“What’s that?”: On Literary Fiction, Part 2


Picture of old booksAnd now, the conclusion…

So why did I say that thing about Stephen King and everyday writing, when the literature I am most influenced by is not anything like Stephen King and is not about everyday life? (No offense to Stephen or everyday life.)

Maybe it was because I being a snob.  When I told her that it was like Stephen King, I assumed she didn’t know a thing about literature.  I didn’t tell her all about my favorite writers or the history of literary style over the years.  Because, you see, that’s one of the quirks of being a writer, you want to sound smart.  You got something to prove.  I’m better at taking it out of my stories, but it’s much more difficult to stop yourself from doing it when you talk.

Or maybe I was ashamed of literature.  But how could I be proud and ashamed of literature at the same time?  Here’s why:


You smell that?  Let me show the word again and this time, listen to the voice in your head as you read it.


You smell now?  The word stinks.

Literature.  Whether it conjures up freshman English class or that friend of yours that wears fedoras in the winter, it has a stinkiness to it.  Sort of a dusty, moldy, sharp odor.  It smells like ‘old, dead, rich, white men’ to some and ‘young, pretentious smart asses’ to others.  To me, it smells like rotten fruit.  In fact, I hate the smell so much I want to call it something else (I haven’t figured a new name yet.  All I can come up with is ‘Yeah!’ fiction, since whenever I see my stacks of books when I get home, my mind, heart, and spirit all scream ‘Yeah!’).

Of course, all literature is not like this, just like not all literary writers are snobby and pretentious.  But for the most part, literature has gotten a bad rap of being snooty, and so there’s always this tendency as a writer to either go one way or the other–to plow ahead and be as obscure and literary as possible or to check that impulse by not being very literary at all and writing average accessible stories using accessible ‘easy read’ language.

There’s a middle ground, though, and I found out about it from a writer I’ve not read yet.

His name was David Foster Wallace.  I know so little about him, still, almost as if I want to keep his life a mystery. You can find all the facts here.  I also knew he was highly intelligent and could’ve camped out in New York City like the rest of the intelligentsia, but he got a job teaching at Illinois State in ’91.  He loved Midwest people, I remembered reading in an interview of his.  It makes sense, seeing as he was one of them at one time growing up, just like me.  He left ISU two years before I got there in ’98.  I would’ve liked to meet him, just to say thank you, because it was at college where I found a quote of his that not only changed the way I saw literature and the poisonous emotions of snobbery and shame that every writer struggles with, but also how I write.

Here’s the quote:

“If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

“What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do is stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.”

In those words, Wallace mapped out for me exactly what I wanted to do with literature—to make it entertaining without being watered-down; by showing readers the stage of the literary novel but making it funny, sad, weird, cool, and enlightening; by keeping things interesting while making us reflect; by using language that was engaging and smart but not stuffy.  And the easiest way to do this is to focus on the narrative, which is the characters’ stories and the story’s characters.  When you do this, you chip away a little more at your ego, sharing the narrative with the reader in mutual fascination and heartbreak and joy instead of showing your piece to them while tapping your foot, waiting for them ‘to get it’.  And again, no offense to Stephen King, who is a master storyteller and whom got me into writing in a big way, but he is not literature because literature, as Wallace says, makes us confront things, shows us ourselves to ourselves, makes the language difficult for us to climb up onto in a way that we exercise our minds rather than become overwhelmed.

And that’s how a little old lady taught me to understand the message and the genius of literary fiction.  By her asking me, ‘What is that?’, she made me examine my answer.  She made me realize that I should just be myself and let this lit nerd speak from the heart.  Instead of telling people what they might want to hear, I’ll tell them what I feel inside.

“I write,” I said, the other day, “about the human condition.  About our inner conflicts magnified in the chambers of the mind while we act out the game of life.  That’s my subject.  And my style?  That’s hard to describe.  I would start with a heaping helping of Ingmar Bergman’s drama.  Real on-the-stage human drama stuff.  Only not as depressing.  Have you ever read The Magic Mountain or Death in Venice?  Okay, take a little of that, using Mann’s language, mostly, but also his meandering storytelling.  And his vivid, strange characters and strange situations as well.  Take a big dash of the SOC writers—Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner—but mostly for their internal conflicts and mindsets more than their style, and more Faulkner than any of them, but not too stuffy.  Then add a dash Updike.  A sprinkling of Baxter and Eggers to spice it up.  Then let it soak in Dostoevsky’s canon for about an hour.  Then presto, that’s my style.

“I guess what I’m saying is, I’m attempting to retell the stories that have been told since the dawn of human consciousness.”

“Huh?” the man at my bar said.

(I shrug and smirk at the camera) That’s life for ya!

Mr. Wallace, take us out.

“It’s unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but it’s neat.  There’s so much mass commercial entertainment that’s so good and so slick, this is something that I don’t think any other generation has confronted. That’s what it’s like to be a writer now. I think it’s the best time to be alive ever and it’s probably the best time to be a writer. I’m not sure it’s the easiest time.”


You can find the entire interview here.

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