Why Must the Novel Be Boring?

Yesterday, in my Fiction II class, as the students introduced themselves I asked them to speak about what they’d been reading over the summer. One student impressively admitted to reading both Underworld and Infinite Jest. Another, though, shyly said she was reading YA novels.

“I suspect they’re more fun,” she said.

“To read or to write,” I asked.

“Both,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “I think it has something to do with what Doris Lessing said once about 20th century literature, that it was a long cry of pain.”

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years since seeing that Lessing quote. Why does pain seem to be the only subject for literature? I thought about it again after the class. So many young writers focus on painful subject matter to the exclusion in some cases of story—they view story as a vehicle for pain. I have students who will try as much as possible to stick a reader inside a box of language describing only terrible things and who think that is, well, the job. Of the writer.

If this seems unfamiliar to you, think of the ridiculous people bragging about being a writer in spite of nothing terrible having happened to them. Or of the other people, who’ve made a career out of performing their pain, for life. And the problem is, as I discovered writing my own first novel, pain isn’t compelling subject matter, even if it seems like a surefire winner with awards committees, the student writer imagining it conveys gravitas and the respectful murmuring of the brave soul who described all those terrible things. David Mamet memorably and correctly, I think, dubbed it “affliction drama”.

And so after the class I was wondering just how to present this, and then I got home and found Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, and a book critic at Time, weighing on why the vampire novel is doing so well:

  • There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it’s still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged. Sales of hardcover young-adult books are up 30.7% so far this year, through June, according to the Association of American Publishers, while adult hardcovers are down 17.8%. Nam Le’s “The Boat,” one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which admittedly doesn’t include all book retailers). In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the “Twilight” series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books. What are those readers looking for? You’ll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they’re lazy and can’t hack it in the big leagues. But that’s not the case. They need something they’re not getting elsewhere. Let’s be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins’s young-adult novel “The Hunger Games” instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because “The Hunger Games” doesn’t bore them.

I don’t actually think Nam Le’s book deserved to get spanked like that—I think he’s actually on the side of Grossman, perhaps more than Grossman knows. But I did agree with what he says a paragraph earlier: “If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.”

When I was studying creative writing plot was anathema and it was chic to say you wrote stories in which “nothing happened.” That was followed by people making the claim that they were writing “literary thrillers.” And for a while now I’ve been saying that considerably fewer literary thrillers were written than were said to be in process, but that what people were really talking about was this, a crisis of story.

On the way back from the Catskills over the weekend I listened to NPR, and heard a commentator address how fantasy was the hallmark of film, not fiction, and it made me think of this again—and think of Grossman’s contention, that many literary writers are boring the crap out of people with stylistic limitations imitated from the Modernists. As Grossman points out, Eliot did fill football stadiums—when it was Eliot. But what we’ve seen since Eliot is generations of Modernist imitators. If you are not Gertrude Stein, if you rip her style, you won’t really know what you’re doing, because…she knew what she was doing. Her style was hard-won, and it communicates her work perfectly.

In an interview I did recently for the literary magazine Redivider, coming out in the next issue, I was asked what I meant by trying to teach excitement. I agree with Grossman, at an angle. I said:

  • It’s more like teaching people to stay close to their excitement. The thing that I see so many people do with their books is they break it up into all these nutty little pieces where they’re talking to me about character development and backstory. All these phrases that were really just meant to describe something have suddenly become orthodoxies. And they’ve lost their sense of the unity of the thing. They keep asking me, “How do I develop my character?” And I say, “Tell the story?” I feel too many people are working from the wrong end of the stick. They’ve got something very abstract they’re trying to make specific and exciting, and they’re doing it in this Frankenstein’s monster sort of way. So it’s like, “Here’s my backstory sewn onto my character development sewn onto my climax, and now I add the ending and apply electricity!” It’s just a horrible way to live, and I think you’re much better off finding the character and the situation together, looking for situations that you think are really interesting. So the advice is, don’t be afraid to have a plot, and to tell a story. Too many writing students are trying to become masters of style and not masters of story, and they do so to their detriment. They have all these beautiful beautiful sentences and we don’t really know what they’re doing with them. Be sure to tell a story.

For a sense of what happens in the other direction, when story destroys style, read my take on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

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17 comments

  1. Jane Kokernak

    Great post, Alex.

    I am an occasional reader of YA novels, and it may be because of that: story. However, I like good ones, ambitious ones, the so-called literary. (Try Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Louis Sachar’s Holes, or Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. Sorry, haven’t read Twilight.) Maybe why I like them is because they are *about the story*, and not about self-consciousness, which I find so many contemporary adult novels to be obsessed with. It’s okay for a protagonist to be self-aware, to develop her consciousness, but I don’t want it to be about that. I want it to be about the story. And it doesn’t have to be a “quick read” — George Gissing’s New Grub Street is long and goes steadily, but it’s riveting.

    Anyway, I hope you write more about this. Story.

  2. Adrienecrimson

    I’ve wondered about my fascination with YA novels for a time. But, then, I also love Haruki Murakami’s works and autobiographies & memoirs.
    Ah ha – all stories.
    Yes, I do love a good story.
    On a long weekend getaway, I read The Gossip of the Starlings, a YA novel published last year about prep school girls set in 1984. We were also reading Julia Child’s book My Life in France out loud to each other. I called Starlings my “trashy” reading because it was pure high school drama, like the literary, more-novelized version of those gossip mags about celebs. Must have been riviting because I read all of its 250+ pages in two days!

    • koreanish

      I think Murakami is unafraid of plot and also unafraid of things that might scare off Americans who are trained to believe only realism is literary—like ghosts, mysterious vanishings, magical stones, magical forests, etc. In the US, if he was American, he’d be brow-beaten into obscurity for avoiding writing about identity or for being a science fiction writer with not enough lasers. But we accept from foreign authors what we don’t from our own, for some reason, or we haven’t, until recently.

      • Chris

        Agree with how we are trained to accept on realism as literary, whether by outside influences or the way it permeates our thought process subconciously. It was a little of both when I left college, foolishly torn over the wealth of realistic fiction I had read there, and the fantasy novels that mainly made up my pre-college reading life. How could I do write with both clashing in mind? Then I found writers that do melding writing perfectly well. Gave me confidence and hope.

  3. Marie

    Well, Alex, obviously I agree with you. There are many reasons to read novels. But I still like to think that on some level they should entertain and that entertaining is not a bad thing. I love this post.

  4. Elizabeth Stark

    Great post. I think that sometimes plot-avoidance comes through wallowing in pain, but just as often, I see it in the form of avoiding pain, the idea that life is steadier and less traumatic than plot requires. At least, when I was younger, I think plot felt artificial to me. Now that life has swung me around by the neck a few times, plot seems more inherent to the process of being human . . .

  5. Tanya Egan Gibson

    Great post — I’ve been thinking about it since I read it yesterday. I agree with so much of what you wrote about how books don’t need to be “painful” and that fun should be had. I agree, too, about the importance of telling a story.

    But as someone who unabashedly reads both YA fiction and adult literary fiction, I don’t think that an emphasis on plot/storytelling is the only major difference between the two. For me the major difference is the emphasis YA fiction puts on emotion. Bold, baldfaced emotion. Not emotion that smirks or apologizes for itself or hides behind irony.

    I certainly don’t mean to imply that all literary fiction privileges the cerebral over the emotional. But a lot of it does. I get tired of reading things that are too cool for their own good. For me, they smack of a sort of cowardice, the writer afraid to be human.

    In YA fiction, I read about unrequited love. The pain of not fitting in. The fear of being alone. The dread of not knowing who you are. It is the heat of these emotions, rather than an emphasis on plot, that keep me riveted, that keep the pages turning, because it’s my heart–rather than my head–that keeps me connected to a text.

  6. Maria

    It is unnecessary to say once more what a great post that was. You can tell by the response of much more literary people than I am. As a reader, this post made me feel less guilty for a few adult literary books I’ve put aside and never finished reading. I like reading very much, but being a tired, sleepless mother of a young child, books have to achieve one thing first: keep me awake! Therefor a good plot, catastrophe included, is for me the most important thing right now. Do we “degrade” books to the level of films when we give plot such a high importance? Yes, why not? There are surely excellent films that have moved the hearts of excellent authors for good reasons! Of course a good plot is still just the building. What about the characters living inside?
    Ms Gibson’s comment was also appealing to me. It made me think of clothes! Some of us the older we get the more we chose clothes, very elegant and expensive perhaps, that hide our curves and aging bodies. Some authors dress their characters’ feelings with words in the same manner. I suppose though, that many of us still want to feel the curves and touch the feelings!

  7. Sarah Sarai

    What you’re describing — the attempt to write like Gertrude Stein when the writer simply is not and never could be Gertrude Stein — has analogs everywhere. How many East Village hipsters with tattos on their necks — and who work in I.T. divisions of large corporations by day — have punk, etc., pretenses. But they are not necessarily pretenders; more, they are honest fans. And the MFA students (and other writers) who try to mimic Stein or anyone else are, at their best, honest fans. An honest fan does not make an honest writer. We are forced to be fans in our culture. For there to be an American Idol, there have to be American Fans. I’m thinking with my fingers and will continue to do so, here or on my blog (who knows) ( (-:) ).

    As for YA novels, I’ve made a point of crusing that section periodically throughout my life. A good YA novel is imaginative or just helps heal and reaheal the eternal scars of youth.

    …Sarah

  8. George LaCas

    I can’t say I’ve read any YA – at least not since I was a YA – and I disagree that non-genre fiction is “boring.” Difficult does not equal boring, and it begs the question: “Why read in the first place?” If easy-to-read genre fiction is the only thing that will satisfy, why not simply watch TV, go see a movie, or smoke a joint?

    However, as a writer and a reader, I do agree very much that story is important, and that much modern literary fiction either lacks it, or tells very … well, boring stories.

    As a writer, I’m doing what I can to change this: plot must no longer be anathema to the storyteller.

    At the same time, I believe it’s still important to embrace literary fiction, even in its more difficult forms. Style, while difficult, can be beautiful.

    • koreanish

      George, I’m not saying all non-genre fiction is boring and I hope you didn’t read that and think I did. I am saying that much literary fiction has neglected story for style, to its detriment. And I think practitioners of literary fiction—and teachers of it—see this. My friends and I all year have been talking about the possibilities of cross-genre experimentation.

      I’m not asking for style to be abandoned. I couldn’t bear it. As a writer who’s known in large part for his strength as a stylist, that is most certainly not the argument I’m making.

      Because otherwise, books would all be like Ender’s Game: http://koreanish.com/2008/01/21/reading-enders-game/

  9. Pingback: Using Ford Madox Ford to Fix Wolverine « Koreanish
  10. Brian

    FWIW, i read this post just after finishing Half of a Yellow Sun and 2066, which made for an interesting back-to-back reading experience. i ripped through Yellow Sun not just because it was shorter, but because it has a great what-happens-next plot. 2066 was more of a slog because it was so fragmented. on the other hand, the characters in Yellow Sun felt at times like they were in service to the plot, like they were doing things that didn’t feel true but had to happen because of the plot. which reminds me again of the rationale for the modernist experiment: not avoiding plot simply because plot is bad, but in order to find a more true way of telling a story.

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