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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“Try to See It My Way” (Writers and Negative Capability)

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“The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.” —Leo Stein, American art collector and critic

In an 1817 letter to a friend, the poet John Keats describes one of the qualities that makes writers like Shakespeare so great: negative capability. Keats defines this trait as “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In other words, this is the ability to sublimate one’s own individual assumptions about the world and write about uncertain (or potentially polarizing) topics in such a way that the author’s own views remain unknown. It is also the recognition that there are often grey areas in life which cannot be resolved through rational means. This requires an extraordinary degree of objectivity, and it’s much harder than it seems.

To enter into the mind of other people (or things) and speak from their point of view is an essential goal for writers, and certainly Keats demonstrates this skill in “Ode to a Nightingale,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and “Ode On a Grecian Urn.” Often some of the most engaging literary works are those where there is no clear side taken on contentious issues (such as the free will versus predestination dichotomy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). But the question is, how can writers break free from their own personal perceptions and approach subjects from a more objective point of view? Consider these strategies:

1. Read writers who are good at negative capability. I’ve mentioned Keats, Shakespeare, and Sophocles. But there are plenty of other notable authors, such as Emily Dickenson, William Wordsworth, Anne Rice, Walt Whitman, and John Updike.

2. Learn to view situations from other people’s perspectives. Imagine not what you would do if you were facing their circumstances, but rather think about what they would do and why.

3. Step into the unknown. Force yourself to write about subjects or situations you are uncomfortable with (or know little about).

4. Write in a new genre. Tell a familiar tale in a different format. For example, if you normally write short stories, turn your narrative into a poem (or vice versa). Or you could try turning a poem into a screenplay (or vice versa). Different literary conventions require different sensibilities, and this can lead to breakthroughs in our perceptions of subjects.

One of the joys of reading is having the opportunity to experience situations from someone else’s perspective. To do this convincingly, writers must learn to put aside their own ideas about the world and imagine alternative possibilities. This is terra incognita for many people, but by embracing this approach, you may discover new avenues of creative potential.

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Gender Bias

Recently, I was reminded of the scene from the film As Good As It Gets where the novelist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson’s character) is talking to a receptionist. She asks Udall, “How do you write women so well?” and he replies, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

Is there a distinctly masculine or feminine voice in writing? Is it possible for a man to write a convincing first person narrative from a woman’s point of view—or vice versa? Or will an author’s gender bleed into a story no matter how hard he or she tries?

Let me explain what prompted these questions. I entered a writing contest last spring, and when the winners were posted, I noticed something: There were no male names on the list of finalists—none, zero, zip. I thought this was rather interesting, considering that the lone judge of the writing contest was male.

First of all, it’s important to understand that I’m a rather sore loser. Nevertheless, I also like to give credit where it is due, and if someone outdoes me in something, I believe I have enough good sense and character to acknowledge a job well done. Maybe these women outdid all the males who submitted material to the contest. If so, bravo! Yet I have to wonder what it was about these ladies’ writings that this particular judge found so appealing? Doe he simply have a penchant for feminine voices? Were there gender differences in the writings themselves—either in terms of subject matter or style—to which he unconsciously gravitated?

What about me? Does an author’s gender matter? Both male and female writers are certainly represented on my bookshelves at home, and I like to believe that I judge an author’s writing based on its own merits and not its creator’s sex. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that the male writers do outnumber the females in my library nearly three to one. Am I biased? Because I read Edward Abbey and not Danielle Steel, does this make me an insensitive, misogynistic brute? I’m not sure. You’d probably have to ask my ex-wife.

Tragically Exclamatory!!!!!

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My pseudonym is M. Jaynes and I have a problem!

I’ve pontificated on punctuation previously. My sojourn into the comma conundrum was cathartic. This time, it is my over-use of the exclamation point in casual correspondence that has become increasingly disturbing to me. Oh, it started innocently enough. I joined Facebook and it seemed the “in” punctuation to use. So I picked up the habit and ran with it. Not an e-mail escaped the send button without an unhealthy dose of the emotionally overcharged “Thank you!” or “Good Morning!” Salutations should be heart-felt, but rarely is there a situation where the addition of six or seven exclamation points is called for. And it didn’t stop there. In my fevered brain it made perfect sense to add dramatic punctuation to such sentences as: “I have a trivial meeting after school today!” or in notes to far away friends, “I miss you!!!!!!”
Now, every time I write “thank you” without an exclamation point, I worry that the person receiving the message will think that my sentiments are lukewarm. Maybe it is my OCD brain that has caused this to become an issue but I swear nowadays when I write an e-mail it is so peppered with that infernal mark that I feel like a raving lunatic!
Addicts always try to blame others first, so here goes: I blame Facebook for initiating this habit. Prior to signing up, I hardly ever used that form of punctuation, even when I felt strongly about something. I was blissfully unaware of my issue while on Facebook because it seemed everyone else was on board with being exclamatory. Since bidding a not-so-fond farewell to that particular social networking scene, it has slowly dawned on me that I have a problem with this punctuation. Right now as I type this it is all I can do not to add a few more in here and there. And as one who loves books, I am quite certain that if I came across a novel that used exclamation points as frivolously as I have, I would think the author mad and discontinue reading. I need help! It is driving me crazy! I suppose it could be worse. Instead of exclamatory, I could be interrogative. How would that go over I wonder? Do I really want to open that can of worms? Should I end this blog here?

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The Da Vinci Load – 20 Worst Sentences

One might chide me, a quite unpublished author, from making any fun of Dan Brown and his multi-ogtillion selling books, and if one choose to so chide, one may chide away in the comments below.  I’m still going to make fun.

I like the Da Vinci Code well enough as a fluffy page turner, but after choking through Angels and Demons I couldn’t take any more.  As a writer I like to play with words and their connections, but that attention made me much more sensitive to abuses. When I started writing screenplays it destroyed my ability to just sit through a movie without analyzing its structure. The same thing happened here.

I’m not above a horrible sentence, as you can see from the opening sentence of this post, but this article about Dan Brown’s Worst Sentences put my halfhearted efforts to shame.  Consider:

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 5: Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.

Sherlock Holmes himself does not have an eye this keen.  Or this gem:

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 6: His last correspondence from Vittoria had been in December – a postcard saying she was headed to the Java Sea to continue her research in entanglement physics… something about using satellites to track manta ray migrations.

Can you spot the unnecessary information in that sentence? It’s pretty much the entire thing.

Check out the full article for more examples and commentary on Dan’s technique.  Hopefully in a few years I’m so popular some other blogging peon makes a post mocking my style!