Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Essence of Story

What makes literature artistic? What makes it great? What makes a work of fiction literature?

... wow. Step back from *that* can of worms for a second.

I was struck in taking my Mystery, Horror and Detective Fiction course how strongly the author felt that he had to defend the literary value of mysteries - as if there was some question. As if the possibilities of the genre could somehow be less worthy. As if one would be ashamed to be reading *anything* in this day and age. (Though inherent in that is a different rant.)

This has led, I think, to an unfortunate trend in the science fiction and fantasy fields of writers *trying* to be literary. Experimentation is excellent, and it produces some beautiful visions - that's one thing. I'm talking about when an author sets out to be deep and constructs a story around, not some sudden flash of idea, intriguing setting or character that just leaps off the page and throttles them, but around the goal of making a story that makes people think and has Meaning.

I sincerely doubt that any writer sets out to write non-literary, pulpy drivel. Certainly, it's hard to imagine a writer penning something intended for publication with the goal, "I'm going to use the most clunky, ugly prose I can write!" Thus, striving to be literary seems, to me, to be redundant. We all are trying to make our writing better, to produce something that is enjoyable, to produce something better than the last book/story/even chapter. So what, really, is left? Cultural acceptance? Adherence to a standard of greatness that was one way in Shakespeare's time, another when Shelley rolled around, and a third into the modern era?

When it comes to genre fiction, I don't think that "being literary" should be a, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" proposition. Each genre has its own core, its own value, its own place where artistry and merit shine. I've probably heard romance novels bashed more than any other genre - but isn't Jane Eyre a romance?

Here, then, is my standard for what makes fiction great: it should be organic. It should be in a world (whether that's a fantastical setting or an apartment building) that is immersive, populated by characters who feel like people, with a plot that is determined by the necessity of these forces colliding, and chronicled - but not forced - by an author who can see all three clearly. It should grow naturally. If there is a moral or a philosophy, it evolves from the requirements of the story, not the other way around. It should be, in its own way, a living entity.

No meticulous construct can, for me, match the artistic value of a story raised to the potential of its own adulthood.

Also, to be explained in a future post:

Iiiiii'm going to Caaaaalgary!

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