Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When you're busy burning the midnight oil, you have to be careful not to spill it. That stuff is flamable.

I posted the other day about genre titles, a topic that I got started thinking about by reading a friend's blog. I intended to disagree with some of the points that she had made in her original post, and I think mine was written poorly enough to give credit for opinions where it most certainly was not due. Sarahlynn did not, to my recollection, ever say that romance novels were about mindless sex. No, years of hearing the terms "bodice ripper", "sex book", "porn for women" have made that impression quite deeply on me. I got in the habit early on of keeping my paperbooks in a discreet fabric cover--simply keeping Fabio out of view helped stop a lot of those comments and looks.

Nor did she ever say that something that was not considered "literary fiction" could not be character-driven. What Sarahlynn did say was, "I would say, however, that literary fiction is generally character-driven, rather than structurally driven (that sounds more like experimental literature to me, though I'm no expert)".

Depending on what you consider to be the "structure" of a novel, however, that statement can certainly be interpreted a couple of ways (Is the structure the chronology of scenes? Is it the point of view of the narrator? Is it the choice of beginning and ending points? Is it the choices of what scenes are included or excluded? Some combination?) My mind took off on one direction, and my fingers followed along on the keyboard.

For the record, I do not know that I agree with literary fiction "generally" being character-driven. I have read a great deal that is. But there are quite a few examples where the characters are really an accessory to the story (anything by Michener comes to mind, as does 100 years of solitude, which Oprah seems to have made popular lately). I believe I've seen one of my favorite authors, Isabel Allende, frequently shelved under "literary fiction", when her stories have as much plot (and even more political commentary) as they do any sort of emotional transformation of the characters.

Her lesson on logic is a good one. A implies B does not mean that B implies A. Even when B is the opposite of A. Tautology. I'm not sure I'd head the exact term for it before, but am also quite familiar with the logic. The biggest problem with this is that A->B really says nothing about what B implies. It could imply A. It just doesn't have to. If you don't specify, then it's open to interpretation. This is a lesson that in computers you sometimes learn the hard way, when your computer crashes because of a bug because you forgot to fully specify your parameters. It is a lesson that I myself forgot as I quoted one inspiration for my train of thoughts, but forgot to mention that I was reacting to a lot morethan just what Sarahlynn had recently posted. It is natural to conclude that my entire statement was a reaction to her opinons, and it was not.

I realize today in re-reading my own post(s), that I actually left out a point of my own. One comment from Sarahlynn's blog post that totally blew my mind was "The Time Traveler's Wife taught me that people can fuck in contemporary literary fiction." I was shocked. Not that people fuck in contemporary literary fiction, but that her blog announced it like it was breaking news. I guess we've read different sets of books all this time. I was under the impression that many authors who were shelved under "literary fiction" relished their "edgy" voices and frolicked in explicit details of their characters lives. I've read a few who even let their characters make love. But that distinction is a completely different discussion topic.

I do enjoy debate, and I will attempt to ensure that my own commentary shows the proper credit and respect for anyone I am referencing. I will continue to read Sarahlynn's blog (and posting comments, unless she decides to block me...) because I find her opinions and topics to be very thought provoking. I do apologize if anything I wrote painted an incorrect picture of her opinions. That was never my intention. I will not apologize for disagreeing on various subjects. That would be a silly (and dishonest) thing for me to say. I look forward to reading any responses (positive, negative, and sincerely hope to be able to toast the publication of her novel at some point. From her little snippets, it sounds like one I would pick up to read even if I didn't know the author :)


Sarahlynn said...

Kristi, I know all about that midnight oil! And the only people I've ever "blocked" from my blog were those who refused to use respectful, people-first language when referring to my daughter and others with Down syndrome. Otherwise, I welcome spirited debate and discussion!

With you and I, it's a little odd, because though we've known each other for a long time, we do not know each other well (blog reading notwithstanding). But my skin isn't terribly thin in the places of my life that I choose to make public (e.g. in the blog).

With regard to my comment about literary fiction that you reference, I was actually replying to a comment that you made. At the beginning of the month, I posted that my NaNoWriMo novel is "a literary fiction, very character-driven novel called The Really Good Guy."

A couple of days later, I posted about the structure of the novel, which is broken up into 3 parts, each of which flows differently. You were talking about your novel in comments and remarked that "Mine has emphasis on story, not structure though, different style of writing."

And I replied with the bit you quoted above about literary fiction being generally character-driven, rather than structurally driven. I do still think it's true that the majority of literary fiction is character driven (that's one way it's often characterized in industry publications and on industry web sites, anyway), but my point was really about the structure part of the sentence.

I wanted to clarify that while my novel does have a 3-part structure, it's not structurally based. I chose a form that fit the story I wanted to tell, not the reverse. There is definitely award winning fiction that's structurally based, but it's not anything that I'm interested in even attempting at this point. That's what I was trying to say.

Clear as mud, right?

Sarahlynn said...

I thought it would be less cumbersome to have a separate comment to address the sex bit.

Most types of fiction I've encountered include sex, at least occasionally. (Not all stories, or all authors, but I can think of works within most genres that do have sex. Is anyone else thinking about Larry McMurtry right now?)

What I meant about The Time Traveller's Wife was specifically the "fucking" part. Although it's an award winning book by a professor in a writing program, it's refreshingly unpretentious. The main characters fuck (their word, not mine!) in addition to having sex, making love, or engaging in any euphemistically named activity that refers to the same act.

They speak casually, dress casually, go to concerts, drink and take drugs casually. All those things appear in other published novels too, of course, but there was something different about Niffenegger's book for me.

It seemed to be about ordinary people, whose lives were ordinary, and yet extraordinary. They sat around the dinner table talking in ways that seemed familiar to me.

I think I'd have to reread it in order to articulate this better, but the gist is this: the author made the decision to have her characters "fuck" occasionally, and not just to mark them as a particular class or type of character. It's just something that a lot of people do sometimes, and she didn't shy away from that with her characters, or try to make the characters more or less to fit an established mold.

I will say, however, that it made me a little uncomfortable to have my mother-in-law in the adjacent room when one of my book clubs was discussing this one!