I find that most of the great works of literature that are touted by the intellectual elite are often long, arduous books written in language that is either difficult to understand, overly stylistic, orsomehowmaligned by too much literary meddling. I have a deeply-held belief that if a work is not easily accessible to the general public, it is a failure.

There is no reason that good serious literature cannot be easily accessible to the general public (more on this in an upcoming post). I feel that simplicity is elegance, and that it is the mark of an excellent writer, though deceptively so. I feel that a writer should try to suppress his egotistical flourishes and resist his flights of fancy when he feels the impulse to use metaphors to hide metaphors within more metaphors. I feel that, oftentimes, a writer becomes so entranced by the cleverness of the literary devices he has learned—at great expenditure of intellectual energy—and becomes egotistically attached to using as many of these shiny new devices as he can. As such, he merely produces rhetorical effects by way of fanciful language. Instead of crafting a novel with a compelling story, he becomes convinced that he must fashion a novel that shows the world just how technically proficient he is. This is, of course, quite similar to being “descriptive as hell,” which I have described already. I find that the effectiveness of literary devices and rhetoric can often be confused with good storytelling.

For example, when a writer moves you with beautiful language into seeing and believing the beauty of a woman’s angelic presence (i.e. “The golden wisps of her hair fluttered gently in the summer breeze, and her sapphire eyes glistened playfully under the bright white sun,”) he is showing off his technical proficiency. This in and of itself is no crime unless it is over-used. However, if the surrounding context of the sentence conveys nothing special to us, then the writer has egregiously demonstrated that he is lazy.

I posit, however, that writers should never write details just to write them. Simply transporting the reader into your world is not reason enough to write details. At least with literary fiction—that is, any fiction that is more concerned with artistic merit than commercial value—I believe that the details should all play into a larger theme. Take my own novel for example. The shoddy factory-style bakery that Mark visits for work every day is described in a great amount of detail. I describe it quite vividly. And had I stopped at a mere description, I would have succeeded in painting a picture in my reader’s mind. However, being one who is interested in maximizing the potential impact of every single detail in my novel, I elevated the bakery’s status as more than just a place of employment. I made it the metaphorical birthplace of Mark. That is, he became the man he is today because of the things he did working for that bakery.

And the details of the bakery reflect that. The dimly-lit factory floor, with its dust-caked windows that let in only just so much light, gave Mark the feeling that it was dawn (dawn is associated with beginnings). The table that he passes by every day reminds him of his childhood (the speckled surface reminded him of Easter Egg candy). And, in the novel, every day he must walk through a pitch black corridor in order to leave the factory, emerging on the streets of Queens under the blinding white summer sun. Not to be trite, but this is a metaphor for the birth canal. As you can see, the details I give are two-fold. They not only bring the reader into my world, but also serve a greater purpose in the novel: to give it a deeper metaphorical meaning. The details are not a simple exercise in egotistical flourish or self-indulgent re-memory. Nor are they simply metaphorical just to be clever.

In any case, I find it entirely absurd to make the rea der figure out that the bakery is a metaphorical birthplace in order to enjoy my novel. Too many novels—especially the classic sort that are treasured by literary theorists and English professors across America—are difficult to read, and too long to boot. Life is short enough as it is. I don’t want to saddle my reader with excessive reading. I believe that the mark of a true professional novelist lies in three important factors that can be found in most good films: entertainment value, clarity and brevity, and artistic merit.

A novel should be, first and foremost, entertaining. If it is not entertaining, then you have lost many potential readers. After all, what is the point in writing if nobody wishes to read what you write? The novel must entertain because it is devastatingly egotistical to assume that anyone would want to suffer through your novel to learn the lessons you believe mankind should learn from you.

Secondly, the novel must be clear. It should use language that is easy to read and easy to understand. I absolutely cannot stand it when writers, who are prone to short bursts of branching thought, decide that it is okay to write, if but for a few sentences, using lots of commas that, when spoken are not egregiously erroneous, but are confusing to read on the page, so confusing that I often put the story down right then and there. I see it all the time. Commas are often misused, and it irritates me deeply. A writer should have the sense, the respect for a reader, to write as clearly and smoothly as possible. Some may point out that such practices may have artistic merit, but I would argue that such instances are rare and such cheap effects should be relegated to the bin of an amateur.

With that said, Hollywood films are excellent ways to learn how to tell a story. That is not to say that Hollywood films will teach you to be a good novelist. Rather, Hollywood has refined the art of telling stories—that is, what happened to who and where and how—and one can stand to learn a lot from good movies. Where the language of cinema is that of moving images, the language of novels is, obviously, words. I believe that the differences between the two mediums should be kept to a minimum. I also believe that novels should be kept as short as possible. It is not so much a matter of laziness or catering to the ever-shrinking attention spans of people, but a matter of economy. Rather, a novelist should seek to impart his emotional payload to his reader in as few words as possible, all the while avoiding using cheap rhetorical effects (I liken them to bad shortcuts down dark alleyways where you’re bound to run into trouble). I see no reason that good literary fiction has to be a torturously boring read. The reader must profit—that is, gain something spiritually, emotionally, philosophically, etc.—in as few words as possible.

Lastly, the novel should have artistic merit. That is to say that it should not simply aim to entertain, but to make some insightful statement about the human condition. The realm of entertainment is dominated by film and television already. We needn’t pollute people’s minds with even more mindless drivel. Reading is an active form of entertainment. Relative to film and television, the reader must expend considerable time and energy. And a novelist must reward the casual reader with a spiritual payoff. And if one has the talent and the skill, one should also reward smarter readers who are sensitive to and privvy to literary tropes so that their “insider” status is acknowledged. In this way, people with all different levels of literary sophistication come away with something, not just the English majors.

These are the things I keep in mind when writing my work of literary fiction. And with any luck, by following these guidelines and by heeding my own criticism, I will craft a fiction that is worthy of publication.¶

  • Anna

    Longtime reader, it's good to see you're back, I missed your posts!  I have to say that you give a lot of good advice. I agree with you that sometimes it feels like literary fiction is being literary just to be literary, but I could never put it into words like you did (I guess that is why you are a up and coming novelist and I am still stuck with half a novella!).

    I have a question for you though. What do you think about novels that are very detailed? Some of the most memorable novels I have read were so beautifully descriptive that I still remember how it felt when I first read it…what a heady experience!  Don't you think that this sort of writing is okay?

    You should think about writing for some magazines!

  • wistfulwriter

    Hi Anna,

    I must admit that I am not much of a reader.  I am more of a writer and I prefer to spend my time creating rather reading.  I get the feeling that you might be one of those people who can quote large passages from your favorite novel.  Me, I can't do that.  I don't think in terms of words.  I'm more intuitive and I'm not particularly literal in the way I think.  So for me, I think in terms of the meaning behind things rather than the words that express them.  Surely, there are beautifully written passages that deserve being studied and admired.  But I really believe that there is a time and place for everything.  Poetry is where you play with language. Storytelling is the most important part of a novel, and that is what I choose to focus on.  Stories are less about how you say something and more about what you are saying with the events you are choosing to show.