Understanding How We Deepen Fiction

Being a writer is quite an arduous process and a fascinating endeavor, nonetheless. Once we discover the impulse to put something down on the page, we find that there are layers and layers of work. Perhaps the most gifted of writers have little struggle, but for the rest of us mortals, it takes much trial and error to understand the complexity of our task.

Over the years, I have enjoyed editing others’ work in workshops, conferences, and even privately. In the early days, my feedback was largely line edits, as that’s what I understood fiction editing to be. Over time, I started to think about plot and motivation: was there a clear cause-and-effect? Were the characters’ reasons for doing things legit, based on what was on the page? And naturally, this tied into scene and scene length. Where did I feel there was a bit missing, where something needed to be expanded? What darlings need to be killed? (A lot of writers err on the side of putting in too many details, and often they do not serve the plot or the main thrust of the story.) Was the writer setting us up properly at the beginning of the story or piece of fiction for things to unfold in the way they did throughout the work?

And in my own writing, I came to understand importance of the quality of prose. A good friend of mine from my MFA program spent hours laboring over her sentences. We would send each other a sample of our work weekly, and I understood from her that it wasn’t enough to simply tell the story from the images in my head: variation in my sentences and what I put on the page was extremely important. Due to my earlier training in the social sciences and academia, I was used to observing and writing down what I saw. This had its advantages, in that my characters were never flat, and I always received positive comments on the their complexity and on the realism of my stories. However, the cost was I had to think about the nature of my prose, which sometimes seemed simplistic and flat. Who were the master stylists among writers? Who had a great command of the language and used diction to their full advantage? Toni Morrison is one author who immediately comes to mind, as well as Oscar Wilde.

Dialogue was another part of craft that I picked up on by analyzing the masters in addition to my social science training and powers of observation. Robert Boswell, one of my MFA advisors, had me write craft essays (called “annotations” at Warren Wilson) on this, and I learned that what mattered was not only realistic-sounding dialogue, but also the structural purpose it held. For example, in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” dialogue was deception; the characters were constructed through dialogue that was very much at odds with their personalities. Good dialogue in a piece of writing makes it feel real. The characters come to life, we can relate, and the reader is engaged. Playwrights must have a strong sense of this, for their works are based entirely on dialogue. Same for opera: everything is told through the libretto.

As my understanding of writing became more sophisticated, I started to understand more about that elusive concept called “emotional resonance.” Earlier in my writing career, it sounded like a slippery, ambiguous, subjective term (which one could argue still is). But I got a better sense of this intangible thing over time and especially when working with my final Warren Wilson advisor, the renowned Joan Silber. When the reader grasps the themes and characters from the beginning, they anticipate certain feelings and emotions to be evoked. Then they ask, “What feels real or true to this character or situation? Would the character really do X? Or shouldn’t there be more expansion here, so we see how the character reacts to Y?” In my own work, a novel retelling of a classic, I changed a significant element of the plot with one character, putting her pregnancy before marriage, because it affected what was going to happen through the whole novel. I jokingly told my advisor that my realization of this was a WWJD–”What Would Joan Do?”–moment, that she would have made such a suggestion while I was writing. Even outside the scope of retellings, this is an important yet subtle technique, for the best writing incorporates this without the reader ever knowing. Consider two examples (spoiler alert!): The Story of a New Name, where Lenù sleeping with the father of the boy she is in love with is shocking but fitting, or Jane Eyre’s flight from Mr. Rochester after she finds out he is married. They feel right with the tone of the novel and the character.

I could go on and on about what makes fiction deeper, as I feel this post is superficial and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Besides, numerous books and articles have been written on this subject. But I choose to write from my own experience because it has been a surprising, sometimes frustrating, yet always- fascinating journey that will continue for the rest of my life.

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 https://wordpress.com/post/thewomenofletters.com/404). 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.

The Academic Novel and My Current Writing Project

My current literary project is a collection of stories and novellas set at a fictitious research university.  The origins of this project are somewhat unexpected.  I had not set about to write a collection of stories, as I have always seen myself as a novelist.  However, the novel I had begun working on after my second round of graduate school had become too unwieldy; as much as I loved it and still do (it will be my next project that I complete, and I have returned to it from time to time), I knew I had to put it aside.

I had written a couple of short stories while working on the novel, and I felt that in order to do well at the novel, I had to master the shorter form.  There were things the shorter form could teach me (the act of completion, for one), such as technique and craft that were easier to see in a story.  I had also thought it would be fascinating to explore the emotional dilemmas of characters who are in different academic subjects were fields.  Where did emotion and the idea meet?  My reasons for doing this were indeed personal:  as a graduate student, I was more interested in a subjective response to “objective” questions.  Being in truth an artist, I always wanted to express my own ideas, and I found having to footnote and make citations frustrating and often derivative.  Just as an academic paper had to pose a research question and find an answer, I wondered why that couldn’t be done with an emotional question in a story.

So much of what I had seen, superficially, about academic novels involve a professor (usually male and often in the English department) in a midlife crisis and usually having an affair with a female colleague or graduate student.  Or, it involved a professor struggling with his career and marital problems.  To me, this seemed clichéd and the “been there, done that” of academic/campus novels.  Granted, I have only read a handful of books in this genre of writing, and have generally enjoyed these very much—-Lucky Jim, The Professor’s House (by my favorite author Willa Cather), the works of Jhumpa Lahiri (which often revolve around an academic setting), Lolita and Brideshead Revisited (which are nominally “academic”), and I believe I have even read Herzog.  I had begun McEwan’s Solar, as I enjoy his works very much, but somehow I was not able to get through it.  But I felt like there was something often unrepresented in this sub-genre.

Why couldn’t academia be used as a backdrop?  Didn’t academia have emotion to it?  At any given moment on any campus, I knew there were multiple personal questions, dilemmas, and emotions going on simultaneously. There might be an international student in the throes of a love affair with a fellow student, but who has to return home due to a visa’s limitations, while there is an associate professor up for promotion to full, but she is being blocked by colleagues, while there is a provost who has skeletons in his closet, while there is an economics professor who just won the Nobel Prize. Or, to continue the theme, there might be a student suffering from severe anorexia while a law student is deciding about dropping out while an entry-level administrator is having success as an artist.  Why wasn’t anyone writing about this? 

Given this current picture of academia, I felt that a lot of academic novels did not feel accurate:  they simply did not reflect the modern world as I saw it.  I am a member of the 1st post-civil rights/Title IX generation, which means that my generation is arguably the first to be integrated, gender-equal, and diverse.  Also, I have been fortunate to attend universities that are highly global.  My freshman dorm alone had students from Canada, Kuwait, Poland, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Spain, and Americans of every stripe and color.  Yes, it is entirely possible that my critics might say I am painting an elitist/ideal/atypical picture of college life in my book.  I can only be true to my own experience, which, I might add, involves coming from a very modest, middle/lower middle class college town.  To quote the funny cliché, “Well, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it!”  American universities are very unique environments rich in a diversity of ideas, if not also types of people, and there is a reason they are renowned all over the world.

I wish to conclude with huge praise for one of my favorite short stories about a professor, which is by—-surprise!  Woody Allen—-called “The Kugelmass Episode,” about a professor of humanities who has an affair with Madame Bovary after being inserted into the novel by a magician.  Not only is it absolutely hilarious and brilliantly clever, but also it is also extremely well written, a good example of the arc of a short story.  So you see, I have had good models in learning how to write shorter pieces that merge academia and the form of the story.  There are always authors who remind us of the richness of the sub-genre of academic literature.