Recently at a very intelligent, interesting story discussion group, we hit upon the subject of whether a piece of writing or work of art had mass appeal–in other words, was it accessible? The other participants mentioned a poet who was not critically acclaimed or regarded as “good,” but who was quite popular. There was lively debate about this, because some people said they did not like poetry, they found it too difficult to follow, or it brought up bad memories of English class and forced memorization. I also mentioned the appeal of popular, plot-driven books as opposed to literary fiction which focuses so heavily on narrative voice and character development. All of this got me thinking about literature and accessibility. Does a work of literature need to be easily understood? Or if it is, does that mean an author is pandering to modern readers? Perhaps the answers are not so easy.
Poetry is probably the easiest target when it comes to attacking the written word. Many people claim they “don’t get” poetry, that it is arcane, confusing, boring, and/or elitist. This is very sad, because poetry is some of our oldest literature. Ancient texts were often in verse and rhymed because they were orally transmitted from generation to generation, prior to mass literacy. The language was accessible, followed a certain meter or rhythm, and was meant to be memorized. (I believe there is still great merit in having K-12 students memorize poetry, as it involves the auditory and kinesthetic–something missing in our touchscreen, digital age.) From ancient Sanskrit works and slokas to ancient Greek plays, to early medieval motets, there is something to be said for carefully chosen words that are easy to remember and follow a certain pattern. This is why we love songs–perhaps there, we still connect to our primal love of poetry.
The 20th Century saw the advent of confessional poetry, beat poetry, and the freeing of the structured word. It also saw the rise of personal expression and subject matter that was not glorifying historical events, The Exalted, gods, or anything grandiose (though this change in subject matter had been happening since the Renaissance, and very visibly in English poetry from the late 1700s with the Romantic poets.) There was a shift from the external to the internal, a shift from the structured to the freeform/ flowing, and rules were loosened. Perhaps this was where many people began to dislike poetry, however irrationally, because it did not conform to what their ideas of what poetry “was supposed to be.” There may be some truth to this, though things are not so black and white as if there is nobody between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Allen Ginsberg.
But I would also argue that the love of efficiency in American society, and the rapidity with which we live our lives has also diminished our affinity for poetry. British English by nature tends to be more florid and lengthier than American English, which is all about “getting to the point.” I would also argue that some of the loss of love for poetry in American society has to do with the lack of rhyme. Some might find rhyme simplistic, but there are many that would argue they love the harmony of vowels and consonants at regular intervals.
But isn’t the reader also responsible? The answer is yes. Poetry takes time, because it gives our lives a certain depth, and uses language in infinitely creative ways that give us a new way of perceiving things. We also live in a digital age which emphasizes the visual over the literary. It’s much quicker to send someone a GIF for their birthday than it is to write them a poem, much faster to look at photos on Facebook than it is to read a sonnet. Why not take the time to read something that may not be what our conventional ideas of poetry are, reflect on it, evaluate it, and then decide what we like and what we have learned from it? We can feel free to listen to a bad poet who drones on in a monotonous way and say we dislike it. We can also choose to read a poet who inserts many words from their native language which we don’t know, and yet somehow feel the universality of what they are saying and their experience.
And what about fiction? I would say literary fiction could learn more from popular fiction. In literary fiction studies, so much emphasis is placed on (as above) narrative voice and character development. This is what distinguishes literary fiction from popular fiction, in a nutshell. There is a complexity of language and depth to the main actors in the story or novel, a fleshing out of people so they seem real, recognizable. Writers often bring their own experiences to their fiction; it’s a truly democratic platform that is becoming even more democratic with more diverse writers who are expanding conceptions of what American literature should be. There is a beauty to the craft of literary fiction, how it is constructed is truly a marvel when we analyze it. The equivalent is examining at a designer jacket: the seams aren’t showing, the stitches are even, there are no gaps at the shoulders, and it fits beautifully.
But what of the deceptively simple task of just telling a damn good story? Literary fiction can get lost in itself, which is why “airport fiction” or plot-driven novels are hugely successful, drawing in millions of readers and millions of dollars. Same with young adult/middle grade books: they tell engaging, intriguing stories, and many of them are very well written. There is a reason for J. K. Rowling’s popularity–she knows how to engage the reader. Some people might associate this with “dumbing down” good literature. I believe that these two things are not mutually exclusive. Think of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies—all works that are literary fiction, but also very popular (all of these writers have had novels turned into films.) Overall, however, I do think literary fiction writers would benefit from understanding plot more, being aware of the reader and not only telling a story for their own personal expression. Just as there is the proverbial Morose Poet who drones on and on at a reading, there is the Self-Obsessed Fiction Writer whose work is a therapy session on the page. Again, bringing one’s personal experience to one’s fiction and being appealing to a reader are not mutually exclusive. The question is simply how it is done.
What can we learn from these popular novels? It relates to a wonderful piece of advice that was given to me by a near-centenarian named Norton at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015: “Just write,” he told me. People get so caught up in all the hows and worrying about technique, he continued, but it was important to simply write a good story. I have kept that advice in mind, though Norton is no longer with us. I also believe that as writers, we must fundamentally writers what we want to and believe in; we are not merely entertainers who are serving a target audience. It also depends on what sort of writing career we want to have: some people want to be the next Sue Grafton or J. K. Rowling, whereas others would loathe that sort of trajectory, preferring to be read by connoisseurs and published by a small press that champions unique voices. However, there is no harm in learning from other genres: artistic cross pollination only makes us stronger.