Thursday, September 9, 2010

Carolyn Haines: The Morphing Novel, The Dangers of a Label, & What a Reader Brings to the Story

How does a writer like myself fit into an academic world? How does Literature with a capital “L” fit into the picture of the publishing world I know?  These are the questions swirling in my mind right now, as I prepare to give the USA English Department fall lecture.  I'm deeply examining what writing means to me.

My questions come without easy answers, because there is a historic divide between popular fiction and what some call literary fiction. I don’t have the answer to bridge this divide, but I find myself caught on first one side and then the other.

The novel, as it stands today, has morphed many times. All types of fiction for all types of readers can be found in any good bookstore. The problem comes with labeling—what is a mystery, what is a thriller, what is a crime novel, what is a romance? How are these labels applied? In my opinion, this is more of a marketing decision than a writing issue. But that label can make or break a book. Or a writer. Or a career.

For example, I wrote a book about my brother and friends—a sort of homage to their craziness and my own literary license. I called it SHOP TALK (under my pen name Lizzie Hart) because it takes place in the back of a TV repair shop on Pass Road in Biloxi. (My brother owns such a shop). But when the book came out, it was sometimes shelved in the How-To section. Like a manual about building things. Though it was clearly labeled a novel, it was shelved in the wrong place more than once. This wasn’t a make or break matter for me, because the book was mostly for fun. But this kind of mistake can be deadly at the wrong moment in time.

To me, what you label a book is not the important thing. What I’ve come to realize is that what sells in publishing today is story. That doesn’t preclude style and good writing, but what is really important is a forward moving story. If it’s told with expertise, so much the better. A few contemporary writers who I feel demonstrate this wonderful blend of art and commerce are James Lee Burke, Barbara Kingsolver, and Tana French. Powerful storytellers, they never let language clog up the storyline, yet I can read a sentence and know I’ve got my hands on this particular author’s work. Their voice and style are distinctive.

But what about the great writers of the past? Shakespeare and Dickens were plot demons. If you want a lesson in plotting, take a look at their work. The dense language, popular at the time, is a bit of a drawback for some readers, but the bottom line is drama, action, emotion, suspense—all of the tools of today’s writer—were wielded with great skill. Stylistically there are many differences.   

Today’s readers grow impatient with the pace, the head-hopping, the mountain of detail. Reading styles have indeed changed. These days, the reader is accustomed to quicker rewards, more focused details, and a clean point of view that makes it easy to follow. This does not mean readers are lazy or writers are selling out to an audience that doesn’t care enough to “work for” the story.

The concept of what the reader brings to the story is something I think about a whole lot. I devour books that require me to participate, to think, to bring something to the table. I savor books that are well written, so that when I dip back into them for the second read, I can admire the turn of a phrase or a metaphor or a plot twist. I feel at home with crime novels and mysteries, which is where I find all of these things.

Popular vs Literary? Blah! 
Popular fiction is not less than. It is not necessarily different than “literary” fiction. This need to keep the two worlds separate serves no one that I can see—not the reader or the writer.

I would like to see more contemporary writers taught in universities. While I think it is important to read the classics—and for would-be writers to understand the transformations the novel has gone through to become the vibrant work that it is today. Our idea of what makes good writing and literature changes all the time. Many of the writers we hold as “Literary” icons were popular writers of their day.

What we need to focus on is creating readers who can judge a book by its merits, not because they’ve been told it’s good or worthy. These critical skills that English departments across the nation are meant to foster is the key to an educated reading public. One that won’t judge a book by its cover—or by the label on the spine, but by the story and writing inside.

Carolyn Haines is the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award.  Haines is an avid animal activist and cares for 22 animals on her farm: horses, cats, and dogs.  Visit her on Facebook and be sure to check out her website to sign up for newsletter.


Karin Gillespie said...

You express it all so eloquently, Carolyn. Enjoyed reading this.

Carolyn said...

Thanks, Karin. Kathy's doing a great job--but we miss you anyway!

Sharon's Garden of Book Reviews said...

This really made me stop and think about what I read and how I read it! Very well written, my friend! Passing this along to my husband, the frustrated novelist!

Kat said...

Very good points. I've often wondered how certain books are "labeled", and it makes sense from a marketing standpoint. But as you pointed out, it can be deadly for the author. And sad for the reader, who may be missing a wonderful read. I personally read all types of fiction, because I have found that the labels are not always accurate. Kat

Carolyn said...

Remember the good old days when you could walk into a bookstore and the workers there KNEW what you loved and would recommend new writers? That was the advantage of an independent bookseller and some of the better staffed big box stores. That intimacy of community built up around a love of reading. The excitement of sharing a beloved author or story with someone new...those were good times, and they still happen at a lot of stores. But so many wonderful stores like Black Orchid and Pass Christian Books and Favorites have fallen victim to an awful economy and a publishing business gone wild with a flood of not-so-great books.

JLC said...

What a comforting post for someone becoming completely discouraged! It brings to mind two things for me: the English teacher I met when we were involved with the same community theater, who told me he had learned in his youth with Christopher Morely's theater that one must educate one's audience; the second is that my last novel (looking for an agent and/or a publisher...) was labeled for me by its editor "literary." He cautioned me it would be hard to sell. I've been a high school teacher of English and a lifelong student of literature, and have always wondered at the need for affixing a label to a written work, other than to show it is fiction or non- --poetry or prose.

We writers don't need to educate our public so much as those we must depend upon to help us make a reasonable return on our efforts. I wish this post could be read by every bookseller in the nation!

Peggy Webb said...

I enjoyed your thoughtful analysis of popular fiction versus literary. Brava!

River Jordan said...


Very good stuff and staring at Penumbra on my shelves now which I loved by any name.

Of course I also love your ability to tell a good story in person as well as the page including the day you and horse jumped the VW bug!


Melanie Simpson said...

I love this blog! As an English professor and writer of YA, I'm hyper-aware of the stylistic changes literature has undergone through the centuries. And while I love Dickens and Dostoyevsky, I also agree that a book doesn’t need to be a classic to be “good.” I often begin each new term asking students to list qualities of “good” literature. As a class, we generally determine that whether popular fiction or a standard of the literary cannon, good literature creates characters we care about (whether good or bad), a conflict in which we share the stakes, and the ability to arouse an emotional response.