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The Quest for Greatness in Literary Fiction and the Failure of Authorial Self Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

In Brooklyn, in a rock-bottom economy, a sixty-one year old unmarried mother will be evicted from the apartment she has lived in for eighteen years.  She is a college graduate but lost her job as a magazine writer more than a decade ago.  For more than a year she has failed to find a single ad hoc writing assignment or editing job.  Even a token payment on the more than $10,000 in back rent could delay action, so she appeals to friends and family: her 24-year-old daughter–an unsettled, unemployed, college dropout who takes family welfare money and disappears into a social strata the woman does not approve–refuses to assist; a life-long friend tries unsuccessfully to mortgage her house to help; the husband of her dead sister is amused by her predicament and refuses to help.  Methodically, she applies to New York State, the county, and the city for relief assistance.  The employees she deals with are presented stereotypically as  either incompetent, uncaring, or vicious in their refusals.  

            In the end, the protagonist refuses a $9,000 dollar loan from the city–she expected an unencumbered grant–and she turns down employment as a receptionist that Social Services has arranged because she feels it is beneath her dignity and not commensurable to her educational achievements.

             The writer has more than adequate skills.  The entire 6800 word story is well paced.  The prose is more than adequate and although the work is "fiction," the story is based on perceived personal injustices and frustrating experiences in life of the author that have left her angry from a vague but very real ingrained sense of being discriminated against and mistreated.  The author was deeply involved in her plight and with her writing, fully expected a reader to be involved in her anger and her despair.  Her writing purpose was to vent . . . to expose a perceived crass, cruel, social system and the greedy cruelty of a landlord.   But she couldn't step back from the story to create a story with credible characters and reliable narrator that would promote valid sympathy and understanding.   The secondary characterizations of welfare and social workers, family and friends, were skewed to stereotypical, single-minded, ogres.  Motivations were also difficult to accept.  She wrote on the premise that living in an apartment for eighteen years entitled a tenant continued occupancy without paying rent.  And finally, the author-protagonist refused to take work, or accept assistance, without sufficient reason. A story created without objectivity by an author writing for self and ignoring the needs of the reader that a well constructed and reasonably delivered fiction story could provide. 

            How does a writer lose his or her way?  There are no rules.  Judgment changes with the progression of society and the maturation of the writer.  And even more daunting, there are thousands of decisions to make about appropriateness and effectiveness of story elements to create a story as an art form.  A great literary author doesn't make many mistakes, allow even a few contradictions or inconsistencies, or think illogically.

            How might this author have created a more acceptable story?  Primarily through objective characterization, writing through a broader understanding of the desires, actions, and motivations of all involved, and letting the outrage emerge in the reader–rather than being told to the reader–so as to avoid unsubstantiated victimization.   

            All writers need to write from a broad view of the world.  They need to incorporate points of view that allow consistently objective creation of characters so the story is accepted and achieves a reader-identified purpose.  They need to avoid excessive use of authorial subjective voice and create stories through accurate and unique character voice and story worlds.   

            Great fiction is imagined, character based, dramatic storytelling in perfected prose that is remembered, reread, and imbedded in the literary consciousness of readers sufficiently to pass onto future generations.  It is sad, but the few contemporary writers who might achieve greatness can fit in the back of a mini van. 

            The most common failure among writers is just inadequate ineffective prose–prose that is unclear, purposeless, arrhythmic, uselessly ungrammatical, and with non sequitur ideation.  Without well-written prose, great fictional literary stories cannot be created . . . no exceptions.

            Those writers who learn to write well, and creatively, often fail in storytelling, succumbing to many pitfalls–a result of insufficient learning and practice that results in failure to embrace:

1. Structure.  Ignoring necessity of a definitive beginning, middle, and end, with full control of information release and prioritization of scenes and action and internal reflection.

2. Emotional arcs.  Inability to maintain character thoughts and feelings in a logical progression that ends in change and enlightenment.

3. Drama.  Insufficient skill to infuse conflict, action, and resolution at all levels of writing and storytelling.

4. Purpose.  Writing without story purpose and ignoring meaning and theme, and a significant message.

5. Characterization.  Failure to creatively construct characters with a connected series of actions, thoughts, and feelings.

6. Reader satisfaction.  Failure to provide engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment for reader in story structure and delivery.      

            The rare writers who accomplish creative prose and effective storytelling are not guaranteed success for greatness.  At this level, an author needs to be more than who they are: they need to understand the world and humanity and how they fit into it; they need to be able to write from their characters' worlds to create effective, entertaining, meaningful stories; they need to write with a definable and consistent moral cobweb in their fiction; they need to suppress arrogance, acting with humility in creating their stories.  And authors must never write to achieve an imagined, famous image as a writer, or to fulfill the dream of financial riches from their work; with little doubt, writing is not a reasonable or practical way for most humans to attain fame and fortune. 

            Writers must understand humor . . . what about an individual molds his or her humor–or prevents a humor response–that produces pleasure and understanding in a reader.  Finally, writers must seek to define what they feel is beauty in the broad context of their generation.  Beauty is subjective and individual, but an author's matured understanding of why people and things are beautiful to specific characters enhances characterization and imagery specific to a story that promotes great stories.  Where is beauty in art, music, literature, life, religion, nature, science?  In essence, defining beauty helps crystallize understanding of human nature.

            But most of all, authors need to develop understanding and supportive attitudes towards others, including their readers.  And they need to write stories with a purpose–without limiting themselves to their own lives and attitudes–to convince readers of opinions or evoke emotions.  They need to enlighten readers through exceptionally imagined and constructed characters, and strive for meaningful credible enlightenment.  In essence, literary authors are challenged to reach beyond their own limitations, and write from a broader understanding of humanity and the world we live in.


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2 Responses to “The Quest for Greatness in Literary Fiction and the Failure of Authorial Self”

  1. Authors Competing with Story for Reader's Attention in Literary Fiction | Literary Story Fiction Writer's Blog.com Says:

    […] The Quest for Greatness in Literary Fiction and the Failure of Authorial Self […]

  2. Tim Chambers Says:

    Good one, Bill,

    It sounds like the author had an axe to grind about the poor. Very few people in my experience would turn down help or offers of work at any level when they are as desperate as this character.

    I can remember the things I did to pay the rent in my desperate days. Sold blood, assessed lots in trailer parks in the Florida summer heat, earning minimum wage. I drove a taxi for a while, quite lucrative actually, if you're willing to keep moving and not just wait for big fares. Managed a slum hotel. Met some great characters that way. All of it informs my point of view as a writer.

    But let's face it. The greats of any age, and any art, would fit in the back of a minivan.

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