The problem with Literary Writing

posted in: Dave, Writing | 0

Someone on Reddit asked if Literature (specifically, literary writing as a format) was dying.


  • Art forms always evolve. Always. Because everything always evolves. It takes far too long, longer than it should thanks to plain old fashioned resistance to change, and more and more frequently these days, powerful money interests unwilling to allow the change they are unable (or usually unwilling) to adapt to; but change happens.
  • There is something to the notion of “art should entertain.” Now entertain does not mean “vapid and mindless”. It can, but is not inclusive to only that. What brings joy and interest to people is dependent on the person, the culture, and the era. Once upon a time, it was a big deal to load the family up and go spend three days in town at a farmer’s fair. Or to dress to the nines and visit the dance hall. I’d imagine a talented shadow puppet artist probably was quite revered three or so thousand years ago. I’d further bet a good SPA who was upstaged by another talented SPA who could also do great voices and sound effects to accompany his shadow puppets was probably annoyed that his “pure shadow puppets” weren’t enough anymore. My point is, when shadow puppets aren’t widely applauded, it’s time for the artist to evolve.
  • There is also probably something to the notion that art should not require a degree, lengthy education, and a cross referenced index of metaphor and history to understand. Modern literature teaching (referring to the high school level especially) has done a simply marvelous job at convincing several generations of people, at least in America, that “classics are boring.” Bored teachers regurgitating “analysis” someone one else wrote, that they themselves probably don’t really understand, and largely making no effort to connect or draw students to the material, is IMO the single biggest reason for the “decline of (so-called) serious literature.”

Now, having said all that, and at the risk of setting you off, so what? Entertainment should be entertaining. I never read to crawl back into my own head, even though I always think about what I read, ponder it, and some of my favorite books are ones that pose very deep questions. But the point of picking up a story is to enjoy it. Dense language that revolves around a past-post-graduate level vocabulary and layered with allusion and metaphor so deep and obscure that even Dennis Miller (as a pop culture example of someone who loved to “name drop” references that required research) would blink blindly at them … no thanks. Few people enjoy that.

The thing about “literary writers” that I have never understood is why it is apparently so necessary to the “process of writing literary works” to take all the fun out of reading it. Beautiful prose does not require abandoning narrative, engagement, or interesting characters … except in the minds of just about every so-called literary writer anyone has ever thrust at me. At the same time, literary writers like to look down their noses at what they term “just genre writing”, which doesn’t help their position in all honesty.

If one walks up to someone, and says “I like cherry pie”, and that person makes it abundantly clear that cherry pie is tired, over-done, uninspired, and further more speaks poorly of anyone who dares to even consider possibly not completely despising it … see where this is going? Yet that’s what the “literary writing” community does to all non-literary writing, and those who write it, and especially those who read it. All the time. Is it any surprise the divide continues to grow when that is how people who deign to read for enjoyment are treated by the “rarefied elites of literature?”

Here’s a pop culture example by way of food for thought. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure includes, in the story, Beethoven being brought back to the late 80s by the titular stars of the film. While loose on his own in the modern era, Beethoven ends up in a music store and delights in the strange and mysterious electronic pianos. Rather than snubbing them as different and inferior to his cherished acoustic piano and traditional string instruments, the story depicts Beethoven unleashing his musical genius with these new music making devices.

That is the proper response of an artist with a message. “What can I do with this new thing?” For an artist that is supposedly a creative genius, it becomes all the more perplexing when they draw a line and refuse to change. How smart can they really be if they’re utterly unwilling to consider adapting, evolving, and taking their art to the next level?

“People won’t read my naval gazing treatises on the meaning of life anymore.” The meaning of life is a popular literary message. It occurs to me that rather than writing that message into a character sitting around lost in their thoughts in their kitchen or living room for a hundred thousand words … adapt the message into a story that will connect with people. An obvious “genre trapping” for that message would be an immortal character, such as a vampire or a person taking advantage of SciFi medicine to live centuries. The “despised vapid genre trappings” get the audience in the door, and along the way the “meaning of life” gets pondered by a character who probably has a lot to say on the subject. After all, they’ve lived a lot of it.

For a message to have broad value, it must be heard. One can be brilliant with deeply instructive lessons that will change the world … and accomplish exactly nothing if no one is in the audience. It is incumbent upon the speaker to connect with her audience, as long as they give their ear. But nothing says they have to sit down (or pick up the book, or go to the theater, or assemble in the square, etc…) in the first place.

Once they are in the audience however, if the “great communication” doesn’t reach them, the correct response is not to sigh heavily and state “they are beneath me.” Rather, the response should be “how do I shape, reshape, or modify my delivery to reach them.”

When it comes to stories, people read to be entertained. Not to be preached to. That doesn’t mean preaching can’t happen, but the thing that sells the ticket, that gets the book opened and the pages turned, is the promise of entertainment. There is no reason good message is exclusive to good story. My two favorite books, one written by a literary author and the other by a genre author, both have deep messages, and both include genre elements (even the literary story). In both cases, the genre elements drew my eye, and interested me enough to start and continue reading. Along the way, I found a lot to think about.

The only reason literary works aren’t read is literary authors refuse to shape their stories for their audience. They like to sigh and say “you mean dumb it down.” To which I just shake my head, thank them for their time, and walk away thinking “if they’re supposed to be so smart, why do they insist on being so dumb?”