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Save Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

What has happened to the literary fictional story? Where can a reader find imagined stories structured as a series of dramatic, often in-scene, events? Where are the stories that entertain and enlighten and show us what it means to be human? What has happened to rich fictional characters immersed in a consistent morality, with at least a touch of hero, and objectively rendered through sophisticated narration? Maybe these stories are not extinguished, but certainly they're hard to find. Publishers want profit, and contemporary readers seem to seek gossip in the reality of memoir.

It is not reasonable to argue that short and long literary fiction are evolving, and we have not lost anything, only seen change. Good fiction has been replaced by memoir and creative nonfiction often labeled as fiction. This is not evolution. Great fiction is imagined, structured, and has a story with a beginning, middle and end . . . elements memoir and creative nonfiction use differently or ignore. It is inescapable; equating memoir techniques (let me tell you what happened or this is my story) to fiction techniques (this is a story created for your enjoyment and enlightenment) is relentlessly extinguishing literary fiction.

Who really cares? Not many, and probably not enough to save the art of creating great fiction. But someone is to blame and it is not the reader. Readers do not turn away from the perfect literary story, but they do avoid boring prose that memoir-based “fiction” has become. Publishers succeed if they make a profit; they believe profit today is memoir. Stifled by diminished publication opportunities because of this perception, great literary fiction has few opportunities to emerge and grow.

Academics are to blame, too. Writers are taught without regard for the advantages of learning imaginative story structure and character development. These students become editors and teachers and publishers, and the work chosen for publication, especially in the literary magazines, is often undisciplined lyrical writing with little purpose . . . work written by writers yearning to be called authors, but without the ability or appropriate training to create the great stories of our literary heritage. For most writers, memoir descriptive writing is easier and can be pleasantly therapeutic:  Find your inner self, tell us about you and your family, search your past for story ideas, let your characters discover the meaning of your fiction. But that will not make a good writer great, or give inspiration to the untalented. To be the best they can at writing fiction, writers should have valid, significant ideas and express them in imagined stories, not write stories to find significance using descriptive techniques to tell what happened.

The true literary writer:  creates credible characters with a purpose so a plot is driven by human motivation and desires; structures stories for memorable, logical effects; understands that every event – every conflict, action, and resolution – interacts in a story and a change to one story element produces changes in every other story element. Academics teaching prose writing insist writers need to schedule output, seek inspiration by brainstorming, use gimmicks for motivation, find meaning in the writing rather than write about meaning, and find meaning within rather than create for the reader. Academics have lost a basic truth:  Great literary fiction comes from significant ideas framed in dramatic ways that clearly tell stories driven by human decisions, desires and motivations. For the academic-trained writer, descriptive prose about settings and happenings replaces the creative decisions about settings and story structure that will provide maximum engagement of the reader and contribute to the clarity and intensity of reader enlightenment found in literary fiction. That the academic writer has found recognition as a "fiction" writer further suppresses the creation and publication of great literary fictional stories.

Let’s never again allow memoir, nonfiction or genre fiction to be become literary fiction. To fail is to lose literary fiction as the special, difficult-to-create art-form that demands the talent and experience of unique writers. Let’s no longer assume that academic institutions are automatically capable of teaching literary fiction writing, and stop routinely labeling a holder of an academic degree as a literary fiction writer. It is rarely true, and the assumption will extinguish the potential of great fiction.

From the beginning of conscious identity, humans have always needed stories for entertainment and learning, and to pass the mysteries of living to new generations. The special qualities of imagined, created, literary fiction have been developed for more than two centuries, and uniquely serve to teach subsequent generations about universalities of life. Teachers and publishers must meet their honest responsibilities to the art form that is literary fiction, and not accept publication or labeling of other writing techniques as fiction.  Blurring the lines between memoir and creative non-fiction and literary-fiction prose – for profit or for self-promotion – does not contribute to cultural advancement.

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2 Responses to “Save Literary Fiction”

  1. Alex Blythe Says:

    I know this blog post is a few years old, but I have only just found your site, so my apologies for commenting on an older piece. To you, Mr. Coles, I have to tip my hat.

    Literary fiction has become sadly confused, not by writers, but by publishers. Look around the internet with the question "What is literary fiction" and you can arrive at a hundred different answers. It seems, as you've said, that thanks to academe and magazines etc. the "Literary" novel has become a genre, not a way of writing. The skeleton, sinews, blood vessels and organs of the literary novel have been stripped and replaced by "no-event" stories that publishers spew out as literary, misleading the poor reader into thinking the Great Novel is as interesting as a three hour debate on mud.

    Why, though? Why do publishers seek to put a bullet hole through writing that is more human, and more revealing of humanity, than today's fiction market could aim for? Answer:

    The publishing world has become dumbed down. Novels read more like screenplays, in the fact that one paragraph accompanies three pages of dialogue, not requiring much thought on the the agent's part, editor or publisher.

    I read a writing site a while ago, which claimed to "teach the basics" and harked on how we, as readers, and other readers, don't have the time to trawl through novels on the literary side, so don't write like it. What? I read some samples of this site author's work, and while I have many miles to go in my development, I was glad to see I had gone further than the website owner. If we don't have time to read literary works, we don't have time to read genre either, in my opinion, so let's stop writing and paint instead. What, in a roundabout way, was being said here, was that we don't have time to think, or we shouldn't have to think, about what we're reading.

    Now, honestly, where's the fun in that?

    Sorry this has been long winded.


  2. admin Says:

    Amen. And thanks for your comment. WHC

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