14 October 2010

Literature and popular fiction

There is a great deal of teen fiction and Christian fiction out there, but is it literature? The answer is not as simple as may seem.

On the extreme end of literature, we have works that practically no one reads through. The prime examples are James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. At the other extreme take, for instance, Michael Crighton's Airframe, a good, fast read, but with nothing literary about it. In between there are many surprises.

Now, popular literature is that written to sell well, with minimal consideration to character development, themes, or style. Literary novels are character-driven, are elegantly written by some reasonable standard, and deal with themes of universal importance. They often have a subtext and/or symbology. Another characteristic of literary novels is intertextuality, that is, references to other works of literature. For example, Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels make frequent allusion, directly or indirectly, to Alice in Wonderland and to Through the Looking-Glass. Most works considered literary display most (though not necessarily all) of these characteristics.

Here's what makes it so difficult to draw a line between literary and popular. No one doubts that Hugo's Les misérables is literary. Yet he was paid by the word and the novel appeared first by installments in newspapers, the height of popularity back then. By contrast, the Harry Potter series is considered popular, but it is overflowing with literary and historical allusions, wonderful characterizations, and a thoroughly character-driven plot. Being popular and literary is not mutually exclusive.

So, for writers who aim to be literary: remember and respect your readers. Unnecessary complexity and obscure writing do not add up to literature. And for writers of popular fiction: read a lot before you ever start writing and always keep reading. That makes for literature and it is not incompatible with popularity. Publishers: be more judicious and bring back a sense of literary mission to put alongside the desire to make money.

See my book's website: www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

01 October 2010

Present tense narration

I'm an avid reader of The New Yorker but I have seldom read their fiction. When I first tried it out I found the stories not particularly imaginative and a good half or more were narrated in the present tense. I read one or two of those and that was enough. A whole story in present tense is usually tiresome in the extreme. So from then on, as soon as I saw that the story in the new issue was in present tense, I stopped reading. I thought it was a sign of getting old on my part.

Then, last week, the New York Times carried a story on the UK's prize for Youth Fiction. The judges were complaining that half of the books submitted were narrated in the present tense. They said it diminished the quality of works they were judging. There was a small demonstration outside the place where the winners were announced. The demonstrators carried signs saying "What do we want? Past tense!" and "When do we want it? Now!" I had company!

Apparently present tense narration has hit a nerve. Right now I am about to finish Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. She has a little present tense narration (not much) sprinkled here and there. I find natural. It helps to distinguish the moment of narration and what surrounds it from the stories about what happened in the past, which are the memories of the young Chinese-American women and their mothers.

So here's my take. Any good story, and certainly any book-length fiction should be narrated in past tense. Never use present tense unless there is a specific function for it and it contrasts with the majority of the work. There must be a very good reason to use present tense narration. It is not sufficient to say "It's the new thing" (it's not: it's around 100 years old and needs to be retired) or "It has greater verosimilitude (looks and feels and works more like real life)." Just what possible verosimilitude is there in someone telling you what they are doing as they do it?

Present tense narration was big with the modernists (Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner) who did stream of consciousness. An incredibly little bit of that goes and enormously long way. Enough, already.

A footnote: you should read the Scholastic report on reading habits and likes of families, available at http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/themes/bare_bones/2010_KFRR.pdf

See my website at http://strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html