A Literary Slush Pile

One of my gigs this summer is reading the slush pile for an independent literary press. Although I’ve done a lot of slush pile reading in the past, what’s different about this experience is that the writing is not geared toward genre or convention, and I doubt any of the writers expect to sell millions of copies. They aspire to be the next Dave Eggers or Alice Munro, not Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer. That means that (if they do what most literary fiction does) the writing will be focused on character development, interesting and beautiful language, and finding new ways to tell a story. With that in mind (and perhaps a little naively), I expected the slush pile to be filled with writers who command language and write engaging, unique characters.

You can probably see where this is going: to my disappointment, the slush pile is not filled with writers who command language or write engaging, unique characters. My request rate is way down compared to what it was last summer. I’m not actually reading the queries, but I read the first few chapters of a manuscript and then recommend whether to request more or not. So far, I have recommended requesting more of absolutely 0 books.

I think the reason (besides the fact that the manuscripts need work) is that I have higher expectations for literary writers. When reviewing paranormal romances or mysteries, I was willing to let sub-par character development or repetitive language slide (with a note to include it in a revision letter) if the story was remarkable. With a literary writer, however, there is no breathtaking story to rely on. Those elements I would say, “well, we can revise that” for a genre piece are what I am looking for in a literary piece. So you’d better have it down pat.

Considering literary fiction generally doesn’t sell well, I am impressed at the number of writers attempting it, and I applaud their efforts. But craft comes first, second, and third in literary fiction, so you had better get it down pat before trying to publish.

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Adult Literacy Programs

Every winter quarter, the seniors and writing faculty give readings of their most recent opuses* to the general public at Northwestern. This past Tuesday was the inaugural event, and, along with several wonderful student readings, Brian Bouldrey was the faculty reader. In the past, faculty members have read excerpts from published novels, essays, and poetry collections. Professor Bouldrey was no different, standing up there with his bound and published book. Except his book was smaller than a chapter book, and just about as thin, too. And, in what I surmise is a typical Bouldrey move, he read the end of the novella to us instead of the beginning.

What was most remarkable about the reading, however, was his explanation of the book. The Sorrow of the Elves is a part of the Open Door Series, an adult literacy program that was started in Ireland and is now migrating to North America. According to Wikipedia, each book of this series has to follow editorial guidelines such as a standard plot, well-developed characters, simple language, and short chapters. Each book is also capped at 10,000 words.

I was astounded to hear about this series. First of all, I’m not sure what they mean by adult literacy. Does that mean there is a substantial population of adults who can’t read? According to the CIA World Factbook, the USA and Ireland both have literacy rates of 99%. The problem must then be that adults aren’t taking the time to read. Professor Bouldrey said he wrote his to make people fall in love with reading again.

This is a great cause, but it does give me pause. I always want my writing to make people fall in love with reading. For me, there is nothing better than staying up past my bedtime to finish – or try to finish – a book, and that’s the experience I want every one of my readers to have. And I think a lot of writers have the same goal. So when did we need to start a whole series dedicated to this?

I think part of it goes back to the question of literary fiction versus genre fiction. Literary fiction often tries to push boundaries, experiment with form, and imbue itself with layers and layers of meanings for the intelligent reader to tease out through long discussions, while genre fiction is more concerned with the story and entertaining people (but, as I’ve said in previous posts, that doesn’t mean genre fiction has any less meaning). I will admit, however, that even I, an avid reader and an undeclared English major, don’t really enjoy the act of reading literary fiction. I enjoy discussing it in class afterwards. But if the story is slowing and the characters are falling to the side so that the writer can play with words and form, I get bored. I put it aside. Maybe I even watch television instead.

Perhaps the problem of adult literacy is a cry to all writers who write for themselves or other writers or the elite few who actually sit around in coffee shops doing close readings of passages. Perhaps the true test of being a good writer is not throwing away all the elements of fiction that readers love in order to experiment, but fitting those experiments and games and meanings into the outline of a novel that readers will enjoy.

*The English plural of opus is opuses. The Latin plural is opera.

Writing for Other Writers

In the October issue of Writer’s Digest, there is an article on an MFA program that teaches genre fiction as well as literary fiction. It is written by a professor of the program, and in it he makes a point that I think is very true; he says that somewhere in the birth of the MFA program, poets stopped writing for the public and started writing only for other poets.

Considering the average person (including myself) doesn’t read poetry, I think this point is very astute. Poetry was originally the main form of literature because its rhythm and rhymes allowed storytellers to recite it to the illiterate population. Now poetry looks for ways to break those conventions to create deeper meanings. The problem is that the intricacies of the rules are known only to a few – those who study poetry – leaving the poem obtuse for any layman.

The point of the article was that the professor feared MFA programs and creative writing academia in general is going to follow the same path for fiction. As I said in this post, I definitely agree that genre fiction is disdained in the academic world. However, I am not concerned that this means there will be an end to fiction. Poetry suffered a disappearance from public bookshelves; fiction is what fills those shelves. It is simply the MFA programs and their writers that will become obsolete and unpublished.

I started a poetry course this quarter as someone who finds poetry unnecessarily abstract and not interesting enough to hold my attention. As I learn the rules, I enjoy reading poetry for analysis; I like to dissect the ways the poet has broken rules to underscore meaning and to revel in the specific diction chosen to best express the poet’s meaning. However, the only poems I enjoy reading for reading’s sake are those that have a rhyme and rhythm that make it fun to say. Perhaps if poets return to this tradition, their work will return to commercial shelves.

If you read poetry, what is it that you enjoy about it?

Entertainment versus Serious Fiction

In my “Art of Fiction” class, we begin with a student presentation on an element of fiction and then proceed to workshops. Yesterday, the presentation was on plot. In the handout, the presenters made a distinction between an “entertainment story” and a “serious story”, saying that the former was genre stories and mass-trade paperbacks and the latter was more “cerebral” and focuses on internal character development, and that interaction between characters will be the agent of change in the character.

This distinction made my blood boil.

First, there is the nomenclature of “entertainment” versus “serious.” Those titles imply that a genre story can’t possibly have any seriousness or any insightful moments as it is purely for entertainment and that, on the reverse side, a literary story cannot have any entertainment value. As my professor pointed out in the discussion that ensued, entertainment is the main point of fiction. In fact, I would argue that even when readers search for deeper meanings and compose theses on what the fiction is trying to say, they are deriving entertainment out of that. Entertainment is the essence of fiction.

It was not just the titles that irked me, however. The idea that only in “serious” fiction can character interactions determine the plot is completely erroneous. Sure, in some genres, there is more of an emphasis on things that happen, such as in the Da Vinci Code when the plot is forwarded by things being stolen, discovered, killed, etc. However, many genre books use characters to propel the plot, and all good fiction has the same opportunity for change in a character that the handout ascribes to “serious” fiction.

But perhaps what was the most horrifying for me was in the discussion we had about the nomenclature, everyone kept describing literary fiction as “good” and conveniently left off adjectives for “other” fiction. Yet I must ask, where is the measure for “good” coming from? Certainly if it were coming from sales, genre fiction would be the best. If it were coming from what the average person reads, again, genre fiction would be the best. I myself, an English major, don’t particularly enjoy literary fiction over genre fiction: I’ll read it and discuss it, but the books that keep me awake until three in the morning tend to be that “entertainment” stuff.

My personal theory is that literary writers began calling their own work “good” and genre fiction “bad” because they were spurned by bad book sales. Forced to become professors in order to pay the bills and have time to write, they then influenced (and perhaps belittled) students who wanted to be genre fiction into similarly having such disdain, and a chain reaction was started that resulted in an academia separate from the real world.

I refuse to be a part of that chain reaction. I will read what I want to read – genre and literary fiction alike – without shame and judge all writing based solely on that: the writing.