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Telling Stories Out of School

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I’m about to get myself in a lot of trouble here, but it’s Monday morning, and I suppose that’s as good a time as any.

Robert complains that books he likes fully as well, or better, than ones designated Literature have the same story, and yet are dismissed as–well, I don’t know what as, since he doesn’t exactly say.  “Genre,” maybe, which is an interesting word, and an interesting concept, that we ought to get around to one day.   But let’s look at the other thing, the thing about “story.”

I’m not familiar with most of the writers on the list Robert gave, but I am familiar with the work of Georgette Heyer, and I know why she’s never made anybody’s list of novels in the  Western Canon.  I’m not saying she doesn’t write well.  The two books of hers I read, both a long time ago now, were more than competently well written, and I know many very intelligent people who are fanatics about her work.


The purpose of the novel isn’t to “tell stories,” although a novel must do that to get where it’s going. Nor is “storytelling” (or the lack of it) in and of itself any mark of literary quality.   There are only a very few stories extant in the world. Mostly, writers use the same stories over and over and over again.  Very good writers often do that quite blatantly.   Shakespeare, as we mentione earlier, never seemed to see the point of inventing a plot from scratch.  He didn’t even bother to disguise the plots he borrowed from other people, but then, they hadn’t invented them either.

Goethe wrote a famous Faust.  Christopher Marlowe wrote a somewhat less famous Dr. Faustus.  Faust had been around for a few hundred years before they got to him, and other people have gotten to him since, with various tweaks and pokes to make him fit more modern sensibilities.

Anthony Trollope said that the purpose of the novel was to show us “the way we live now,” and he named a novel of his own just that.  Epic poetry presents the history of a people and the models of behavior to emulate and avoid.  Lyric poetry presents smaller themes–single insights into emotions or ideas–by using language in an evocative (rather than didactic) way.  The novel shows us the way we live now, and goes farther than that.  It pronounces judgment on it.

The problem with Georgette Heyer is that she is an Austen imitator, and that’s all she is.  Her books are meant to be entertaining, but they aren’t meant to be any more than that.   Austen was not merely presenting little stories of love and marriage.  She was presenting her world in a critical way that had a lot to say about the lives of women in her era, about the responsibility (and lack of it) of parents in that same era, about the institution of marriage as she knew it.

It is of course possible to write an historical novel in such a way as to use it to comment on your own time, and many people have done so successfully.   Thackeray does it in that same Vanity Fair I was talking about yesterday.  Tolkein even manages to do it with fantasy.  Walker Percy does it with futuristic science fiction in The Thanatos Syndrome

I’m not saying that the novelist must stick strictly with his own time as a setting for his books.  I am saying that if he leaves that time, then what matters in the judgment of his work is what he does with the leaving.

Georgette Heyer writes entertainment.  There’s nothing wrong with entertainment.  We all like to be entertained.  But there’s a substantive difference between a novel that is only entertainment and one that has (and successfully fulfills) the form’s broader purpose.

As for genre–the problem with genre is the fact that so many of the decisions a novelst must make for himself in a “straight” novel are made for him beforehand, with (necessarily) no foresight into whether or not those decisions are the best for his material.

And genres vary.  Some of them are very strict about the parameters allowed to the writer.  If any of you have ever wondered why all those category romance books sound so alike, it’s because they’re deliberately constructed to be that way.  The people who publish them put out what are called “tip sheets,” which outline what the writer must and may not do if she expects to get anything published.  

Tip sheets can be very elaborate–they often specify particular characteristics of characters (the old Berkeley Second Chance at Love series would not allow the hero to be a redhead), particular structures of the plot (the old Silhouette Desire line had a tip sheet that required a writer to present her first love scene no later than page twenty-five of the manuscript),  and specific image restrictions (“her complexion bloomed like roses in a sea of cream” was good, “her complexion was as clean and smooth as Norwegian wood” was bad).

Even romance novels outside the category lines are subject to these kinds of restrictions, although usually less elaborate ones.  Some publishers refuse to allow heroines who are divorced, for instance, or references to ‘controversial’ subjects (turns off too many readers).

All such novels are subjected to a relentless dumbing down–main characters must be ‘likable,” sentences must be short, plots must be linear and without too many subplots.  Anything more complicated like this is assumed to confuse the reader and to end in fewer sales.

I doubt if Georgette Heyer was ever subject to these sorts of restrictions, except possibly early in her career, but it ought to be obvious why it is the rest of the world resists the call to accept work produced under these conditions as Literature.  It is damned near impossible to produce anything honest when you start by accepting such parameters. 

Most of the other genres are more expansive in their definitions of what constitutes a work in their subfield, but a lot of that expansiveness is fairly recent.  Detective novels, for instance, were once far more formulaic than they are now. 

Expansive or not, however, there are still plenty o formula writers in the field.  Think of the endless stream of serial killer novels that has issued from every major publisher in New York for the last thirty years. Think of “cozies,” which are formulaic books imitating other people’s fomulas.  Practically every cozy writer you know declares her intention to write “just like Agatha Christie,” but Agatha Christie did not write cozies.  

The purpose of a literary work is not to entertain you.  It will last longer and have more impact if it does that along with everything else it should be doing, but entertainment is not its primary purpose and not the criteria on which its quality can be judged.

And some of the animus to “commercial fiction,” genre and otherwise, has to do with the fact that most writers know about the dumbing down pressures on most such work.   So many publishers assume that a work must be dumbed down if it is going to sell, it’s hard not to assume that any work that does sell must in fact be dumbed down.

This is not the case, of course, in the real world, but there are over twenty six thousand books published by major publishers every year, and more coming from the university and small presses.   That number has to be winnowed down before a few can be chosens for reviewing or promoting through course adoption or book clubs.

It’s not entirely a matter of snobbery that genre fiction doesn’t make the cut, automatically.  There’s good reason–inherent in the realities of the business, not in elitism–to think that that isn’t going to be a good place to look for first class work.

Like I said.  I’m going to get into trouble here.  But what the hell.

Written by janeh

November 17th, 2008 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Telling Stories Out of School'

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  1. So…how do you measure intention, if that’s the distinction? How do you know what Jane Austen intended to do (I admit some authors write at length about what they’re trying to; but presumably they all don’t.)

    I don’t really have a problem with putting Austen and Heyer in different categories. I enjoy them both a lot – in fact, I think I’ve read just about everything both of them wrote. I’d say Heyer is a bit lighter, written mostly for the entertainment of the readers – although she did her research, and knew her history. But then, although a lot of Austen is certainly criticism of social roles, you also have ‘Northanger Abbey’ which is mostly a spoof of gothic novels IIRC.

    Is it possible for an author to not have any intention to function as a social critique or an illumination of the human condition, but do so anyway? Perhaps the author simply intended to write a great tale, and managed to portray the people concerned so well his work could function on different levels. I’m reminded about the old story about the eminent poet who, in response to an appeal to settle a dispute over which particular interpretation of his most famous poem was correct, said he really hadn’t been thinking about anything nearly as complicated at the time he wrote it.

    If we go too far down that path, we’ll end up deconstructing texts post-modernist style, which is an exercise I find singularly pointless and tedious, but if you’re basing the distinction between Literature and Not Literature on the purpose as understood by the author, the possibility that the author didn’t have the intentions assigned to him (or her) by readers does arise.


    17 Nov 08 at 2:08 pm

  2. I’ll bite! “The purpose of a literary work is not to entertain you.”

    And here I always thought Shakespeare wrote his plays becuase the actors at the Globe Theater had to eat.


    17 Nov 08 at 3:26 pm

  3. I’ve been thinking about that word “purpose”. Bacck when I was a physics grad student, the physics faculty was doing research because they had intellectual curiosity about how the universe works. They were very happy that someone would pay them to do that. Their purpose was to satisfy their curiosity.

    But the US government was paying for their research out of hopes it would yield practical results. Does it even make sense to speak of the purpose of scientific research?


    17 Nov 08 at 6:55 pm

  4. “Does it even make sense to speak of the purpose of scientific research?”

    Sure. Different people or groups can have different purposes for the same activity. The fact that the researchers and funding agencies can find different reasons for the same activity seems reasonable.

    But if I think of a great story, and write it down for the purposes of amusing more people than those in my immediate circle, can someone else come along later and reasonably argue that I have written Literature showing a scathing critique of my society, or deep insight into human moral dilemmas, or something else I wasn’t planning all along? Kind of like the Grandma Moses of literature?


    17 Nov 08 at 7:05 pm

  5. One of the greatest publishing phenomena here in Oz is a book by a bloke called Albert Facey – an autobiography called “A Fortunate Life” which has been through dozens of printings since it was first published. He wrote it in a series of exercise books simply for his family. Someone in the family recognised it for what it was – a rare and priceless piece of Australian social history – and encouraged him to have it published.


    17 Nov 08 at 8:08 pm

  6. I believe I DID say. The usual terms of dismissal are “genre fiction” and “popular fiction” as though being read and enjoyed in itself made a book unworthy of serious consideration–unless one is discussing what are now regarded as classic mysteries and “Golden Age” science fiction and fantasy. Then the term of abuse is “pulp trash.” It might be worth asking how many of our acknowledged classics have what would now be regarded as unsatisfactlry publishing credentials.

    Various critics to the contrary, poor sales and an utter absence of plot are not signs of literary merit. I fully agree that high sales volume is not of itself proof of literary merit and longevity is not decisive, but I can think of worse methods of making a first cut than by looking at fiction that entertains many and keeps on doing so. Shakespeare and Austen didn’t start by being discovered by English departments.

    The FIRST purpose of fiction—any fiction—is to entertain—at least in the sense of attracting and keeping the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t do that, it can do nothing else. Right after that is selling enough copies to keep the author from starving so there can be other work, and then comes purpose if any. I note that Jane Austen didn’t write Cassandra about how she had presented her world, but about how much she’d been paid and what bank she put it in. She’d been dead more than half a century before anyone suggested she was talking about women’s place in society. They read her because she was entertaining, and because she was perceptive and credible, readers and critics began to see that her stories reflected on marriage, parents and such.

    For myself, I can think of few works of fiction known to be written for a motive beyond sales which continue to live at all—ATLAS SHRUGGED and STARSHIP TROOPERS are the only two I can think of on my own shelves. Make the story live, and readers will respect your insights. Otherwise, Sammy Goldwin was right: if you want to send a message, use Western Union. But let’s look at romance fiction.

    I yield to few in my respect for Jane Austen, but she lives for three novels—PRIDE & PREJUDICE, SENSE & SENSIBILITY and EMMA. (My personal favorite is PERSUASION, by the way, but even I can’t persuade myself that it’s first-rank Austen.) The brutal truth is that NORTHANGER ABBEY is Don Quixote come to the Regency—an entertaining novel on the perils of taking fiction too seriously–and MANSFIELD PARK isn’t even entertaining. It may have something serious to say about tradition, order and English society, but it’s the author’s name on the spine that keeps it in print, which is a dreadful thing to say of any book.

    I will stack up three of Heyer—BLACK SHEEP, A CIVIL CONTRACT and SYLVESTER—against second-tier Austen at least, and I do not believe Heyer would come off the worse for it. Besides being side-splittingly funny, BLACK SHEEP raises questions about obedience to the rules of society. CIVIL CONTRACT asks whether there can be too high a price to pay for romantic love, explores the world of “arranged” marriages and takes a good look at culture clash. SYLVESTER returns to the familiar motifs of pride and “first impressions” but has the good sense to consider that there may be a male point of view worth exploring—something Austen attempted only in her very last years and novels. These are not light matters, and Heyer is not imitation Austen. I sometimes hear critics say that classics endure. Well, the earliest Heyers are past 80 now, and still in print.

    But why stop there? If a work is good after a century or so, surely it was good when it was written? Jennifer Crusie is still alive. I pull from my own shelves FAST WOMEN which in a way is stunning. It’s by a romance writer. It ends with an accepted proposal, but it’s not “about” romance. It’s about the end of love and divorce. Does it have to be old enough to need footnotes before it’s worthy? BET ME explores theories of attraction—three on the surface, at least three others and I may not have caught them all yet. Check with me the next time I reread it—probably yet this winter. And STRANGE BEDPERSONS has politics, loyalties, romance and a very subtle take on the difference between intelligence and wisdom. You read these three and you begin to think Crusie might have earned her PhD in literature—but you read them first for fun. And something else about BEDPERSONS—it began life as a Harlequin. Paperback. Just because something is written with a tip sheet doesn’t make it junk. There is, after all, plenty of junk written without a tip sheet.

    Great fiction is where you find it.


    17 Nov 08 at 10:43 pm

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