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.

Novels versus Stories: A Personal Reflection

Last July, I completed the first draft of my first novel ever. It was my third attempt at a novel, the first being when I was a senior in high school, writing 120 some handwritten pages. The second was a decade or so later, and that novel became unwieldy, at 400 some pages, and not even one third of the way through. It was at that point I realized that I needed to back up and understand how to write shorter forms to simply accomplish the goal of completion. I always knew I wanted to be a longform writer, I was always interested in novels rather than stories, but I had to be able to see the arc of a work of fiction and put it on paper. It was indeed a struggle. How does one create the architecture for a work of fiction? I had a lot of impulses, but what I lacked was technique. I had very little understanding of craft and how there were certain “tricks” to understand the underpinnings of fiction.

Certain things I grasped intuitively through writing; there are other things about stories that I still am trying to understand, years later. What a story needs is very different than what a novel needs: the structure and plot need to be tighter, everything has to be accomplished with an economy of words and space, there can be very little that is extraneous and we need to feel the arc very palpably, see the transformation of the character. It is interesting to study short stories and their writers (something which I have done quite a lot over the past decade, in my MFA program and in a short story discussion group), for the short story is not a monolithic entity. I, very oddly, I’m not a fan of the much-lauded Alice Munro, for I find her jumps in time to be rather jarring and disturbing. However, George Saunders’s omissions work, because they leave out information that is implied and that we can piece together. I feel that Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorter short stories are generally much stronger than her longer short stories, as the latter feel a bit meandering and padded. Anthony Doerr does wonderful work with showing the passage of time, writing clearly structured stories that still hold a lot of emotion. And finally, one of my absolute favorite stories is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” which practically uses standup comedy to address serious issues that Native Americans face.

And what of novels? Why do I prefer them to stories?

To me, a novel is something soothing and complete. It is its own entity in a book, something you hold in your hand, a complete oeuvre from cover to cover. We talk about the accomplishment of “writing a book,” meaning a novel. A novel has the legroom, so to speak, the extra space to develop all the themes and thoughts and ideas we have as writers. I liken it to a Boeing 767 or Airbus 380 that needs a long runway to take off: it is a large aircraft and it needs it space to launch and to carry the passengers to a far off destination, covering a wide swath of time and distance. A short story is like a small Embraer jet that can maneuver small runways and take you where you need to go quickly and efficiently. I like the expansive nature of a novel, the way it can take us on a character’s journey (or multiple characters’ journeys). We can savor the prose, follow the various threads introduced by the writer, study the plots and subplots. We might even marvel at a slightly atypical structure–perhaps the novel is not written in traditional chapters, or the chapters are irregular, or it is fashioned into different sections.

19th-century writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy wrote their novels in serial fashion, with regular “episodes” that accomplished weekly or periodic entertainment for the reader. Therefore, their novels tend to be more conventionally structured, chapters more even in length. As novels became more and more available as their own printed form, the form naturally expanded and took on new shapes. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop was a novel in stories (see the earlier post The nature of prose also expanded, and over the decades in the 20th century we got writers as diverse as Hemingway, Kerouac, and Morrison. The phenomenon of metafiction arose, although one could argue that Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey was proto-metafiction, and also magical realism.

Today, we have a multitude of forms, styles, writers, backgrounds, and this makes the entity of the novel all the richer and more fascinating. And still, the pleasure of sitting down with a book that takes us on a literary journey from start to finish is incomparable. We have a human need to connect with a character, a family, a story line. Satisfying this need is a great challenge as a writer, for figuring out the architecture, so to speak, the structure and plot and sustaining it over hundreds of pages, is quite a task. I had the great fortune to ask Joyce Carol Oates after a Zoom interview how she managed the challenge of structure over an 800-page novel, and her answer was simply that the story had to be told, the characters’ stories needed that much space. Easier said than done for mortals like me compared to a literary titan! 

There is also the question of when to pause and shift gears from one character to another, one plot line to another, etc. This affects where we put in breaks either in the form of chapters or sections. Another challenge while writing a novel is not being redundant. We need to fill space, we need to expand the histories and backstories and details, but how much is too much? Have we repeated ourselves? Are the details we are presenting the reader necessary, or boring? And what about the themes and the basic idea of the story: is it interesting enough to engage a reader over multiple pages? Agents will often tell writers that the key to a successful query is to make the agent want to read past the first page.

Have things been resolved by the end of the novel? Have the loose threads come together, or are there aspects that leave the reader hanging? Is the novel put together in a way that feels cohesive? I recently read a novel by a Nobel laureate that felt like a draft: it completely lacked backstory, skimmed the surface of the story by focusing heavily on dialogue, and felt too long, like it should have been a novella. The novel clearly needed to be edited. This is proof that even the best writers struggle with the challenge of the novel, and that their output will vary from book to book. In a back-of-the-magazine interview in Vanity Fair, the interviewer said to Roth that surely, he must know he can write a novel by now. Roth’s answer was an emphatic no, that he couldn’t write all novels, only this one, the current novel he was working on at the time. 

I am still learning much about technique and craft when it comes to the novel, and I hope it will inform me in my revisions and subsequent works. Despite all the challenges, I still feel like it is a worthy and absolutely gripping pursuit to be a novelist. There are few greater thrills!