In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Tele-Diversity | Main | Linkage by Charlton »

February 14, 2008

Lit-fict and Popular Fiction

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In a posting about the film "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the Western novelist Richard S. Wheeler gets off a great passage: "The novel of the same title, by Ron Hansen, dazzled readers, but the dazzle lay in the glittering word choices of the author rather than in the storyline or characterization," he writes.

The Hansen novel, in other words, was of the "literary fiction" genre, not the "Western fiction" one.

That sentence of Richard's says a lot more that's of practical use to readers than most of what you'll read in fancy magazines by big-name critics, IMHO. So far as literary fiction goes, I'd add to Richard's characterization of it a concern with trendy themes, and with fashionable writing strategies generally.

But Richard's larger point is the key one: Literary fiction is generally concerned with writerly grandstanding, er, showing-off, er, prowess. The writer, finally, is the real show. Narrative fiction (which in the U.S. these days means genre fiction) is generally more concerned with suspense, involvement, and situations. The story and the characters -- and not the author -- are what the spotlight is trained on.

(Which isn't to say, of course, that some lit-fict writers haven't created living-breathing characters, or that some narrative-fiction writers -- Richard S. Wheeler among them -- don't also deliver a great deal in the way of writerly pleasure.)

In other words: If you like the emphasis in the fiction you read to fall on character, hook, situations, and story, then literary fiction probably isn't for you. 99% of the time, that's simply not what the lit-fict set is up to; it isn't the package they're selling. Instead, they're generally selling tone, themes, strategies -- striking and/or brilliant "moves."

On the other hand, if character-creation and story-engineering don't speak to you while writerly games-playing does, then why not choose your fiction-reading from the lit-fict shelves? Nothing wrong with that part of the bookstore either. I share the taste for fancy writin' myself, if very occasionally, only to some extent, and less with each passing year. Back here, in fact, I listed the lit-fict titles that I enjoyed most during my years of following the new-literary-fiction scene from up close. Give it a read. If nothing else, it isn't the usual best-of list.

All of this is fine by me. I think it's great that options exist and that people have them to choose from; I'm always eager to hear about what people enjoy and to learn about what they know. No, it's something else that bugs me, namely: Why should the package of values that the lit-fict crowd prefers be considered to be superior to the popular-fiction package?

What case can possibly be made that fussin'-with-the-writin' is automatically more important than attending to matters of character, suspense, story, situation, and entertainment? It's a pointless argument to make, no? As pointless as arguing that vegetables are automatically better than fruit, or that candy is automatically better than beef. So far as pleasure -- and even imaginative nourishment -- goes: Doesn't what matters to you at the moment always depend to a large extent on what you're looking for, what you're in the mood for, and what your preferences are?

In fact, if one of these two packages -- either the lit-fict package or the popular-fict package -- is going to be said to be more important than the other, it seems to me likely that the character-suspense-story package is of far more innate importance. The popular-fiction package reflects, after all, a direct engagement with the basics of why most people are interested in fiction in the first place. Popular fiction is the meat-and-potatoes of fiction. Lit-fict is the garni. You tell me which is more important.

Richard S. Wheeler gets off a lot more smart stuff on this general theme here and especially here. Way back when, Richard wrote a wonderful context-setting essay for 2Blowhards. You can read it here.



posted by Michael at February 14, 2008


A good example of fiction that works well as both "lit-fic" and as genre fiction is Oakley Hall's WARLOCK. It was made into a good movie starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, but as good as the movie was it couldn't convey the depth of the novel, which also contains some unobtrusively beautiful prose. In fact, when I read it as a teen, it was perhaps the first time I was impressed by a writer's prose style. I copied many of the paragraphs, writing by hand, unaware that that's a technique many writing coaches recommend to help the novice develop an appreciation of good prose.

Posted by: Bilwick on February 14, 2008 3:27 PM

Plot-driven fiction is read in FAR greater numbers than lit-fic, so I'd say it's winning that battle. Book critics I think by default enjoy the writerly acrobatics of lit-fic more than plot-driven fic, so there's your bias. And it is one, but not by some predetermined strategy to devalue plot-driven fiction. Outlets such as the NYTRB contain critics who often write about the books themselves as a warm-up to discuss cultural themes, current events and whatever else they can justify as a discussion of the book in question. Most of the time, that's pretty enjoyable. To rely on the NYTRB as a source of what to read next probably isn't such a good idea. It's a reading experience unto itself.

Posted by: JV on February 14, 2008 4:32 PM

Bilwick - Thanks for the rec, I hadn't even been aware that there was a novel behind the movie. I've put it on my to-read list. That's a great topic you're raising too: Which book or books initially made you aware that there's a writer back there pulling the strings? Hmm, you've got me thinking ...

JV -- Yeah, those strike me as a lot of good points. I take a somewhat more malign view of these things than you do, but we're certainly considering the same picture.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 14, 2008 4:37 PM

Great post Michael. Pretentious lit-fiction has been a pet peeve of mine for a number of years. It's easy to roll out the guilty -- Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and even, dare I say it, Toni Morrison (I'll never forget an interview Oprah did with Morrison when a fawning Oprah admitted to struggling with parts of "Beloved." Morrison's response? "It's called reading." No, Toni, it's called bad writing).

Posted by: GFS3 on February 14, 2008 10:09 PM

"it seems to me likely that the character-suspense-story package is of far more innate importance. The popular-fiction package reflects, after all, a direct engagement with the basics of why most people are interested in fiction in the first place."

In Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction, Rand writes that the most affecting and memorable fiction involves working out through exterior action the interior moral conflicts of a character or conflcts between characters. That struck me as an epiphany and explained why, as I've gotten older, I've lost interest in science fiction and most movies but have come to treasure writers like Raymond Chandler and Budd Schulberg, who, by the way, I find hugely entertaining. Most popular fiction (and other media) - Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, etc. - is about its own plot and is otherwise terribly maladroit. Mostly its just meaningless physical action, the functional eqiuivalent of a mediocre movie or TV show transcribed and put between covers.

The musings on another blogger on "Why Bad Books Get Published" strikes me as appropos.

2. A comedian once said, "If you were talking with Einstein, and an alien ray zapped him from the sky and suddenly made him twice as smart, would you be able to tell?" He went on to talk about how you don't need to be incredibly smart to come off as smart. You just need to be a little smarter than the guy you're talking to. In the same way, a book doesn't have to be brilliant to come off as good. It just has to be a little better than the reader's ability to tell good books from bad. Most readers have less developed literary sensibilities than the average critic or writer, so a larger body of books look perfectly good to them. Editors are willing to publish these mediocre books because...

3. A little bit of badness is a good thing. Think about the writing style of the average pop hit. Crap, yes? Simple, full of cliches. Tinkertoys writing. But people love these books because they're easy to read--people don't want to work at their entertainment.

In some genres, badness is also good because it encourages active fandoms. Readers love books with plot holes and shoddy characterization because it makes the book more of a blank slate for them to draw their own ideas on. When they feel they can play in the book's world freely, they get together to swap ideas, play together, etc., and *poof*--instant fandom, a free grassroots promotional engine. Nowadays this is more true of TV and movies than of books, but occasionally a Harry Potter or Eragon comes along.

#2 and 3 could be improved, though not fixed, with extensive education. If we're going to strap the masses into desk chairs and shove some learning down their throats, though, literature shouldn't be high on our list of priorities. Food for the soul, highest effusions of the human heart, yeah yeah whatever--can we teach them how to find Canada on a map first, please? And maybe give them some basic medical knowledge? And phonics? As much as I love books, they're not that important compared to the gaping holes in most people's educations.

Besides, a love of trash is human. Ever since printing presses started mass-producing books we've been swamped with garbage. And why not? Garbage is an easy read, and sensationalistic writing is fun. Do you really want to be stuck in a world where the only reading material is Proust and Joyce? Even if we reformed literature until every week brought a new flood of brilliant, subtle writing about the deepest reaches of the human heart, we'd still have a solid bedrock of vampire romances and space operas.

In the end, the reason we see a lot of bad books is because people read them. Always have, always will. If the big publishers stop printing lowest-common-denominator books, small publishers will slide in and fill that niche--which, let's admit it, is the niche where the big money is. On top of that, there's no accounting for taste, and the gatekeepers know it. Plenty of books that have been rejected as garbage have turned out to be bestsellers, so who's to say that this latest piece of filler won't?

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 14, 2008 10:26 PM

"There Will Be Blood" is cinematic literary fiction. 2 and 1/2 hours of tone and the director showing off. Although lots of stuff occurs during the movie, I was never really interested in What Happens Next.

"No Country for Old Men," although based on a novel by one of the modern high priests of literary fiction is, in the hands of the Coen Brothers, much more like narrative fiction (with some literary aspirations, no doubt).

Atonement, the movie: More like literary fiction.

Michael Clayton: More like narrative fiction.

Juno: Indie literary fiction.

Posted by: Bryan on February 15, 2008 3:56 AM

Mr. Winkler's observations are valuable. Ayn Rand had it right. Characters in fiction can be defined two ways: one is simply descriptive. The other is to place the character in a dilemma and let the reader see how the character deals with tribulation or crisis. Descriptive depiction of characters in stories is the favored device of literary novelists, while placing the characters in an ongoing dynamic is the favored method of those who write fiction with broader appeal. And the latter means is by far the most penetrating and absorbing.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on February 15, 2008 8:11 AM

Bryan: It's eerie how close we are on There Will Be Blood. As a matter of fact, I described the movie to a friend in just such a manner--that is, by comparing it to an "impressive" lit-fic novel.

I don't know if I've ever seen a movie pump and grind so hard while remaining so inert. Dramatically, it's basically a one-note thing.

But, boy, are there impressive sequences! Flaming oil derricks; pasty, pudgy religious fanatics ranting in clap-board shacks; bony capitalists on Captain Ahab trips; solemn, denuded landscapes, often with locomotives cutting across them. And it's all photographed in a Thomas Eakins-ish light, filled with vague allusions to books and other movies, and spiced with tonal shifts that hit you like waves swelling across the ocean.

(Side point: Anderson strikes me as largely being interested in making the viewer feel disoriented, and he's very good at it. This, to be sure, is a talent of some kind...I'm just not sure he knows what to do with it.)

Anyway, it's no wonder people are impressed with TWWB. But I didn't see much in it aside from a lot of big filmmaking gestures.

I think I differ with you on No Country for Old Men, however. To me, it seemed like the perfect Cormac McCarthy adaptation--and I don't mean that as a compliment. The juice of the story, the thriller plotline, is just a hook to lay a bunch of nihilistic, faux-macho philosophizing on the viewer. And what a hollow view of life in general! The Cohens (and, presumably, McCarthy) seem to want us to congratulate them for being so damn arid and pessimistic.

Are there other movies that strike you as being analogous to what Michael's describing as literary fiction?

Posted by: Ron on February 15, 2008 9:13 AM

>>Are there other movies that strike you as being analogous to what Michael's describing as literary fiction?

First, the entire Paul Thomas Anderson oeuvre. Caught about 45 mins of Magnolia the other night and pretty much everything you said about TWWB applies. I also agree that some of those sequences are very impressive. If that guy got good story-oriented writing partner, I think his movies could really knock people's socks off.

Let's see, a few others off the top of my head: anything by Sofia Coppola, Half Nelson, Capote, The Ice Storm, Little Children.

You're probably right about No Country, too.

Posted by: Bryan on February 15, 2008 12:19 PM

The Cohens (and, presumably, McCarthy) seem to want us to congratulate them for being so damn arid and pessimistic.

Horsepoop. McCarthy's still writing about the border, just a 1980 border. A pretty bloody time, making one tend towards pessimism if you were anywhere near it. Writing about West Texas and the border tends toward arid, as well, or you're lying to your readers. And if you can't get behind the characterizations in NCFOM and the rest of McCarthy, then I'd like to know what good characters are. Superb plotting, in NCFOM, too, and verbal pyrotechnics held to a minimum. Just no happy ending.

Bah. I knew McCarthy would come up. Putting him in the same class as Auster and DeLillo and Morrison is just criminal. I'll give you The Road, but only barely. And this comes from a man with a horribly large investment in serial, genre, plot-driven fiction of Lawrence Block and Joe Lansdale and Ian Rankin and a thousand other nameless novel writers.

Posted by: Scott on February 15, 2008 12:58 PM

Scott is one of the world's major Cormac fans. So watch your step, world, or you're likely to find yourself in the midst of some Biblical and mythic gunfight.

Y'all have me thinking that American indie flix are the movie equivalents of "literary fiction." (So much fun putting quotes around "literary fiction." Take that!)

Which also makes the think about some of the reasons I generally don't care much for American lit-fict or indiepix ... Namely: they're like Euro art-lit or Euro art-films, minus the chic and the sex.

What's with that? What is it about some Americans that would drive them to create difficult, aimless, static, non-narrative tone poems and then cheat us of the juiciness and the sex? It's like having bondage inflicted on you, but being denied the fun of responding erotically to it. I mean, what's the point?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 15, 2008 1:30 PM

Well, I've read the man's work. I feel like I know where he's coming from, or at a minimum, I can relate to his characters (and him, a little). And since a lot of his work is set in a place where I'm from, I think I know something of where he's talking about. Yall are the ones that saddle CM with this derogatory lit-fic mantle, not me. If I can get through it, I reckon yall can, too.

And frankly, Micheal, I'd rather be working towards juicy sex than reading about it or watching it. I think Americans are sexier, if that's the term, than can possibly be captured on film or paper. That Euro stuff you love, like the Swimming Pool Frog movie...boring as hell when that nymph wasn't nekkid. Sure, occasional sparks, and a murder if I recall correctly, but zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. How anyone can care about those people is a mystery to me. I know you don't have to care about a character to enjoy the plot, but it was so stinking obvious what was going to happen right from the jump. Perhaps I was ruined by your expectation-setting.

Posted by: Scott on February 15, 2008 10:00 PM

A bookstore will not give you such a clear-cut definition of "literary" versus "genre" fiction. A bookstore's primary aim is to sell books, and quite frankly, some authors will do better in one category than in another, regardless of the actual topic of the work. For example, I would put Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mark Helprin in the science-fiction and fantasy section, Phillipa Gregory in a non-existant historical fiction section (a genre that appears to be growing in recent years), and authors such as Christopher Moore in a likewise non-existant "comedic fiction" section, yet they are all shelved in "Literature."

As is Anne Rice, at least at Borders. The reasoning behind it was quite interesting; it seems her fans buy a lot of hardbacks and there simply isn't room in the Horror section to keep a huge backlist of hardbacks.

Weird shelving is a sales technique. I'm fond of the more honest shelving system in place in Eugene's public library: All fiction shelved together, alpha by author. You come across more interesting reads that way.

Posted by: B. Durbin on February 23, 2008 10:10 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?