Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why I will never write literary fiction

I just had a really nice conversation with a writing friend of mine. We meet every Wednesday and comment on each other's work-in-progress. Each of us finds the other's comments helpful. My friend's comments certainly have helped me in my writing. I rather doubt that I would have been able to progress as far as I have, without her help. And I think she feels much the same way about my comments. It helps that we're both writing roughly similar stuff, though hers is quite different in tone than my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece.

Which brings me, naturally, to the subject of writing again. We are friends as well as partners in writing, and I sort of blurted out thoughts which I've had at the back of my mind for quite some time. In short, I told her I would never, ever, try my hand at writing literary fiction. The reason? Well, I have a rather instinctive dislike of "ambiguous" or "downbeat" endings, which are all too common in certain types of so called "literary" or "mainstream" fiction. Her reply was to quote something her brother --- who is a teacher --- said to her about this kind of fiction --- that the stories make the people who read them, feel better about their own situations because the characters the writers are writing about, are in situations that are so much worse.

Well, maybe. There is a notion, often but not always perpetuated by people who teach literature courses, that these "downbeat ending" type of novels are more "mature" and "realistic" and therefore "better" literature. They forget that this kind of literary snobbery didn't exist before about the middle of the 19th century, which is why, say, the works of Dickens barely qualify as "good" literature(there are exceptions, e.g. Great Expectations). Anything else is basically "for children" or even worse, just plain "trashy". For an example of this kind of thinking, see my comments on a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In other words, "good" writing had better reflect what some people think of as reality.

But is it? And does it matter? Well, you could say that happy endings are for fairy tales, and you would be partially right. But you would be partially wrong, too. First of all, I, as a reader, don't find "downbeat" stories very satisfying. They are just too --- downbeat. This may be due in part to my own personal makeup. I've suffered from at least one serious and long-lasting depressive episode which I am now, thankfully over. But I don't think very many people who perhaps haven't suffered from depressive episodes find such tales very satisfying, either. I think readers want conclusions that are relatively "neat". Now maybe Happily Ever After doesn't reflect reality, but it may make people feel more hopeful about their own life and problems. And an escape from these daily problems helps a lot of people, too. This is why the romance genre is so wildly popular. Romance isn't exactly my taste, but the stories have neat, wrapped-up endings quite unlike many people's often untidy lives.

Whatever their motivation, I quite agree with the majority of people, who like tidy endings to stories that suggest there is hope in the world. The protagonist can go through some really awful situations, as the two main protagonists in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece do, but they will come out ahead. There will be a Happy Ever After, though they live in quite horrible and seemingly "savage" times, though they were probably no worse than the times and places of people living right now. If anyone doesn't believe this, they should contemplate what the people of Iraq are going through. They, of all people, probably desperately want their own versions of Happy Ever After.

And that pretty much sums up why I won't be writing any "literary/mainstream" fiction. I really don't care if it's not considered "mature" writing by some critic with other sorts of tastes. They are certainly welcome to their own leanings; I would never stop them from reading or watching what they want to read or watch. But I, myself, insist on some sort of conclusion. I insist on some sort of Happy Ever After, because I want people to enjoy what they're reading. And when they turn that final page, I want them to leave with a little more hope in their hearts, than they began with.
Anne G

12 comments:

stevent said...

Anne,

I tend to favor stories that end positively as well. I like to think my time investment in a novel has some payoff in the end. Pillars of the Earth is one of my favorite books of all time, but so much of its success is due to its fantastic ending. The only time I can accept a story ending on a flat note is if it makes sense, realistically, to do so, if there is no other practical alternative. I think of the movie Cast Away, and while some people dislike the ending, I think it made complete sense given the circumstances. A novel I disliked, in most part because of the ending, was Lovely Bones. It could have been a great book, but it failed, in my opinion, because of a lackluster, negative ending. I think a lot of times in writing today, writers are creating these less than perfect, more "realistic" endings because it goes against the classical norm, rather than asking themselves: does it make sense?

stevent said...

I've added your blog to my site as well.

Anne Gilbert said...

stevent:

Sorry it took so long to reply. I've been having trouble with my cranky old computer. You make a good point, though. There are certain types of artistic endeavor that more or less requre a "downer" ending. Think of Anna Karenina and it's easy to see what I mean. There really isn't any other way that story could have ended, given that time and that place, but Tolstoy used the ending, I think, to point out how unhappy that time and place made a lot of people.

Furthermore, it takes a really good author to pull off such an ending. And most of the authors who write like that aren't anywhere near Tolstoy. They've learned, usually in some "creative writing" class, that "realistic" is "preferred", and that other kinds of fiction, well, if you're really intelligent, you don't read "that stuff". So I think it's really more about attitudes toward writing than anything else. These attitudes have been around among certain classes of people,for over 100 years. These people consider themselves "tastemakers", and if they praise some "realistic" story like Lovely Bones, it's because they, themselves like such stories, not because a lot of readers necessarily do. Although I must admit, I know that there are a lot of people who apparently liked it. But i think more people actually like "hopeful" or upbeat endings, or at least endings that leave a sense of hopefulness about the world. They find such things more satisfying than the sometimes hopeless complexity of whatever they define as reality. By the way< that"s one of the reasons why I"ve always liked science fiction. The author Vonda McIntyre once said that it's a "hopeful" genre. From much of what I've read there, I think she's right. And that's how I'm writing.

Anne Gilbert said...

Thank you for adding me to your blog. All comments and anything else is greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I feel that someone should say that it is not a messy or depressing ending that defines literary fiction, but rather a greater focus on the internal struggle of characters than on external plot. Jane Austen's books are universally acknowledged as literature. So are many modern works that wrap things up in a hopeful, "unrealistic" way. The Secret Life of Bees, for example, is very much a literary book, and it still ends mostly happily ever after.

Anne Gilbert said...

Anonymous:

Well, I guess it depends on how much emphasis you want to put on "character development". And my beef with much of what is called "literary fiction" these days lies precisely in the fact that they dohave these awful "downer" endings. Too much emphasis is also placed on this "character development" and not enough on "story" IMO. And there are people out there who are snobbish enough to be disdainful of what they consider "story" over "character development". That said, I'm not against this genre, just not prepared to write it. And everything I write is going to be Happy Ever After, even if it seems "unrealistic" to some would-be readers.

Thea Swanson said...

This is a great conversation! I'm a literary writer who writes both happy and sad endings, but I strive for subtlety. With that said, I wish there were more short stories with humor and love (not sappy love--please!) and less with vulgarity. Some pain is always needed though because that is just life. Every day I feel all those emotions!

Peace+

Anne Gilbert said...

Thea:

I'm not sure what you mean by "sappy" love, but I do agree with you that people, and emotions, are complex, and I think writers of all types need to be aware of this, regardless of what type of fiction they write. That,BTW, is one of the reasons I won't write "wholly" dislikeable antagonists, either. People are just too complex, generally speaking, for "complete" villainy or "complete" goodness.
Anne G

Thea Swanson said...

Anne,

By sappy love I really mean a sappy way of telling/showing the love. I haven't watched TV in years, but sappy love might appear on a sitcom (like the old Friends show). Is there sappy love in stories? I don't know, probably, but not in the ones I read. I felt the need to qualify that over-used word "love" in my posting, even though I want to see more of it in the stories I read.

Thea Swanson said...

By sappy love I mean the way it is told/shown. I don't watch TV anymore, but a sitcom like Friends might show sappy love. Love in itself isn't sappy. I want to see more well-written love in stories of all kinds, and less shock-value which I feel I see in literary fiction--vulgarity to get published.

Anne Gilbert said...

Thea:

I'm still not clear on what you mean by "sappy love". If it was "sappy" on "Friends", that's probably because it was a sitcom and thus overplayed, deliberately. This is harder to do in a story -- another reason why I'm having trouble figuring out what you mean.

Thea Swanson said...

Sappy love probably doesn't show up in most published stories, no matter what the genre. I was simply qualifying the word "love." However, since you ask, here would be a poorly written sappy love scene:

"It is you I've always wanted." Phil looked into her eyes.

"Oh, Phil," Sarah's lip trembled, "Why didn't you just tell me?"

Phil took her shoulders in his hands, "Because if you rejected me, I couldn't take it."

There's sap. It's oozing. We could go on and on, contributing to the sap with setting and description too.