I’ve done a lot of reading lately. I’ve ground through about six books in two weeks, in fact; and a fair number of those were books on the craft of writing.
One I chewed through was Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel, and I complained in a previous post about his clear and unmitigated slant against what he calls “transient” fiction (which would be commercial, or genre, fiction to most everyone else). The book didn’t hold any mystery solutions for me; that is, it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already, unless you count Stein’s shameless and repeated plugs for his previous book, Stein on Writing. And the subtitle is, “The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and how to Avoid Them.” I didn’t get a lot of that out of it either. Not as I can recall, anyway.
I’m sure Stein’s a big deal – just ask him, he’ll tell ya – in the publishing industry, but he set a tone of “only literary fiction is real fiction” to me which sort of put me off through the whole thing. One achievement he did manage, however, was to get me curious about literary fiction. I’ve had literary fiction described as fiction in which the plot unfolds within the characters, fiction which is internal and not external, fiction which only shows evolution of person, fiction which makes statements and offers insight about human nature (gimme a break!), and fiction which does not sell (ha!). Still, I don’t really think I understand literary fiction or how to write it, despite my best attempts to glean information from Stein and others.
What Stein wants is fiction which talks of human nature in high-brow terms, but what he wrote (one of his novels, at least) is a story about a high school magician wannabe who hires a lawyer to represent him in a trial when the school bully is killed. The lawyer, it turns out, is a character he ended up returning to later. But isn’t that sort of commercial fiction? I don’t know. Anyway, I was supremely disappointed with How to Grow a Novel because, after all Stein’s posturing and puffing and self-adulation, I expected him to be able to teach me something, guide me through the differences. But alas, I don’t think literary fiction can be taught, because it’s so doggone subjective. Subjects, characters and internal angst. That’s what literary fiction’s made of.
So, I disregarded most of what Stein had to say about the publishing aspect of writing, mostly because the book is more than 10 years old and I don’t think the information’s valid anymore. A lot’s changed, after all. But the rest of the book? Well, the section on dialog was all right, I suppose. There’s nothing, whatever, on story structure I can recall (I finished it about two weeks ago as you’re reading this), so if he discussed it, I missed it. I probably wouldn’t pick it up again, frankly. Stein’s too self-impressed and too literati (at least, he thinks so) for my tastes. And I’ve had better how-to books in front of me, to be honest. Stein on Writing might be more to my taste, but I can’t find a copy at my library, so until I stabilize financially, that one’s out. In the end, Stein’s book wasn’t super-memorable for me.
Anyone out there familiar with literary fiction, can you recommend some books I can read to get a good feel for it? Authors you’re particularly fond of? Writers, are any of you doing what you believe to be literary fiction, or are you all commercial writers like me?
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