Yesterday, in my Fiction II class, as the students introduced themselves I asked them to speak about what they’d been reading over the summer. One student impressively admitted to reading both Underworld and Infinite Jest. Another, though, shyly said she was reading YA novels.
“I suspect they’re more fun,” she said.
“To read or to write,” I asked.
“Both,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “I think it has something to do with what Doris Lessing said once about 20th century literature, that it was a long cry of pain.”
I’ve thought about this a lot over the years since seeing that Lessing quote. Why does pain seem to be the only subject for literature? I thought about it again after the class. So many young writers focus on painful subject matter to the exclusion in some cases of story—they view story as a vehicle for pain. I have students who will try as much as possible to stick a reader inside a box of language describing only terrible things and who think that is, well, the job. Of the writer.
If this seems unfamiliar to you, think of the ridiculous people bragging about being a writer in spite of nothing terrible having happened to them. Or of the other people, who’ve made a career out of performing their pain, for life. And the problem is, as I discovered writing my own first novel, pain isn’t compelling subject matter, even if it seems like a surefire winner with awards committees, the student writer imagining it conveys gravitas and the respectful murmuring of the brave soul who described all those terrible things. David Mamet memorably and correctly, I think, dubbed it “affliction drama”.
And so after the class I was wondering just how to present this, and then I got home and found Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, and a book critic at Time, weighing on why the vampire novel is doing so well:
There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it’s still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged. Sales of hardcover young-adult books are up 30.7% so far this year, through June, according to the Association of American Publishers, while adult hardcovers are down 17.8%. Nam Le’s “The Boat,” one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which admittedly doesn’t include all book retailers). In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the “Twilight” series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books. What are those readers looking for? You’ll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they’re lazy and can’t hack it in the big leagues. But that’s not the case. They need something they’re not getting elsewhere. Let’s be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins’s young-adult novel “The Hunger Games” instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because “The Hunger Games” doesn’t bore them.
I don’t actually think Nam Le’s book deserved to get spanked like that—I think he’s actually on the side of Grossman, perhaps more than Grossman knows. But I did agree with what he says a paragraph earlier: “If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.”
When I was studying creative writing plot was anathema and it was chic to say you wrote stories in which “nothing happened.” That was followed by people making the claim that they were writing “literary thrillers.” And for a while now I’ve been saying that considerably fewer literary thrillers were written than were said to be in process, but that what people were really talking about was this, a crisis of story.
On the way back from the Catskills over the weekend I listened to NPR, and heard a commentator address how fantasy was the hallmark of film, not fiction, and it made me think of this again—and think of Grossman’s contention, that many literary writers are boring the crap out of people with stylistic limitations imitated from the Modernists. As Grossman points out, Eliot did fill football stadiums—when it was Eliot. But what we’ve seen since Eliot is generations of Modernist imitators. If you are not Gertrude Stein, if you rip her style, you won’t really know what you’re doing, because…she knew what she was doing. Her style was hard-won, and it communicates her work perfectly.
In an interview I did recently for the literary magazine Redivider, coming out in the next issue, I was asked what I meant by trying to teach excitement. I agree with Grossman entirely. I said:
It’s more like teaching people to stay close to their excitement. The thing that I see so many people do with their books is they break it up into all these nutty little pieces where they’re talking to me about character development and backstory. All these phrases that were really just meant to describe something have suddenly become orthodoxies. And they’ve lost their sense of the unity of the thing. They keep asking me, “How do I develop my character?” And I say, “Tell the story?” I feel too many people are working from the wrong end of the stick. They’ve got something very abstract they’re trying to make specific and exciting, and they’re doing it in this Frankenstein’s monster sort of way. So it’s like, “Here’s my backstory sewn onto my character development sewn onto my climax, and now I add the ending and apply electricity!” It’s just a horrible way to live, and I think you’re much better off finding the character and the situation together, looking for situations that you think are really interesting. So the advice is, don’t be afraid to have a plot, and to tell a story. Too many writing students are trying to become masters of style and not masters of story, and they do so to their detriment. They have all these beautiful beautiful sentences and we don’t really know what they’re doing with them. Be sure to tell a story.
For an example of story crushing style, see my take on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.