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The Three Pillars of Literary Fiction: Engagement, Entertainment, Enlightenment Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

The reasons contemporary writers often default to writing nonfiction as fiction include: not taught to write effective stories; encouragement to write about self; failure to perceive effective narration required in fiction; unwillingness to commit time to learning the art form of fiction; and overemphasis on writing to be a writer, rather than writing to create a lasting work of art that enlightens and delights readers in new and unexplored ways. Great literature moves people, engages readers’ memories, enlightens people to new thoughts, and stimulates new perceptions about the people and how humans live, survive, and flourish in a increasing crowded and convoluted world . . . or fail, and why.

Writers who cache the world around them in order to describe their lives and life experiences, rarely, if ever, come close to creating the effects on serious readers that well crafted fiction written by a talented, dedicated, world-wise, objective writer can achieve. Writers who use themselves as the source for "imaginative" narrative descriptions of people and the world succumb to a process of writing that often depends on hyperbolic prose and resorts to clichéd ideation. There is a sense that in the modern flurry of writing activity by increasingly more people, creation of great fiction is becoming rare, and published literature faces decreasing popularity due to continued flaunting of inferior writing and storytelling as fiction, and to the overinflated promotion of memoir and nonfiction.

How can the writer make the art form of literary fiction special? Of course solid control of craft and storytelling. But perfection needs accomplished skills of engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment as pillars of the achievement that is the great literary story.

Engagement in literary fiction is more than curiosity, or solving an unknown, or trying to predict how the plot will turn out. In great literary fiction, the reader is enmeshed in story and character. The process has never been described well, probably because it is too multifaceted. The process is highly individual for the reader, and for the work that engages the reader. For some, engagement occurs in the prose fictional story like the visual transfer into three dimensions in a carefully crafted diagrammatic picture that when viewed with both eyes focused beyond the picture surface, a fused 3D image emerges. It doesn’t come easily (1) and people with vision in only one eye can never experience the phenomenon, which is cortical and dependent on two visual inputs.

Effective reader engagement has been also has been described as a "fictional dream." Not entirely useful, since a dream implies loose ideation, failure of logic, and has overtones of fantasy. But this dream idea can be best applied when thinking of awaking from a dream, a sort of emersion from one consciousness to another. In reading, this emersion from engagement is disruptive to story progression and meaning, and usually not desired. To try to identify the "dream-breaking" phenomenon, compare a situation where a writer is intent and totally absorbed in writing a difficult passage, and an external noise, a voice . . . or a bang, or a bright flash, breaks the absolute attention required, and disrupts the productive and creativity of the writing. For the reader, loss of engagement is more than external disruption of reading, and is caused by grammar and spelling errors, credibility issues, narration miscues, pretension, plot irregularities, clichés, lack of logic, erroneous facts, character inconsistencies, authorial intrusion with extraneous ideas, and inability to suspend disbelief. All snafus, a few of many, that are instinctively avoided by educated writers with talent and dedicated to the learning of storytelling and craft skills. So, for a writer's success, there must be submersion of the reader in the story and solid connection to characters that is maintained with minimal interruption in reader attention from any cause–especially poor writing or poor storytelling.

Many teachers of creative writing deny, or ignore, the possibility of literature incorporating entertainment as part of its achievement.(2)   For some teachers, especially academics, it is as if entertainment would divert admiration for the author's intellectual accomplishments. Ignoring the many forms of entertainment (that provide amusement or pleasure) often results in obscure, strained, over bloated, pompous, pedantic writing challenging the writer to read on as if swimming through a tar pit or trying to lose weight on vacation in culinary France. For most writing, responsibility to entertain a reader is crucial so that a work will be read to the end, studied, read again, remembered, and thought of as significant. It should be accepted as true for literary fiction too. And, as a considered opinion, most contemporary "literature" has descended into boring, author self-centered, often pretentious, overwrought prose with weak ideation unrelated to story because the reader's response, and enjoyment, is rarely, if ever, considered by the "literary" author.

Many would argue: Literature is not vaudeville! But entertainment with character, plot, meaning and theme, eases the work of reading for many, providing amusement or pleasure from the reading experience. And the art form writing great literary fictional stories must be conquered. The writer must provide the reader with an effortless process so ideas and images can amuse and enlighten unhindered by writer ineptitude at writing and sloppy thinking. Prose must be understandable, and effortlessly, logical, and pleasing rhythmic. Reading should be seamless, without breaks. Ideas most flow and are delivered at maximally appropriate times for story tension and resolution. Images must be clear, and embody uniqueness in story and real world (no cliché). It is also story structure that entertains–a story with a beginning, middle, and end that has dramatic conflict and resolution. Entertainment is not achieved without engagement that brings enlightenment. So theme and meaning are essential for entertainment . . . for intellectual amusement and pleasure.

Enlightenment relates to changes in characters that stimulate new thinking in the reader; the reader will never be able to think exactly the same about the world or the human condition again in the same way as before reading. To achieve this, writers must develop clear theme and meaning without preaching. And in the end, great stories deal in some way with a metaphysical–unanswerable but important to think about–question. Who are we? Why are we here? What is justice? Is there a God? What is beauty?

The herds of writers producing what has become accepted as literary fiction produce more and more new writing. Unfortunately, the writing is story deficient and soulless, ignoring a readers’ hunger for meaningful fiction with engagement and enlightenment. Let’s hope, with a little good fortune, more teachers capable of articulating the complex needs to create fiction as an art form will emerge, and publishers will once again accept and promote great fiction, not allowing memoir and nonfiction to become the standard of literature for our generations.

(1) 3D image

(2) Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner and professor,stated: “You know, I’m not sure that many people, in the pure sense, are entertained by many of the great works of literature. The entertainment value of literature is an aftereffect. To create a work of literature, if you have an entertainment intention, it will destroy the work of art.” Rebecca McClannahan, a talented and much admired teacher of creative writing, expressed surprise that literature might have an entertainment value. “You know, I’ve never thought of literature as entertainment. Maybe it is. Well of course it is, but I’ve never thought about that.”

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2 Responses to “The Three Pillars of Literary Fiction: Engagement, Entertainment, Enlightenment”

  1. Dwayne Says:

    Great post!

    You know it still amazes me how many writers don't consider the readers when they're writing.

    Wake up, people!!!! And then writers wonder why James Patterson sells in the millions. It's not rocket science.

    Say what you want about Patterson's writing, but I can guarantee you that if you were to have a conversation with him it wouldn't take more than 2 minutes before he started talking about his READERS … he's conscious of them.

    Often when you talk with literary fiction writers, the READER is almost like a foreign concept, like an enigma. Honestly, I don't get it.

    Maybe I'll go out and buy a Patterson novel tomorrow just because. I'm willing to bet $10 I'll get more enjoyment out it than I do some of the literary stuff being published lately.

    Dwayne

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    I'm not sure how James Patterson fits into the conversation. I understand you're using him as an example of a writer who writes for his readers, but Coles is talking about "writing to create a lasting work of art that enlightens and delights readers in new and unexplored ways."
    I agree there can be a compromise between literary fiction and writing that engages the reader. I read the interview with Butler, which was fascinating, and I came away from it thinking, "what's the point of art, if not to reach people in some way?" The difference is when the artist sacrifices his art for the sake of entertainment.

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