Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Don't You Write a Real Book?

For some unknown reason, people like to denigrate fiction writers and what we write. Any science fiction or mystery writer will tell you about the comments they've received from jerks of various sorts.

But the most insulted of all writers is the romance writer.

Over time, I've heard from a number of my friends in the field who have asked for advice on how to reply to comments. 

Here are my suggestions. Many will work just as well with whatever fiction you write.

Most will work for readers as well.

The first comment is usually, "Why don't you write a real book?"

Rude reply: Why haven't you gotten a cure for foot-in-mouth disease?

Quotation reply: "Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none." Jules Renard. 

Considered reply: First, ask them to define "a real book." 

If they reply "non-fiction because it's useful and the truth. Fiction is a lie."

Fiction is the truth in parable form. In the BIBLE, Jesus and the Old Testament prophets explained eternal verities by the use of stories. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example. Is its message any less valuable because the Samaritan was a fictional character created by Jesus?

Fiction writers are telling the truth through their fiction. They create the world as they see it and offer their own beliefs. That belief may be as simple as "everyone has a true love and with courage and compromise can win that love." 

Is a novel any less valuable than the true-life story found in "Reader's Digest" which illustrates the same point? I don't think so. The only difference is the medium used to express that belief.

"But fiction isn't useful like non-fiction."

Yes, it is. Fiction is like that perfect school teacher who makes learning interesting. It gives information in small, easy to swallow doses. Historical novels give you history, science fiction science and the future of technology, mysteries and thrillers insight into the human mind and modern criminology techniques. 

Of course, some fiction offers little factual data and appears to only entertain. But that's all right too. Few people protest because most television shows and movies aren't useful, yet many feel the written word requires some justification. It doesn't. The written word has as much right to merely entertain as any other medium. 

There's no shame in just entertaining.

"But a real book is longer."

The average length of "literary novels" is the same as a Silhouette Presents or a Harlequin Romance. Usually, they're skinnier. Critics praise this shortness for its intensity. 

"But these are only women's novels."

Women aren't second-class citizens, and they aren't second-class readers either. You never hear anyone say Tom Clancy is only a men's novelist because many of his readers are male. Women writers and readers deserve the same respect. 

A hundred years or so ago, some male critic made a snippy remark about "those damn women scribblers" and their terrible books. He included Jane Austen and the Brontes in the comment. We should all wish to be in such company as "only" women writers.

"A real book is literary. It is the kind of book the New York Times reviews and college professors teach. It is great literature. It isn't popular fiction."

Almost every major noncontemporary fiction writer now taught in universities was a popular writer. The Neil Simon of his time, Shakespeare wrote bawdy jokes in his plays for the commoners.

Hawthorne was the Stephen King of his period. So was Poe. Mark Twain amassed a fortune through writing bestsellers.

Dickens' novels created a furor unequalled in modern times until the Harry Potter novels. For example, THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP was published in installments in a British magazine. As the ship carrying the last chapters docked in New York, a mob of fans waited for it. Men ran down the docks and screamed to the passengers, "Is Little Nell dead?" 

Only recently has the strange idea that popularity is a failure of literary standards materialized. I'm not certain where this idea comes from, but it smacks of the elitist mentality which believes the masses are incapable of appreciating art. 

Some authors whom literary critics have praised have become massive bestsellers. The same critics promptly change their opinion of the writer "who has sold out to popular acclaim."

"But today's popular novels aren't great literature."

No contemporary critic can truly define a current work as "great literature." Time is the only true test of that term. Books and authors praised a hundred years ago have disappeared except as footnotes in esoteric articles. 

Books which were damned as junk are taught in college. Read the scathing reviews of Melville's MOBY DICK if you want to see the perfect example of this. Melville's praised travel books are forgotten, but MOBY DICK is immortal. 

"Certainly you aren't comparing any romance to MOBY DICK or Shakespeare?"

Not really. I'm under no illusion that most romances are more than entertainment. But there's nothing wrong with entertainment. Is a chef condemned because he makes pastries instead of main dishes? Of course not. Is he any less a chef because he creates calories with little food value? No. 

To carry this analogy a little further, the pastry chef and the romance writer have a great deal in common. Any cook will tell you that creating an original cake recipe is much harder than making a casserole recipe. The ingredients and spices in a casserole can be varied with little problem. Variation in a cake, especially the important ingredients like baking powder and flour, can create disaster.

The romance is like that cake--airy, delicate, and delicious. But fail as a writer with one important element like character or plot, and the whole novel is rock hard and impossible to enjoy.

Other types of books, even the so-called literary books, are casserole books. The writer's touch need not be so delicate, and mistakes are much easier to be forgiven.

Lee Smith, a major Southern literary novelist, told me that she tried to write a Silhouette Presents when the market was wide open. The book was a failure, and her agent couldn't sell it. Lee confessed that she never intended to write another because they were too darn hard to write. 

The romance novel form is capable of generating great literature. Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are perfect examples of this. 

Currently, some romance novelists are showing promise of creating the emotional and literary resonance necessary for great literature. Some of us are pushing the parameters of romance toward more literary acceptability. Only time will tell if great literature comes.

If nothing else, we're entertaining people and giving them love. We're taking them away from their troubles and pain. And what's more real than that?

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