At a recent writers’ workshop-conference for thriller and mystery writers taught by two bestselling authors in their genres, the state of contemporary literary fiction was dissed as being self-serving and small. Who wants to hear about another dysfunctional family or an abusive childhood, or my extraordinary recovery from drug addiction? Why is there no resolution in literary fiction? (There is often no conflict.) Why is contemporary literary fiction always, in some way, about me, the author, without objective storytelling and characterization?
Most literary-fiction writers in the audience silently agreed–a majority of academically-trained literary writers fail to create adequate stories . . . and fail to achieve narration that can engage and please any reader who is not related to or trained in academics (private or college/university workshops or MFA programs). In the discussions, genre writers and reviewers found fault in the “littleness” of contemporary “literary” writers’ conceptualizations of story and failure to address the major issues of today’s global society. Academic-generated “literature” writing has decreased the acceptance and respect readers have for fiction as literature as an art form and bears little resemblance to the literary fiction as evolved in the past.
Genre depends on strong plot and is viably commercially but does not develop character in-depth with literary, psychic, psychological prose, and plot, at risk of losing plot momentum, suspense, and thrills. Genre writers often describe characters and plots with catastrophic, or the threat of catastrophic, results or familiar tried-and-dependable plots that easily trigger emotions. And, to be sure, these hard-earned stories are worthy of praise for significant accomplishment.
In contrast, today’s few but dedicated literary-writers depend on the power of classic fiction techniques–Chekov, Tolstoy, Conrad, Forster, Homer, Austen, Hawthorne, Melville, and the like, when literary imagined-fiction did deal with broad, important human, social, and political issues of the times . . . stories created through meticulous character development, character involvement in plot momentum, and character and reader enlightenment as an equally effective, and often better, way for prose to deliver understanding of human change in well-presented social and political environments. Almost all published contemporary “literary” stories are written by academically-trained “literary” authors who believe they’re writing works of lasting quality and artistic merit but are actually the source of declining interest and rejection of “literature.” The fault lies with academic teachers who have generally failed in teaching the creation of enthusiastically-accepted, traditionally-created fiction in favor of, or at least in addition to, encouraging nonfiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, biography, celebrity platform-based writing (that is not infrequently labeled literary or general fiction). In academic teaching, there is an emphasis on me, the author, and writing by remembering events and people to describe rather than imagining and creating story and character. The literature-of-self. The commercial decline of “literature” is a result of weak storytelling touted as “literature” and marketed as “extraordinary” and “bestseller” but written by “academically” trained writers rarely, if ever, tutored in storytelling and characterization skills of past literary greats. And if traditional publishers and agents could occasionally focus on: storytelling with character-based, dramatic plots; intense skillful characterization; and theme and meaning in the traditions of the past, literature might again be admired as art that would have longevity and could be commercially self-sustaining.
At the conference, two genre authors widely read and with impressive commercial success had identified a problematic fact without a solution and conference participants felt a loss of literature-as-an-art-form. If literary writers are to assist in establishing literature as art again, they will soon have to seek better training in creating effective prose and learning compelling storytelling. And those writers will not be judged alone by commercial success but by the significant impact of story and character on receptive readers. Writers seeking success in literary achievement will need to analyze and determine how the great authors of the past they admire achieved memorability and significance and then seek a trained teacher who writes well and is a gifted educator willing to mentor the student in writing excellence in literature using the techniques of past generations adapted to the contemporary needs and wants of readers of literature.
William H. Coles
RESOURCES: (free) online essays.
“Speaking of the Dead,” a short story (available online, free) by William H. Coles with a character-based plot, focus on characterization, inherent meaning about being human, and a theme of forgiveness.
Illustration by Betty Harper