Sydney Avey

Dynamic Women — Changing Times

Reader’s Taste: Why consider literary fiction?

Aug 21, 2018 | Culture, Learning curve, Writing life | 0 comments

Reader's TasteI’m always up for a discussion about reader’s taste. On August 4, 2018 literary critic Adam Kirsch wrote a thoughtful piece titled “The Way We Read Now” in the Wall Street Journal. Three points caught my attention.

  1. American readers don’t value good prose. This is not a moral judgement, it’s a fact. “…when Americans read, we mostly read for story, not style,”  Kirsch wrote. His examples support his point. Award-winning writers like John Updike and Raymond Carver received accolades for realism and creative expression. But their celebrated works were not wildly popular like best-sellers Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code, both of which have been criticized for poor prose. 
  2. Americans want high concept stories. We chew through larger than life narratives, adventures with thrills and chills, tales of good versus evil, stories that dramatize human longings and spiritual truths. 
  3. A taste for the art of writing stimulates an interest in literature. In literary fiction the “how” of story matters as much or more than the “what” and “why,” Kirsch says. The good news is that we can educate our literary taste.

Literary fiction, an acquired taste

Why might reader’s want to develop a taste for beautiful words, unusual word combinations, artfully crafted sentences, thoughtful metaphors, and all the other devices that literary style employs? Consider these reasons:

  1. Entertaining novels deliver the responses readers expect to have. Readers wish to take delight in the happy ending, feel satisfied that justice has been served, enjoy the comfort of the familiar. Literature plumbs the depths of memory and subconscious and evokes a larger range of emotions. Creative writing raises questions, challenges thinking, and leads to compassion and understanding. A rich reading life embraces both experiences.
  2. Literary fiction enlarges a reader’s vocabulary. A strong command of language enables deeper thought and better self-expression. 
  3. At the core of all art forms lies a life-affirming goodness, a commodity that is badly needed in these times. 

The LitFic Writer

The market for literary fiction may have been healthier in the past, but it’s never been large. I have long been aware that the audience for the kind of novels I write is limited. Rather than bemoan that situation, I have chosen these responses:

  1. Face facts. It’s not likely that I will sell more than a respectable number of books. This will affect the likelihood of my getting an agent. However, there are a number of small publishers who publish for reasons other than big profits. Universities publish to support and preserve literary works that exemplify their areas of interest. (The Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno published my novel, The Sheep Walker’s Daughter, as a Basque Original because it exemplifies Basque culture in the United States.) Small publishers publish works that speak to themes they are passionate about. (Torchflame Books picked up The Trials of Nellie Belle because well-written stories about resilient women that dramatize spiritual truths interest them.)
  2. Be true to yourself. What’s important to you? If you want to earn a living by writing, literary fiction is not a good choice. You can still write an excellent book in a genre, but you need to focus on what readers want, and that is superb storytelling with a minimum of stylistic prose. If you want to stick with #LitFic, do it for love, not money. Be realistic about what it takes to get published.    

Character-driven fiction

Classic or contemporary, all literary fiction is character driven. We process our own grief when we slow down and walk on the beach with young Marcus in Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage. We are encouraged by the hopeful spirit of neglected and lonely Lila in the novel of the same name by Marylynne Robinson. These are emotional journeys worth taking. 

If you are wondering what you can do to improve the tenor of  the times, invest in the arts that celebrate truth and beauty. That may be the strongest political statement of all. 

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