You can’t reason with unreasonable people, and it’s unreasonable to assume your position is unassailable.

    It’s often difficult to say why readers are attracted to a particular author’s stories. Even the poorest writer with the most abysmal grasp of craft can have fans. I have fans, and my writing skill is far below yours. The one common denominator across skilled and unskilled authors seems to be that their fans will vigorously defend the source of their personal enjoyment. To attack an author’s work is to attack the audience who loves it on a personal level because it effectively invalidates their emotions. Is it possible to have an objective critical discussion with such readers? I doubt it.

    Roz said: “Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.”

    Indeed. Developing that critical scrutiny has largely ruined my entertainment reading. I find typos, plot holes, structural failures, and violations of nearly every writing mantra we are encouraged to follow. Sometimes the story is so compelling that it overcomes the technical difficulties, but more often it doesn’t. I tend to read a lot of genre works (both traditional and self-published), and that undoubtedly has something to do with my reading experience. However, every time I try to read something that is solidly “literary fiction,” I become bored, and on the rare occasions when I manage to reach the end, I often wonder what the point was. Then I wonder if the point was that there was no point at which time I decide I don’t like literary fiction.

    Engaging literary fiction exists, but it can be hard to find. It could be that the tepid reputation of literary fiction is a side-effect of categorization. What do you do with a book that has no apparent plot or gripping emotion? If it defies genre classification, then it must be literary fiction. Has literary fiction always been the dumping ground for novels that failed to entertain in a specific way? That would certainly explain some things.

    1. Mr Marvello! As always, you write a good essay!
      I like the fact that you’ve raised the topic of marketing and emotion. Especially because marketing and writing – all writing, not just the literary kind – are often perceived as separate departments. That’s rubbish. They work in similar ways. As you say, it’s all about emotion. And persuasion too. Marketing has a goal because it wants you to take an action, but that’s probably the only difference. Both writers and marketers have to be smart about how they’re making the recipient feel. I love this crossing of boundaries because it gives us a fresh insight into how we work.
      Sorry about ruining your entertainment reading! Perhaps it should be viewed positively, like growing out of rot-gut wine.
      Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful contribution.

    2. “Sorry about ruining your entertainment reading! Perhaps it should be viewed positively, like growing out of rot-gut wine.”

      LOL. I’m sure the writers in question would be offended to have their work characterized in such a way. My positive view is that I’ve learned how to be a better editor and a more critical reader at the expense of being able to lose myself in the story. C’est la vie.

      What makes for entertainment is a subjective proposition. I don’t believe that any person or organization should be allowed to arbitrate what should and should not be considered quality or publishable work, Tsunami of Crap notwithstanding. The quality of the books that used to entertain me has not changed: *I’ve* changed, and my lack of tolerance for the “flaws” I now see is my problem. Meanwhile, if those stories continue to entertain thousands or millions of readers, more power to them. The world is a better place for having happy readers.

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