Thursday, July 21, 2016

Secret messages to contemporary fiction writers

As most of you have probably figured out from all those shout-outs to Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, and the rest, contemporary fiction isn't my area. For a promised article with an immediate deadline, though, I'm reading a lot of it--bearing in mind that contemporary for me is anything from about 1990 on.

Some of what I'm reading is brilliant. It's amazing. It's astonishing, and it's powerful. It deserves its status as a contemporary classic.

But some of it is less so, even within works by the same author. Some pieces are amazing, and others seem more like a bag of tricks.

  • Maybe you were told to write down striking images in your Moleskine and to save them up to use later. Maybe you were told to use figurative language like alliteration, too, to make the language memorable. But please use these sparingly, because reading some of these works is like sitting down to eat a big cereal bowl of chunky rocks. The words can barely make sense because the reader has to work so hard to find a verb. I'm not asking for easy, but it's possible to be literary, powerful, complex, and still enjoyable.  
  • A few really powerful and well-developed characters in a short story can work more magic than fifteen characters all competing for airtime.
  • This goes double if all the characters have been given highly eccentric names. 
  • If you put a character in a novel or story purely to illustrate a point--the Evils of Capitalism, say--the reader is likely to recognize that right away, say, "Got it, thanks," and be longing to skip some of the character's speeches.  

  • I recall from the Steinbeck East of Eden diaries that Steinbeck wasn't sure that readers would get his Big Symbol of Cain and Abel. By this he seems to mean the book's structure wherein the sons of Adam and Cathy (a Lilith figure) are twins, one good and one evil--get it? I like East of Eden, but that's not exactly a hidden symbol. You can trust your reader. 
  • There's an old rule in screenwriting that every scene has to do two out of three essential things: develop character and relationships, advance the plot, or articulate/deepen the themes. Fiction probably has to do more than this with each of its scenes, but it's not a bad rule to bear in mind.
  • Death, dismemberment, torture, loss, repression, and violence are not the only things that can evoke powerful emotions or make a good story, although they make a lot of good ones. 
  • And when does a conventional trope become a cliche? I know that all animals in a contemporary story will die, and I'm ready for that. (TVTropes hilariously calls this "death by Newbery Medal," but it happens in literary fiction, too.)

As I said, most of the fiction is really fine, but that's not to say Homer doesn't nod on occasion, as in the list above. 

Do you have any "bag of tricks" items that you've seen in current fiction? 


pat said...

Too much of the current fiction I've read is too obviously promoting my worldview. I can't imagine anyone who shares my worldview finding anything novel or enlightening about it, and I can't imagine anyone who doesn't share my worldview being able to sit through three chapters of it.

I'd put up with a lot of stylistic problems for some characters who indulged in real critical thinking and challenged the current consensus.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Thanks for these observations. It helps me think about what I'm writing more critically. I'm a much more intentional writer than I used to be, as far as paying attention to language, style, etc. I tend to err on the side of Hemingway, by which I mean writing clearly, rather than writing with a gorilla-beating-chest masculinity. :)

gwinne said...

I'm curious about what you've been reading!

undine said...

pat--I hadn't thought of that, but it's a good point. You got me thinking about the last time I read something that was radically unlike my own viewpoint (like Ayn Rand or something).

Fie--I thought of you when I was writing this, not because of your work (which I don't know where/how to read) but because you had mentioned Hemingway before. He is many things, but never a chunky bowl of rocks to read.

gwinne--pretty much the usual suspects: McCarthy, Cisneros, Proulx, Allison, Erdrich, Oates, Kingsolver, Kennedy, to name just a few. Contemporary classics for this essay rather than really new stuff.

Anonymous said...

Can I steal this for my fiction writing class? Please?

undine said...

Sure! Glad it might help.