Trusting The Reader, Trusting The Writer: Hidden Luxuries Of Literary Fiction

We live our lives at dizzying speed. Things pass us by so quickly we miss a whole lot, and we’ve gotten used to this accelerated pace, even come to crave it. I’ve been trying to keep up, but to tell you the truth I often feel uncomfortable, as though I’m trying to fit into a wetsuit that’s too small. Not only do I miss things, they miss me too. Opportunities, surprises, good stuff. Stuff that gives my life its depth and richness.

I’ve always been a scuba diver, not a water skier. Give me my gear and I’ll plumb the dark, bottom of the ocean, take my time doing it and return with treasure, or my notion of it. But prop me up behind a speedboat and I’m likely to do unintentional cartwheels, somersaults and back flips, injuring not only myself but everyone within a twenty mile radius.

I’m uncomfortable because lately I’ve been neglecting my oxygen tanks and flippers. Without them, I find it hard to breathe. But what can you do…the surface seems to be the thing; exhilarating speed preferable to slower life underwater, where I get to glide alongside strange creatures, gaze into the eyes of mermen and discover exotic species of coral.

As readers and writers, this frenetic pace has crept into our stories. Books have less audition time than A Chorus Line dancer, and it’s the first sentence, paragraph, page and chapter from which we expect the most. Then the middle steps up and, well, in under a heartbeat, it’s a case of, “NEXT!!!!”

Every word has to fight for its life, which is what I tell my editing clients, and this is as it should be, but sometimes our perception of what words should stay and what should go, is a little off. Quality prose is sacrificed for pace; characterization for plot; description and telling for a trendy, showy voice, and last, but not least, innovation for formula. I don’t get why there has to be any sacrifice. All these elements make for good storytelling, and the trick is to find a balance between them that works. They all have their place.

In part, YA is responsible for this trend. As more readers gravitate towards the genre, more writers adjust to accommodate market trends, until everyone, no matter their age, is reading and writing for adolescents. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adolescent at heart myself and so is my daughter, really, but there are times when it’s fun to be an adult. (No no, don’t ask me when.) Does that mean life is heavier…yes. You know, bills and decisions, grocery shopping and dependents, mortgages and, ugh, the list is endless. Does it mean life is more interesting…yes. Because with responsibility and experience comes choice, and choice is the only real shot we get at freedom.

Lately I’ve been reading more literary fiction, partly because I miss it, and partly because I fear for my brain. I reviewed one of these books last month, and out of curiosity, went in search of other readers’ observations. We all know about internet trolls, but some of these comments were so over-the-top, they made trolls seem positively charming. Outlandish, spiteful and scornful, they targeted not just the writer, but literary fiction in general and the book specifically.

We’re allowed our opinions and I’m always up for an enthusiastic debate, but why all the rage? I mean I’m really asking the question. I don’t get it. If a book annoys me, I can toss it aside, maybe huff and puff a bit, but a hissy fit? Makes no sense to me.

It’s true that literary fiction often raises more questions than it offers answers, leaving us doubting, wondering, confused or mystified. Maybe its demands–that we approach a text with more agility and curiosity—do take up more of our time and focus. Sometimes it’s just plain hard work, a quest presenting little or no hope of redemption. You know, a bit like life sometimes, and heavens, we get enough of life by just, well, living.

What literary fiction asks us to do is slow down and scuba dive. In trying to understand why the genre seems to annoy people so much, I wondered if it had to do with laziness, incomprehension or something else. I find lots of reasons I may not enjoy a book:

  • It’s one long self-indulgent yawn on the part of the writer;
  • It’s overstuffed and flabby (closely related to self-indulgent yawn);
  • It deals with subject matter I just can’t get my head around, although if it’s strongly written, I may venture there;
  • I can’t find any reason to care about the characters or what happens to them.

Odds are I’ll give the writer a chance, and not expect World War III to be fought and won in the Prologue. I’ll trust that it takes time to become acquainted with a book’s characters, to get to know them. Literary fiction allows readers intimate access to its characters. We do get to sink to the bottom of the ocean and gaze into the eyes of mermen. Maybe our first thought is, who could love a fish, but when we feel that tail hum against our skin and he invites us to explore his odd, irrational urges, maybe we can stop and smell the seaweed.

Words are more than just communication vehicles. They can be playmates too. They can tease and infuriate us and encourage us to stop and pick daisies. To some extent this involves trust on the part of both the writer and reader. The reader trusts the writer to take her on a journey that will be anything from entertaining to deep and meaningful, and maybe everything all rolled into one, and that may need a bit of patience. The writer trusts the reader to give her story and characters space and time to grow. Words demand of writers recklessness and authority. Insecurity inhibits both, without that leap of faith a generous reader is prepared to make.

It’s okay for us to slow down from time to time, to not understand something, to grapple with meaning. The book isn’t going anywhere, but there’s always a chance that we are, and a better than good chance it’s somewhere we’ve never been before.

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