Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Effect of Discursive Narration on Literary Story Editorial Opinion

Sunday, November 30th, 2014
William H. Coles

Narration of literary fictional stories today allows wide latitude for authors on technique and style. Traditional, successful, memorable, literary stories depend on strong imaginative characterization, dramatic plots with conflict and resolution, and identifiable purpose for the story being told so some enlightenment occurs about the human condition gleaned from the story presentation. In the past, stories were structured for momentum and engagement, and there was careful attention to story logic and credibility for the story world created. Authors wanted to please readers. Prose was dedicated to accurate use of the language, attention to the advantages of correct grammar within story context, and readability with acceptable punctuation and rhythmic flow. But this storytelling has faded.

Contemporary writers have little or no conscience to follow traditions in literary storytelling. Stories with beginnings, middles, and ends are becoming less common and fiction has shifted to memoir about authorial self with a few falsehoods to be called fiction, simple character sketches, or description of events-happened with journalistic rigor void of imaginative influence. Authors reject dramatic conflict at all levels of story delivery for character development and story pleasing plotting. And even in fiction, the author often dominates the storytelling with subjective intrusion rather than using an objective narrator or character delivering balanced credible story and character detail in dramatic scenes. Descriptions of people or events that happened does not produce the same effects on readers as creative imaginative storytelling that engages, stimulates, enlightens, moves, and entertains.

Contemporary writers commonly default to discursive rumination for the major portion of “story” delivery, a technique that may divert attention, meaning, momentum, or understanding of authorial purpose for the story. And when using discursive rumination, authors will often abandon story to soliloquize, seek authorial catharsis, or proselytize.

Modern writers often restrict storytelling to first person point of view and narration. This places limits on internalization, credibility, veracity, size and quality of world view available to the narrator, and expansive imaginative writing. Not all stories are suited to first person narration, and the quality of fiction published and available to read has dwindled.

The message is not trivial. Many contemporary readers enjoy modern “literary” writing dependent on discursive rumination, but the true value of literary story development with imaginative structure and characterization is often lost. The writers careful to avoid obvious authorial dominance and intrusion in the storytelling add imaginative and meaningful enhancement to their work that authorial dominance and intrusion does not allow. Of course, authors are always present in some way in a literary work of fiction, but the most effective authorial presence is transparent, like a hint of mint in a pitcher of tea, the touch of orange/red diffusing through the blue sky above the horizon just before sunrise, the sound of an individual cello in full orchestra . . . sensations present and enjoyed and always gently and uniquely pervasive . . . but never rife.

Readers preferring traditional storytelling seem to reread the classics today. Traditional literary fiction is being written, but it is rarely accepted by agents, editors, and publishers; as a result, great stories in the traditional sense are not available and as a culture, we are losing an art form, a loss that diminishes the creative heritage of our generation.

Memoir Is Not Fiction Editorial Opinion

Thursday, September 20th, 2012
William H. Coles

Most contemporary literary writers write, and are educated to write, fiction as if it is a variant of writing memoir. Teachers of creative writing ask students to find what is meaningful for them, what is in their hearts? So when students write "fiction" stories–novels or shorter works–they write from their own experience; describe their own feelings; deliver their own opinions; describe their own memories for setting and scene events; and establish a voice for the work, their voice, without ever creating voices for a narrator or characters as distinct entities. Dialogue especially suffers, since everything in quotes is little changed from what the author would say and think.

But story structure is weak also. Fictional stories in memoir style seem to have little or no purpose and fail to have dramatic progression. In memoir style, almost always the author is the narrator, directly or indirectly, in first and third person, which limits the story presentation to the author's world-view, mind, and experience. And imagination (forming new ideas and concepts) to create story is limited in memoir style to the author's view of the world and descriptions of recollections.

Memoir-generated fiction is now accepted by readers as literary, mainly because of the number of authors who default to this style of writing. The style is easier to write and allows anyone, regardless of language skills, to tell a self-centered story that is increasingly being published today as literary fiction.  But is memoir-based fiction really being accepted by readers?  In today's stressed market with perceived shifting needs, literary fiction doesn't sell books to publishers' satisfaction. That may be because what is labeled as literary fiction is just sloppy memoir.

In the minds of most writers, what literary fiction is little more than a vague mist. Yet, the classics written as fiction (as it has continued to develop over the past three centuries) are rich with vibrant examples of great fiction.  Great literary fiction is character-based, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of characters drive the plot.  Great fiction is created by the author; told by the narrator in the narrator's own, distinct, world-view voice; and acted out by characters, who may in story-appropriate enhancing situations, create their own distinctive voices.  And literary stories have meaning, something happens, and someone is enlightened–character or reader, and often both be it usually in different ways.  Literary fiction is permeated with humor, usually in the form of irony, and has an understandable moral overlay, a morality that is story specific and not, for maximum effectiveness, the morality lived and pronounced by the author.  The writing in literary fiction is dramatic, interesting, engaging, and accurate with pinpoint word choice and carefully considered grammar appropriately chosen for the story.

And literary fiction is imagined, never just narrative description from authorial memories.  Not that the literary author doesn't draw on his or her experiences, and seeks stimulation from the past for engagement and function of the imagination.  For imaginative fiction, the author's world is only a nidus that stimulates imaginative use of a broader-than-author world, but the author's world is not the foundation or the embellishment of great literary stories. 

In essence and in contrast to memoir, literary stories are created by their authors, but authors create from broad views of the world fortified by experience and observation. Narrators and characters contribute to stories from their own special (author-created) worldviews.

The author's presence in the literary story is through the uniqueness of his or her creative abilities, the quality of the imagination, the skill of the writing, and by the author narrating through narrator and characters imagined for the story world; the author's worldview from their own narrow world is not present, or at least not dominant.

Literary fiction takes time, experience, hard work, vibrant imagination, and intellectual investment to produce unique, accurate, image-invoking writing and development of characters with unique characteristics that mesh synergistically with story, plot, and a recognizable reason for writing.  Great memoir is an excellently written, well-crafted presentation of an author's life events and experiences–often emotional and intellectual change–as told by the author.

Readers need literature written with fiction techniques and sophisticated narration to attain pleasure, a feeling of discovery, a new way of seeing the world, and a desire to continue to read to find the qualities of great stories and characters that only a writer of fiction, writing well and telling unique stories, can provide.

Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence Editorial Opinion

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
William H. Coles

Twenty years ago, avid fiction readers eagerly opened mailboxes looking  for the New Yorker to arrive to flip first to the fiction page assured of finding an engaging, well-written literary short story.  But things have changes.  Ask readers today how many New Yorker stories they like: "not many,"  "one in ten," "I stopped reading short stories in the New Yorker."  Short stories in other magazines have failed to attract readers too.   Story went defunct.  The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction.  And many small presses have failed.  One would have to assume that readers weren't reading because the quality of story failed to meet what literary readers expected.

Most contemporary short fictional stories are structured differently than those that evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries.  A study of great literary fiction (fiction that is reread for generations and has meaning) shows relatively consistent characteristics in an author's approach to writing.  These writers seek theme and meaning; accurate, sophisticated narration of story; exploration of what it means to be human while writing with an expanded-view of the world and a broad knowledge of humanity.

In the main, academic teachings of today have failed to create writers who can make a difference on the page.  Academics encourages writing about self.  Here are quotes from teachers of creative writing classes and workshops: "I want to read about you."  "Write about your family."  "Write from your view of the world."  "Isolate yourself and let the character emerge [rather than you create] from your subconscious."  "Write only what you know, what you've experienced."  "Don't write knowing where the story is going or ending, it stifles creative impulses."  "I see no difference between creative non-fiction and fiction."  "[As a fiction writer] ask: Where am I in time and space?" A writer is taught to frame a story from his or her view of the world.   It has brought success to many writers, but it has snuffed out availability of great literary fictional stories and turned away literary writers longing for the careful creation of story as an art form.

In essence, academic teachings have produced writers of self.  Even when "imagining fiction," these writers describe memories of humans for characters, memories of events for plot.  The storytelling is all me, the author, telling so that even in a narrator's or character's point of view, characters and their actions are described with the author failing to reach beyond self into the value of collective thinking and human experience of the time.  Most great fiction is told with an expanded view of the world beyond the author, and usually has theme and meaning of what it means to be human.  And although there is variation, great fiction also seems to have a foundation on the unanswerable metaphysical questions—Who are we?  Why are we here? What is justice? Why do I suffer? Does God exist? et cetera—that change readers, enlightening them in ways so that they will never see the world again as the did before reading.

In an interview, Graham Greene quoted Joseph Conrad who said: "Literature is a contrived process of forgetting." And Greene expanded on the idea: "The power to forget is part of the created thing too. It comes back from the unconscious in another form. It's a difference in a way between the job of a reporter, and that of a novelist. It's yours [the journalist's] to remember, mine [the novelist's] to forget. In a way what one forgets becomes the unrecognized memory of the future."

Embracing creative imagination as opposed to describing memory, so antithetical to contemporary workshop teaching, results in fiction with unique, often complexly-profound characterization and stories with purpose to present new, stimulating ideas about our human condition.   Imagined fiction has great potential in story creation.  Memoir (and creative non-fiction) restricts writer choices to produce–through prose and drama–maximum effects of intellect, emotion, and meaning on the reader.

Writers of self have generated a critic's comments at a conference about writing contemporary literature: "I don't want to read about another author's telling of [his or her] dysfunctional family or abuse-laden childhood."  Of course, family and childhood are valuable sources for literary stories, but only with an objective writer creating from a broad view and knowledge of the world that allows a reader to engage and evolve with a character rather than simply be told a character's feelings or events, often related to salacious or shocking revelations.

The literary story, both novel and short story, may have reached its pinnacle as writers of self have successfully inserted memoir and creative nonfiction, even autobiography, into what is presented as literary fiction, and teaching programs have prompted the writers of self with the insidious effect that great fiction with meaning and longevity is rarely promoted and published.   Writers of self, like a federal bureaucracy, form alliances that sustain them in writing their view of the world.  What the reader of literary fiction needs is well-trained storytellers creating stories with objective, broad views of the world imagined from a studied, deeply considered knowledge of what it means to be human.

You may find these interviews with Butler, Shepard, Carlson, Spillman and others interesting. They provide insight into the differences in the ways authors think about writing.


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