Accessibility in the Literary Arts

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.

Non-Traditional Narratives

I am working on a novel with a very traditional narrative structure, which has been an appropriate, necessary, and enjoyable challenge for me at this stage in my writing. It has been my experience that MFA programs and literary fiction education focus highly on narrative voice and character development, and so sometimes a writer just needs to learn how to tell a darn good story with an intriguing plot! Ironically, a friend recently told me about a novel she was working on and sent an article in the New Yorker about French filmmaker Céline Sciamma by Elif Batuman. What inspired her from the article was the idea of building tension in non-traditional ways in the narrative. This got me thinking about movies and books that have non-traditional narratives, and what I have observed in them. 

Writer Antonya Nelson has mentioned in workshop that she doesn’t always use a traditional narrative, choosing instead to build tension through contrasts and opposites. This is one way in which a writer might think about creating the necessary conflict in a work of fiction. Fragments are another device used in literature and film, or perhaps this is better described as vignettes. Susan Minot’s “Lust” comes to mind as an example of this, a story in which a young woman narrates her love life through boarding school through episodes of the boys she has dated. Naturally, a fragmented type of narrative would work well for literature that deals with trauma and any kind of memory fragmentation. That is, the form reflects the content. However, this is something that takes a great deal of skill, because too many (new?) writers attempt this and the reader has nothing to follow or latch onto, no thread to connect the fragments. As a tangent, I would also say that this is also a problem with a lot of modern atonal music in particular: the listener has no continuity to grab onto.

Novels-in-stories, in a sense, I could argue are not traditional narratives. We may not get the through line of one character through the whole novel, certain scenes may be omitted, and there may not necessarily be connections between the stories. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is an example of this (see my earlier post about this novel at Cather has accomplished this successfully, as has Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge. Both works succeed because there is enough connection through title characters, setting, community, and themes.

With film, there is much more leeway for non-traditional narratives because the visual element can connect many things cognitively for the viewer. A lot of independent films eschew traditional Hollywood formulaic plots for nontraditional narratives. Recently I saw a Swiss film called “My Wonderful Wanda” (“Wanda, Mein Wunder”) of Polish caregiver and the Swiss family she works for, which is tripartite in structure, with each part addressing a different issue, but it is still a fairly traditional narrative based on a key conflict and the setting of the house on the lake. My favorite example is the stunning, visual poetry of Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel über Berlin) which features different characters in swirling around in different situations in Berlin, with a loose narrative about an angel who wants to become mortal. There is an occasional voiceover from that angel, which leads me to another point: a narrator can also help tie disparate elements together. We see this in film, theater (think about ancient Greek plays and the choruses) and even occasionally in literature. And a common setting or place also allows for more freedom in the narrative.

One final point that is very important to touch on (though it requires a whole post) is that many BIPOC and non-Western/non-canonical writers embrace non-traditional narrative forms, things that have been often erroneously criticized by Western readers and critics. This often reflects a lack of understanding of literatures from different countries/cultures, and a lack of knowledge about linguistics and different languages. It can, however, be a difficult line to tread when a writer’s work is simply unclear, but the reader needs to be aware of the cultural context. This issue is one of the current topics for debate in modern fiction, and one for which there are multiple responses and perspectives.

This post is by no means comprehensive and only scratches the surface of a topic that is so rich and diverse. However, it is meant to get readers thinking a little bit about the question of the narrative, and if it always has to be predictable.

What I’ve Learned from Giving Feedback on Writing

So much of being a writer, or any artist, is about receiving feedback from others. One must have the humility to learn what is working and not working with one’s art. Perhaps your sound is not “in the mask” as an opera singer when you are going to a particular passage, or you have a character who is underdeveloped as a writer, or your lines are not in the right planes as a ballet dancer. Other people have eyes that you don’t have for yourself; therefore, it is imperative to understand how other people are perceiving your work.

There is the flip side, which is what one can learn by giving feedback. In seeing the flaws of others, one can learn things that do or don’t work in a piece. It is hard to make general rules out of these things, because critiquing each piece or work of art or performing artist is so individual and specific. However, these are some things I have learned as a writer over the years of giving feedback to my colleagues and peers, and this is by no means an exhaustive or complete summary

-Detail. Detail must serve the thrust of the story or the piece of writing. Too many extraneous details are the darlings that one has to kill, as per the proverbial writing adage. Are they helping build character or plot, setting the scene so the reader understands the world that the writer is building? Some writers want to include every bit of minutiae, and the reader who is giving feedback is probably crossing out large sections with their pen. This is a very common problem one sees in manuscripts, and it is understandable. Any writer wants to tell the reader about everything that is in their head and create that same richness on the page.

-Backstory. This is such a tricky one. The reader needs enough backstory to feel grounded and understand the context of characters. Novels, by nature of their longer form, allow for more backstory, but this is not to say that short stories don’t require this as well. One of the trickiest questions with backstory is placement, for the writer is in danger of an “information dump” where they spill all the information about a character or something from the past when only parts of it are relevant to the present action. Also quite challenging is how much should be told and how much should be shown; will pieces of the backstory be revealed as the novel or story unfolds, or will it be up to the reader to deduce what has happened? Not enough backstory makes a piece of writing seem superficial and too much in real time; too much makes the piece static. Conventions of writing have changed over the past couple of centuries, and nowadays, there is a favoring of not explaining all the information from the past.

-How much does the reader know about a particular context or group of people or type of person? A 20-something may not appreciate a historical novel and want the writer to use more current conventions or imagery, not understand why a woman had to get married by the time she was 20. Whereas a senior citizen who is reading a story by a Brooklyn hipster may not understand the reason for using the present tense and trendy vocabulary. This becomes even more serious when looking at matters of race and culture: many African-American (and other non-white) writers have lamented the fact that white critiquers do not understand the literary conventions which the writer is coming from and are stuck in Eurocentric notions of “good” writing. Also, for writers who have a foot in the door in cultures overseas and are writing about non-American culture, there is always the challenge of knowing how much to explain or define particular terms. Generally speaking, immediate, overt descriptions come across as clumsy–i.e., “she ate a gulab jamun, an Indian dessert of fried milk and flour balls soaked in a sugar syrup flavored with rose.” The issue of culture/ethnicity is highly charged, and up for much debate. There is a fine line between a reader’s insensitivity or ignorance and a BIPOC writer’s weak craft that needs to be corrected, and it can be very difficult to know where that line is.

-The “architecture” of a piece. This relates to plot and structure and how events and character development are unfolding. Maybe a story should begin two pages in from where it currently begins, or maybe on page 9, there is a great sentence that really sums up the theme of the story and should be put at the beginning. Do the events feel organic? Is there clear causation, because it may not be evident to us readers? Sometimes things have to be shuffled around for the story or novel to flow better. 

            From my own experience recently, feedback I got from my Bread Loaf workshop led by Charles Baxter made me realize that I had to stop rotating various points of view so quickly and stay in one point of view for a longer period. This led me to re-sequence the first few chapters, and now it flows much more smoothly. And conversely, a story I read last week did not clearly lay out the premise at the beginning, and so I encouraged the writer to choose a paragraph or line from several pages in to put at the beginning to make the story’s intentions clearer.

-Point of view. There are times when a manuscript is suffering because of the wrong choice of point of view. Or perhaps the point of view keeps shifting. is this writer really saying what they want to say through the point of view they have chosen, or are they being limited by it? One story I read recently abruptly shifted to a minor character’s point of view, when omniscience would have been a better choice to encompass the lead character as well as the supporting characters.

-Is this the right form or length? Sometimes a story is aching to become a novel, because there is so much richness in it and such a large time span that it needs the space. Sometimes a story should be cut, because there is too much extraneous detail, and it can say what it wants in a short space. And then there is also the situation where a story can be a story in its current version, but have different versions: a longer one, a shorter one, or eventually developed into a novel or novella! This was the case recently in a writing workshop, where a story was quite interesting as it was, but it felt like it could be an episode in a Bildungsroman about the lead character.

These are only a few of the myriad of things I have learned from writers’ workshops for over the years. Hopefully these musings will be of interest to other writers because it is all too easy to look at the polished work of renowned writers and admire what they have done, but we have to be aware of the steps in the process.