Storytelling and Literary Fiction

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I once heard someone jokingly define literary fiction as: “A type of book where nothing really happens, but you still feel sad at the end anyway.” While this may be something of an exaggeration (albeit a slight one), much of what today’s literati label as “moving” or “evocative” is often devoid of what most readers inwardly hope for when they crack open the pages of a critically-acclaimed novel—a good story. This is not to say that for a book to be engaging it must be exclusively plot-driven. It’s just that many of today’s novelists, in an effort to be taken seriously as writers, focus primarily on developing “style” rather than crafting engaging characters or storylines.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend in modern fiction. In the introduction to his recent memoir entitled My Reading Life, the novelist Pat Conroy notes:

“The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself. I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems their rhymes, paintings their form, and music its beauty, but that does not mean I had to like that trend or go along with it. I fight against these movements with every book I write.”

While there’s truth in Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (and certainly, Conroy makes ample use of dysfunctional families in his own writing—i.e., Prince of Tides, Lords of Discipline), not every unhappy family is a worthy subject for a novel. Unfortunately, many of today’s writers miss this point, and instead of crafting stories that truly have something insightful to say, they focus too much on trying to sound “original.” But as we all know, originality is no guarantee for success. (Take Finnegan’s Wake or the film Ishtar, for example). Without engaging characters and a solid story to cling to, even the best-wrought phrases are in danger of falling away into the abyss of literary oblivion. And as Conroy states, “The writers who scoff at the idea of primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them.”

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.

Comments

  1. Eric Bahle says:

    I am wholly in the Story first camp. Style is great as long as it’s a storytelling style.