The Writing Rookie #12: Realism and Artistic Convention

Here’s a somewhat belated addition to my series based on insights from writing my first novel, No Going Back. For the complete list of columns in this series, .

If art is, in part at least, the imitation of reality, it’s an imitation that’s largely bounded by and grounded in artistic convention. That’s something I’ve long been aware of from a literary/critical perspective, but writing a novel myself — and then seeing the reaction of different readers to the specific choices I made about where and how to be “realistic” — has borne that truth in on me in a particularly vivid fashion.

No one actually writes scenes, dialogue, storylines, and internal thoughts to match the way things happen in real life. Stream-of-consciousness, that most famous of experiments in literary style, tends to strike readers (in my experience) as self-consciously attention-drawing rather than realistic: yet another way for the writer to get between the reader and the experience. Attempts at realism can, ironically, make readers all the more conscious of the writer’s craft.

And then there’s the fact that what strikes one reader as realistic isn’t the same thing that strikes other readers as realistic. Case in point: the dialogue of my teenage character in No Going Back. I’ve had reviewers comment on the awkwardness of their dialogue as a negative thing. Other readers described the realism of my teenagers as a particular strength. It’s occurred to me that both may be true, since one of the things I was trying to imitate was the awkwardness of teenagers in grappling with serious subjects. They start and stop sentences, they interrupt themselves, they dance around what they’re saying. I’ve wondered if that attempt at realism is part of what irritates some of my readers, and whether a smoother and (to my mind) less “natural” style might have kept them more engaged. It’s hard to know.

Listening to my children talk, I’m struck by how repetitious and bizarre a transcript of their speech would look, lifted verbatim into a story. And then there’s the matter of capturing intonation, tone of voice, gestures and other signals that accompany speech. Which details do you include? Frequently, I wound up cutting pieces of information just because they made a scene or paragraph or sentence go on too long. Less is more.

Thinking about this now, I’m reminded of BYU professor Steve Walker’s insight into the invitational nature of J. R. R. Tolkien’s prose: that by including only a few key details, he invites readers to co-create his characters inside their own minds. It is, as he points out, a rather different approach from the values of the realistic tradition in fiction, where the goal is seen as creating a picture of life that is so detailed and real readers can imaginatively step directly into it.

Extending this thought, the value of an approach like Tolkien’s may lie in its implicit acknowledgment that stories are not independent realities created by the writer and passively experienced by readers, but rather negotiated interactions that take place within the space of the reader’s mind. Of course, there’s a certain irony in applying such an insight to Tolkien, the great proponent of story as sub-created experience and one of the most detailed world-creators in all of fantasy…

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Writing my novel, I was struck by just how little real time is depicted in a typical narrative. Looking at the timeline I created of scenes from the year and a half covered by No Going Back, it’s quite common to see gaps of a week or more during which there’s simply nothing written.

Decisions about which life-details to include serve several masters. One is realism, which I think is essential to feeling sympathy for the characters in a story. We have to believe they are humans like ourselves before we can care about what happens to them.

The other is strategic importance to the story. Events and details that don’t play a part in advancing the story inevitably take time and attention away from that story. Stories (and readers) can take only so much of that before distraction sets in. Just how much varies, depending on the story, the genre, and (most especially) the tastes and mental/information processing habits of the individual reader.

Personally, I’m the sort of reader that rather likes a meandering storyline. I like the time that the hobbits spend in the Old Forest and the house of Tom Bombadil. One of the attractions of story reading, for me, is spending time in worlds and with characters I enjoy.

An author’s judgment in such areas is inevitably suspect. How much detail is needed to bring one’s characters and settings to life? The author can’t possibly know, because for him/her they already exist. On the other hand, as their creator, the writer is probably the last person who will tire of spending time with them.

There’s a fair amount of detail I wrote that didn’t make it into No Going Back. For example, given the age of my characters, it occurred to me at one point that they almost certainly would be getting driving lessons during the course of the novel. I decided this could provide fodder for some entertaining parent-child interaction, and drafted a couple of scenes based on that. And then I went back and took them out, because no matter how I tried to fit them in, they felt like a distraction to me.

It’s likely that I should have done the same thing on a few other occasions. Details about video games and teenage music and the like were (for me) a way of giving a more concrete sense of how my characters filled their lives when they weren’t working on homework. (I actually had included a reference to watching YouTube videos until my editor pointed out that YouTube hadn’t been founded yet at the time of my story. Hurray for Chris!) It’s my impression that some readers like those details, but I’ve had more than one comment on how distracting they can get.

And then there are the details I had originally left out that Chris forced me to put in. Most often, these were stage details, as I think of them: information about where people are physically situated, how they move and where they go while conversations and other interactions are taking place. Thinking about the way I read, it makes sense that I might miss these small details, since I tend to process scenes auditorily rather than visually. With more practice, I hope to gain a clearer sense of just how much of this kind of stuff to include. In the meantime, I’m glad I had a good editor.

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Stories — even nonfiction stories — are different from reality. We all know this, I believe, no matter how much we may allow our vision of reality to affected by the stories we hear and read. As Patsy says in Monty Python and the Holy Grail after they’ve been oohing and ahhing at their first glimpse of Camelot: “It’s only a model.”

The thing I hadn’t truly appreciated until I tried to do it myself was just how arbitrary and unintuitive the choice of details can seem, in trying to tease readers/viewers/listeners into supplying what’s missing to create the internal illusion of reality. Over and over, I found myself deliberating quite basic questions, from whether to accent a bit of conversation with an accompanying eyebrow lift to how much detail to include about a boy’s physical reaction to a hormonal moment. Something that had appeared quite seamless to me from a reader’s perspective was revealed to be the result of considerable craft, at a nuts-and-bolts level. Maybe that’s one of the things they talked about in all those creative writing classes I never took…

The next time I undertake to write a story, hopefully I won’t be quite so clueless about these things going in. In the meantime, I feel that I’ve gained a greater understanding of one of the things that makes narrative writing such a complex and judgment-driven endeavor. I hope it’s made me not only a more wary and alert writer, but a more appreciative reader as well.

34 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #12: Realism and Artistic Convention”

  1. I think one has to go into it with the knowledge that each reader will go into it with his/her own baggage and will get out of it what they will.

    Once you release a work out into the public, it is not yours anymore. It’s the readers’. (Note: fan fiction.) I’ve had moments where I wanted to bash my head and say, “YOU DIDN’T GET IT” (which I did once, at length, and now very much regret it).

    from whether to accent a bit of conversation with an accompanying eyebrow lift

    My editor has beaten me into submission on this point, which is to say, he threatened to come through the computer and throttle me. I’m working on letting the dialogue carry such things because he scares me.

    Re stream-of-consciousness: First person POV allows for this more.

    Re taking the reader out of the story: I have what I call my Metafiction Moments, which is where I, author, wink at the reader to let him/her know I’m aware of the reader and/or to let the reader know that *I* think my characters are too over-the-top, too, and that I meant that.

    I really like books that do that, but then I’ve been greatly influenced by writers who have done that. Eco did it in FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM and THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE is almost all metafiction. Wolfe does it in BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES.

  2. Mojo wrote: “I think one has to go into it with the knowledge that each reader will go into it with his/her own baggage and will get out of it what they will.”

    To which I respond: Absolutely.

    Also: “My editor has beaten me into submission on this point.”

    My point (kind of) is that depending on the genre you’re writing in and the style you establish, a greater or lesser degree of this kind of thing may be acceptable. There aren’t any hard and fast rules that say it’s always bad. It’s largely a matter of audience expectations.

  3. depending on the genre you’re writing in and the style you establish,

    TRUE!

    However, in my case, I think it’s been greatly to my advantage to have an editor that has no ties to my genre. Especially considering I’m really busting my (self-proclaimed) genre all over the place.

  4. Good observations, Jonathan. But at the end of this, I find myself wondering (and there will be the requisite smiley face at the end of this question) if you are going to write another novel or keep (wink, wink) talking about the last one? 🙂 [Maybe I should put a second smiley face for good measure, to prove I don’t mean to be as rude as I sound. So here it is. :)]

    Seriously, do you have plans for another?

  5. Lisa,

    A good question, and one I’m still pondering. After No Going Back came out, I promised myself a year off from trying to start another novel in earnest. It’s proven to be a good decision on several counts, I think — not least of which is that I’m now getting a chance to catch up on some overdue things I’d been pushing into the background. Also, trying to promote NGB has taken more hours than I anticipated it would — not as much as when I was actively writing, but not as far off from that as I’d expected.

    There’s a lot to consider. On the one hand, I enjoyed writing No Going Back. On the other hand, there are a lot of other worthwhile and interesting things I could be doing. So far, I don’t have any other ideas dealing directly with Mormon experience that are nagging away at me to be turned into novels. Writing another novel in a different genre (e.g., a fantasy novel) would in some ways be starting from scratch again. I don’t want to do that unless I care enough about the story itself to let it push out the other worthwhile things I could be doing — or unless I find that simply can’t stand not to be working on a story. So far, it’s unclear if that will happen.

    In the meantime, writing about my experience with NGB allows me to think about a topic that has long interested me for its own sake: that is, the compositional process of writers. That’s something I’ve been reading and thinking about for a long time, independent of my ambitions as a writer — in fact, it’s one of the things I persistently posted about on AML-List. Being on the narrative-writing side of it has given me some different thoughts about the whole process, which is a big part of where this whole Writing Rookie series came from.

    I’m still learning from the process of reflecting on my experience — though this is likely to be the last article in the series, and it’s been six months since the previous one. It also doesn’t occupy quite the same space mentally as narrative-writing, so I can do it without tempting my resolve not to start another story too quickly.

  6. Thanks for the props on the editing, Jonathan. It was a fun book to work on.

    I’m currently in the grip of writing a novel, and what I’m struggling with is how to handle passage of time between my two POVs. So far, I’ve been neatly alternating chapters between the POVs, but sometimes I leave one POV at one point in time and then go back in time to pick up with the other POV, and it gets more complicated from there. I think I’ll just do what feels natural and assume any readers can follow along OK…

    Also, I don’t know if I can keep up the alternating chapters; I may need to do 2-3 chapters in a row in the same POV, at some point. I’m wondering if that would be irritating after setting a pattern of A-B-A-B, or if it wouldn’t be a detriment. I honestly don’t know…

    I did like how you included authentic music, movies, and video games in the time period of your novel, although I think you also could have just made up your own, too. But I don’t think it works very well to have a movie that really came out in 1999 coming out in 2005.

  7. One thing I wonder is whether there are some writers who are so deeply embedded in their chosen genre and its conventions that they don’t even think about choices like this but instead automatically do what seems right for their genre and style. I sometimes had the sense while writing that maybe I was brooding over things other writers might not have to think about.

  8. Jonathan, thanks for answering the question.

    Chris, I think I would get annoyed reading a book that so cleanly alternated POV via chaps. Don’t fret over a series of chaps in the same POV. If that’s what it takes to develop that angle of the plot, go with it. Lots of successful books use both plot and subplot POV in a given chapter.

  9. “Chris, I think I would get annoyed reading a book that so cleanly alternated POV via chaps.”

    Can you think of specific examples that annoyed you? (I thought that both Elantris and Noughts & Crosses pulled it off pretty well.)

  10. No, I can’t because I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that went solidly a-b-a-b w. POV throughout. In fact, I can’t really understand the reasoning behind it. Usually we have the protagonist’s POV in the main plot and a secondary POV in the subplot. So, if this is the case for Chris, it makes no sense to use the secondary POV as much as the first–because its subplot. Usually the subplot runs tangentially and is used to ultimately reveal a crucial element for the main plot as the plots merge. Subplot (and its POV) shouldn’t be elevated to the same level as primary plot.

    It seems to me that running multiple POVs in the main story line tends to weaken the emotional impact of a story,simply because the writer must be spending less time developing either of the POV characters.

    Did _Elantris_ and _Noughts and Crosses_ alter POV in a-b-a-b throughout? And were they a case of two mainplot POVs or of mainplot/subplot POV? Do you think you could explain how the mechanics a-b-a-b POV worked for you as a reader? (That may be a question that is unanswerable, so you can let it go. But if you can, I’d love to learn.)

  11. I remember reading a fantasy novel titled The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton (borderline YA) that alternated POV with each chapter between the two main characters. It worked quite well for her — in fact, I’d argue that The Crystal Gryphon is possibly her finest novel, which is saying something. The two characters started with completely different storylines but wound up coming together (physically, plotwise, and romantically) over the course of the story. I wouldn’t call either of their stories a subplot — rather complementary perspectives on what turned out to be one main plot.

    The other thing I recall is that the chapters from one character’s POV were in first person, while the chapters from the other character’s POV were in third person. Maybe that helped counter the potential monotony that (I think) Lisa is suggesting could set in. Again, describing it the way I’m doing here makes it all sound very clockwork and mechanical, but in practice I thought it worked very well — both as a teen or preteen reader (I’m not sure when I first read it) and rereading it later as an adult.

  12. Elantris wove three main plots a-b-c in rotation, but then brought them all to head at the end. I do think that the flow of time was such that a few sections with a few of the characters were more padded than they would have been otherwise. But overall it worked because of the very specific conditions of the plot.

  13. It seems to me that running multiple POVs in the main story line tends to weaken the emotional impact of a story, simply because the writer must be spending less time developing either of the POV characters.

    This statement kind of floors me, and smacks of a very narrow writerly worldview. There’s a whole world of books out there with different POVs that do not suffer for the multiplicity, as well as ones that do. Likewise, there’s a world of books out there that might have benefited from branching out from one character’s POV.

    Chris, it’s all about pacing. My advice would be to write it, and then worry about arrangement later.

    I very often leave chapters blank with something like [insert Character X scene here] when I know the pacing would be off if I didn’t, then go back and write the appropriate scene. I don’t worry about a-b-a-b unless I want to make it a device of the work itself, and then I pace differently. There’s a nice rhythm to it.

    Pacing and rhythm is what counts.

  14. I do think that the flow of time was such that a few sections with a few of the characters were more padded than they would have been otherwise.

    Brandon Sanderson talks on his website about some of the drawbacks of writing with such a tight structural constraint, and you’re right that managing the flow of time was a problem. (Also, some readers apparently took a dislike to one of the viewpoints and skipped every chapter from that perspective!)

  15. Did _Elantris_ and _Noughts and Crosses_ alter POV in a-b-a-b throughout? And were they a case of two mainplot POVs or of mainplot/subplot POV? Do you think you could explain how the mechanics a-b-a-b POV worked for you as a reader?

    As William Mentioned, Elantris is actually an a-b-c rotation. Noughts & Crosses is an a-b rotation, but the chapter lengths are uneven and the chapters themselves are sometimes very short.

    Both stories had mainplot POVs, and one of the reasons I think it works is that the main conflicts in the stories look very different to different people. In Elantris, the main characters are different nationalities. (One character is the crown prince of a country, one is his foreign bride, and one is from a country that’s planning to invade the first country.)

    Noughts & Crosses is a Romeo and Juliet-ish story set in an alternate timeline where white people were historically enslaved by black people. The alternate viewpoints are important because they allow you to sympathize with people on both sides of the class struggle, even as you see their mistakes and flaws.

  16. Moriah, notice the word “tends” in the statement that you excerpted from my comment. I stand by that, partly because I’m not only considering published works, which, as evidenced by publication, are successful. Remember, I play editor, too, and my admittedly limited experience doing so suggests to me that using multiple POV in a main story line(and yes, more especially in short fiction) often (not always) waters down the emotional impact of the writing I see that aspires to publication. So its a cautionary statement, one that I initially followed with other sentiments I decided to take out to keep the post from being too long. In the end, it doesn’t matter what my observations are. Writers have to read, study, and make evaluations about the direction their work will take. I’m working w a writer now who has a second POV in a piece of short fiction that I don’t think benefits the story much. But it isn’t my story. We’ve talked about it, but the writer will ultimately do what rings his/her bell. I’m cool with that.

    I still don’t want to get lengthy here, but I will say that in the novel I’m working on, I use 1st person and third person POV for a single protagonist, plus a subplot POV in third person. It could be argued there are yet other POVs because I include letters and journal entries. I think the use of all these POVs is working–hopefully someday I’ll hear your opinions on that–so I’m certainly not rigidly saying POV should be handled in any particular way. I’m speaking of tendencies and, yes, advocating against rigid structural conceits that might overpower the narrative.

    To reiterate my meaning, generally speaking, there tends to be more emotional wham if a reader is tied intimately to one POV character in either main or subplot. Imagine if God had genuinely allowed us to feel simultaneously and to the same depth what other people feel; if we were born with an automatic understanding of what it feels like to be the people around us? What would that do to our own ability to feel pain, joy, love, sorrow, etc? Or to overcome them? To develop our observing ego? Or to develop our own ability to resolve conflict? We’d already have the answers because we knew the mind/heart/feelings of the other. Where’s the growth? The discovery? These things are fundamental to the writer–that his/her reader work along w. the main character to resolve conflict. It is more difficult to achieve if the “other” of the main character is exposed to the reader.

    I’ll stop here. Gotta make lunch for the little hooligans in my house, then get back to my own writing. Hope I annoyed someone out there. 🙂

  17. yes, more especially in short fiction

    I did get the feeling that you were coming from that perspective almost entirely.

    I excerpted the “tends” and “tendency” because of the fact that I felt you were coming from a short fiction perspective, and the subject up for discussion is a long novel. I happen to disagree, and whether you act as an editor or not, the length of the work you’re used to editing informs your perceptions.

    I’m a novel reader and writer. I very rarely read short fiction as I have almost *no* patience with it (odd choice of words, I know). It’s a very rare novel I stumble across that happens in one POV entirely. I think the last novel I read in one POV was Twilight.

    That said, I have written novels in one POV, and I enjoyed the restrictions of it. Each novel I write, I choose a way to present the characters that I haven’t done before, in a way that will challenge ME to lay out the story for the reader in an exciting way.

    In The Proviso, I have six main characters. Five of them have POVs (all 3rd person). The core character has none. I gave him no voice. The other characters speculation, assume, and deduce his motivations (and sometimes admit that they can’t), and he might tell the other characters why he does things (more often not), but he has no voice. Not one reader who has communicated with me about the book has noticed this.

    n the novel I’m working on, I use 1st person and third person POV for a single protagonist, plus a subplot POV in third person. It could be argued there are yet other POVs because I include letters and journal entries.

    I would argue that it’s because you’re writing a novel, not a short story.

    In Magdalene, I have one character in 1st person and one in 3rd. I had never seen that done before because in my genre’s world, it’s an auto-reject, but since I’m writing what I please, I had the freedom to do that and make sure it would still get to readers. Now that I did it, I’m running across a lot of writers (in my genre) who WANT to do that, but fear wasting the time on something that’s discouraged.

    To reiterate my meaning, generally speaking, there tends to be more emotional wham if a reader is tied intimately to one POV character in either main or subplot.

    Again, I feel this is a viewpoint from a preferred/more familiar format. For novel-length work, I simply can’t agree.

    Imagine if God had genuinely allowed us to feel simultaneously and to the same depth what other people feel; if we were born with an automatic understanding of what it feels like to be the people around us?

    Yeah, but when we’re writing, we’re not the characters. We’re God.

  18. Angel Falling Softly is a-b-a-b (with the occasional a-b-b-a). I’d say that narrative fiction is pretty evenly divided between limited multiple POV and single POV. The “cinematic” style is the most tempting (because we’re so accustomed to seeing it) and the most problematic when not done well. Omniscience is the key.

    Fuyumi Ono’s Shadow of the Moon is all one POV, masterfully done, especially for epic fantasy/adventure. The sequel, A Thousand Leagues of Wind, has at least four. The latter employs what I call a “convergence plot” (which I also favor), where cause and effect among the main character arcs is inextricably bound together.

    And to Moriah’s last point, I would add that it also matters what kind of gods we intend to be.

  19. When we fall into such discussions, I’m always left wondering if this is a literary versus genre debate and the conventions thereof.

    I’m getting that feeling again.

  20. Love your last quote Moriah, because that’s what I think when I’m writing.

    I tend to have a lot of characters and viewpoints as well and have noticed some readers tripping up on that, probably because it is unusual for Book of Mormon fiction, but then I would also say aside from setting my novel has more in common with epic fantasy that the usual LDS historical fiction.

    Jonathan-just for me, I have done my best to cut out the details that only slow the story down, I love your references above because while it can give realism to the tale it also weakens it. I like your comment #7 and would like to think I do contemplate the choices.

  21. David,

    It’s interesting that you would mention epic fantasy, since it’s my sense that one of the particular pleasures of the fantasy genre is spending time in a writer’s sub-created world, independent of plot and storyline. Sometimes I get the feeling that the storyline is almost an excuse to spend time in the world. Ideally, of course, a good fantasy epic will do both.

    I had someone email me recently with a question about why Tolkien spent all that time with the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil, which really doesn’t advance the plot in any meaningful way. I think one answer is that it was a part of his subcreated world that he wanted to visit. Some readers don’t care for it. Personally I do, and I think Lord of the Rings would be poorer without it.

    In my original post, I mentioned decisions about which details to include as serving two masters: realism versus strategic importance to the story. For some kinds of writing, though, I’d now like to add a third master, which is the desire of the reader to spend time in the playground you’ve created. In the case of epic fantasy, if you neglect that aspect, many readers will feel like they’ve been cheated.

  22. When we fall into such discussions, I’m always left wondering if this is a literary versus genre debate and the conventions thereof.

    Are you saying that a strict a-b-a-b is more of a genre convention? (And if so, why?)

  23. .

    JCO, who I love, dismisses multiple-pov books. Because they are genre. Her books, rewritten with multiple povs, would thus by her reasoning cease to be literary.

  24. I refuse to read JCO. But lately I’ve been thinking “there’s no way I’m gonna be one of those people who refuse to read JCO.” So I’m in a bit of limbo here. Just like I still am with “God’s Army.”

  25. Katya, let me clarify. When I read statements that kind of sound like X device TENDS to do Y to ALL books, I have to wonder what books the person making that statement is reading or not reading.

    Because “tends” is a pretty broad term, i.e., “the majority,” which simply cannot be true.

    IMO, there are two issues here: long/short format and genre/literary writing.

    Often I read the opinions of short story writers on novel writing, and it seems to me that they very often see novels as long short stories. Then they structure their own novels that way. I believe that to be a misunderstanding on the part of a short story writer on the pacing and structure of a novel. The architecture is completely different.

    So when questions of multiple POVs come into play, a short story writer may reject that approach for a novel because they think it weakens the emotional impact. Of course it does–for a short story. There aren’t enough words available for multiple POVs.

    But in a novel, one unrelenting POV can be too much for an inexperienced novelist, and if one isn’t open to the idea of using multiple POVs (for whatever reason), what are the alternatives? More description? One really does not want to fatigue one’s reader.

    With regard to the genre/literary debate, the question of “strict a-b-a-b” as a genre convention is putting too fine a point on it. It’s the question of multiple POVs at all.

    As Th. said, if we accept JCO’s definition of multiple POVs==genre and a singular one==literary, one could perhaps say that GENRE (regardless WHICH genre) convention is more than one POV.

    As for Chris’s dilemma at hand, unless it’s a device he wants to use for a specific reason (a specific rhythm you want to set up, pacing purposes, subtext, whatever), I don’t know why he would limit himself in such a fashion. (This isn’t a harp on you, Chris. They’re just my thoughts on novel construction in general.) FYI: Some of my novelist-type friends don’t cordon off their chapters/sections until they’ve finished the novel. That may be something that might help you.

    Aside: Subplots were mentioned up above as a POV issue and I think that’s irrelevant to the discussion at hand. One can weave a subplot into a one-POV novel without ever switching to another POV (although that could be argued that may border on subtext versus subplot), and still get that converging storyline at the end.

  26. Who is JCO? (I’m sure I’ll feel really dumb when someone points it out…)

    On another point: This is one reason why I keep writing about my experience with No Going Back: because it generates good conversation. I doubt that my book itself is all that interesting to many people here. But it provides (I think) an interesting lens for considering broader questions. It’s the experience I’ve had, and so it makes a good reference point (for me) for starting a conversation about those questions — though in this case we owe most of the discussion to Chris’s comment about his own novel writing. There’s nothing like firsthand grappling with an issue to add a little oomph to the discussion.

  27. Jonathan,

    I think that JCO is Joyce Carol Oates (who apparently does not consider William Faulkner or Barbara Kingsolver to be literary authors).

  28. Actually, I think there are some ways that it may may sense to think of Faulkner as a “genre” author. Writing above about spending time in a playground of the author’s own creation, simply for the sake of being there, I was reminded of William Faulkner, whose stories are at least as much about his setting as they are about his characters.

    Traditionally, setting has been considered one of the lesser literary values (compared to theme, character, and figurative language, which tend to be at the top of the heap status-wise). A strong focus on setting, such as you get in science fiction, fantasy, and some mysteries and romances, has been thought of as a sign of genre fiction, and as one of the reasons why genre fiction is inherently inferior. (I don’t know if anyone is still making that argument seriously; I encountered remnants of it in graduate school, but that was back in the 1980s and 1990s.) And yet a focus on setting is considered praiseworthy and highly literary in some cases, such as Faulkner’s. I suspect it has less to do with inherent qualities of fiction and more to do with literary genealogy — whether one’s antecedents are considered as being among the royalty of literature (e.g., the novels of Dickens) or among its hillbillies (e.g., the pulp fiction of the 1930s).

    It’s ironic, of course, how the alchemy of passing generations can raise one’s status. We’re seeing that now with Tolkien I think: there are simply too many people now in literature departments and book reviewing circles who were raised on Tolkien, and so he can’t be discarded as marginal anymore. I contrast that with an earlier critic who very seriously argued, in a highly cited published essay, that Tolkien, enjoyable as he might be in many ways, simply wasn’t literature, because he wasn’t doing the kinds of things with language that literary authors do — a charge to which Steve Walker’s just-published book on Tolkien’s style is perhaps the best refutation yet. (Sorry, don’t know how to make that one of the AMV sponsored links…)

  29. .

    JCO is indeed Joyce Carol Oates and I hope I didn’t make her sound like a snob. She didn’t come off like one when she originally said it.

    Her book Zombie is an afternoon read and the single most terrifying piece of fiction I have ever read. If you’re looking for a recommendation, Wm.

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