Petty Expectations

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Part One. Critical Expectation: Genre and “Literary” Fiction

I’ve been pondering, tracing connections, wondering about expectations. The first object of my brooding is a pair of sentences from a book review by Terence Rafferty:

“In a horror story or a mystery novel, the flow is all toward narrative resolution, and is — or should be — swift and fierce. Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way. [“Reluctant Seer,” Terence Rafferty, NYT Sunday Book Review, 4 Feb 2011]

This little paragraph contains several assumptions, or expectations, that I find no less questionable for being very familiar.

The distinction Mr Rafferty draws between literary and genre fiction, though cherished by many critics and teachers, was never very useful and is by now worse than useless. The opposition — genre rushing hell-for-leather and plotbound to resolution, literature meandering sweetly like a brainless tot in a folktale forest — is absurd.

I seldom read horror, outside Edgar Allen Poe, but I do read mysteries. Mr Rafferty says their flow must be “swift and fierce.” “Fierce” appears to be decorative, “swift” is the operative word. But is it accurate? Some mysteries move swiftly. Many mysteries don’t. Some of my favorites move almost glacially, plodding along from detail to detail gathering irresistible impetus. Like glaciers, they’re in no hurry, but you don’t want to try to stop them.

At some point in every slow-paced mystery the pace will quicken suddenly. That is a great part of the art of pacing: variety. Some people crave the relentlessly “swift, fierce” pace of the pop thriller, but it’s by no means the only way to tell an exciting story; and to many of us it becomes, within a very few pages, merely tiresome.

All novels (except perhaps those by Marguerite Duras) have to move forward, and plot-driven novels have to move with some apparent, though often indirect, onward impetus; but the movement certainly need not be “all to narrative resolution.” In narrative, impetus and pace are their own reward. What is essential is continuity — keeping the story going. (None of its many devoted readers for the last 260 years would ever have got through Clarissa if its interminably prolonged story weren’t told with unfailing (epistolary) continuity, as well as considerable variety of pace — given that its general rate of progress is that of a coach drawn by one ailing horse on a very bad road in January.) Where the story goes is much less important, during the telling of it, than that it goes.

Even in mystery, so formally plot-driven and end-directed, resolution is by no means always the goal. The end of a mystery is very often a let-down. The end of most novels is a let-down. As Leonard Woolf remarked, the journey not the arrival matters. I’ve lost my copy of Aspects of the Novel and am trying to recall E.M. Forster’s definition — “the novel is an extended prose fiction that ends disappointingly”?

Authors whose novels move forward sometimes with great swiftness, even “ferocity,” and sometimes move deliberately, even appearing to loiter, include Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens, the Brontes, Melville, Kipling, Hardy, Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian, Mark Twain (in the two great novels), Henry James (in the earlier novels), Virginia Woolf (notably in To the Lighthouse), Owen Wister, Conan Doyle, Arnoldur Indridason, Karin Fossum…. oh, this is ridiculous! Variety of pace without loss of impetus is characteristic of every good novel I can think of.

Unless you read only for ceaseless cut-to-the-chase, I’ll bet that whatever novelists you admire as being really good writers, “genre” or “literary,” vary their pace, and yet never cease to move their story forward, however quietly and sinuously.

And never for one moment do they “lose their way.” They may mislead you — confuse you, even lose you — but they know where they’re going, and if you stick with them you’ll find out where it is.

Finally, I disbelieve in the existence of “stray beauties” in a good novel (unless the phrase means naughty ladies). What is beautiful in a good novel hasn’t strayed in accidentally. Beauty in the novel is bone-deep, essential.

Everything in a good story or novel is essential.


Part Two: Reader Expectation and the Young Adult Fantasy

A friend of mine submitted his young adult fantasy novel to a publisher. After initial encouragement, the editor had the kind of talk with the author that authors don’t want to have with an editor. This is how my friend reports what the editor said:

“Your book does not meet reader expectation for a YA fantasy. YA readers expect fantasy to be plot-driven, not character-driven. They expect the protagonist to be self-confident, to meet distrust only from other people. They expect the magic in the book to be overt and direct, not subtle or metaphorical. They expect no moral ambiguity: all characters or magic powers should be clearly good or clearly evil. They expect the story to move very quickly with no slowing down at any time. A novel that does not meet reader expectation will not sell.”

The editor’s final reason for rejecting the book: “Your book isn’t fantasy, because it’s open to interpretation. It’s literary.”

This editor’s verdict is almost certainly based on the opinions of his Marketing or Sales departments, whose interest in fantasy is limited to the mindless yearning to repeat Harry Potter over and over and over forever. However, the basic misconceptions here — fantasy cannot be literature; literary novels are open to interpretation, young adult novels are not — are probably the editor’s very own.

I first began to meet this mindset from editors when I submitted my last two YA fantasies, Voices and Powers, a few years ago. It was nowhere near as rigid, however, as what my friend ran into. Now, it seems, there is an orthodoxy: Fantasy for younger readers must have no toxic taint of psychological depth or moral subtlety, and be driven forward mechanically by plot, not by the natures and passions of their young protagonists. The story must allow of only one interpretation: Good Fights Evil and Wins the War, thus remaining ethically simplistic to the point of infantility. YA fantasies cannot use metaphor. Fish cannot swim in water. No, sorry, that is from another edict. YA readers expect fantasies to contain nothing they have not already read in other fantasies. We the Publisher know what the readers expect. We are God? No, but we know what we’re going to give them, and they needn’t expect anything else.

Well, so, there’s a separation of “genre” from “literature,” performed with a Texas chainsaw.

And not by a literary snob, but by a genre editor, who might be expected to know better.

So, goodbye, Alice. Goodbye, Curdy. Goodbye, Mr Toad. Goodbye, Little Prince. Goodbye, Frodo. Goodbye, Sam. Goodbye, Ged. Goodbye, Will. Goodbye, Wart. Goodbye, Deeba. Goodbye, goodbye… for a while…

You’ll be back. Full of passions and subtleties, doing evil while intending good and vice versa, unpredictable, ambiguous, and breathing metaphor as your native air.

Poor editor, poor bean-counters in Marketing! Never to have crossed the border into the Other Kingdom, never to have seen the fair folk there…

But meanwhile, poor authors of fantasy, told to be imitators of imitators of the secondrate, ordered off to the assembly line at the baloney factory!

And poor kids, who come to that twilight border across which the misty mountains can be seen, only to find a chainlink fence and a NO ENTRY sign, in front of which under a peeling golden plastic arch a nasty little man is selling second-hand hamburgers fried in fusel oil…


Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Café



Petty Expectations — 26 Comments

  1. Thank you, Ursula, for saying so beautifully what I’ve always felt when reading. I like the quiet, thoughtful novels that give me glimpses of other times and places, bringing them into perspective. A storyline can add dimension and pacing through characterization and conflict tension without someone constantly slaying dragons. Just action as a plot device is tedious beyond measure.

  2. Has the editor in question read any YA fantasy?The description given above seems to rule out everything except the Twilight books. Even current Big Sellers–Harry Potter, the Hunger Games trilogy–have moral complexity, characters who doubt themselves, and a host of things that can be open to interpretation.

    And kids love that stuff: they’re coming in to a time when they see that the world is a complex, subtle place with all sorts of shades of gray; part of the joy and the function of fiction for my 15 year old is in trying to negotiate a fantasy world using her judgement in its interpretation.

    The summary is, as you say, sales force driven. Sad.

  3. This editor seems to want to go for big $ale$ only, but doesn’t appear to comprehend what makes young adult fantasy work: that the protagonists have agency, that they can act, and get consequences.

    Some YA has more subtle characterization and magic than others (I wonder if this editor has read Rebecca Stead), but the books I see teens loving the most are not teenage versions of the “everything is hopeless and you can’t possibly win so don’t even try” theme.

  4. In classical dressage, the term “impulsion” is used for the desire of the horse to go forward. Fostering, sustaining, even increasing a horse’s natural desire to move forward–its impulsion–underlies all the training that later–in a Grand Prix level performance for instance–results in an animal that can carry a rider at any gait, at any variation of any gait, with grace and power. Varying the speed (in a novel, the pace) of that progression does not mean varying the impulsion, the “forwardness”.

    In a horse, as in a story, impulsion is immediately evident to the spectator/reader–as is its lack. A story without impulsion is going nowhere…is merely moving its legs as it is forced to by its rider, joylessly, aimlessly. The story lacking impulsion may appear “plot driven” or “character driven” depending on whether the spectator most notices the rider (plot driven) or the animal (character driven.)

    The young horse–the inexperienced rider–the less experienced writer–must rush–must use speed to suggest impulsion, but a flat racer charging down the track has no more impulsion than a dressage horse at the peak of its training. In piaffe, the horse “trots” (some say “passages”) on the spot…but the potential for immediate forward movement must be present. When a horse, or a story, slows down, it will either be through loss of forward momentum, or a compression of it into potential–a form of suspense, heightened tension–that ensures the rider (or reader) trusts there’s more to come.

    As both writer and horse-lover, I enjoy any pace the story–or horse–chooses to present: I don’t find a racing pace inferior to the piaffe or vice versa…but I’m sensitive to the impulsion, the forwardness, of the story. A writer with all the tricks–the vocabulary, the clever phrasing, the metaphors–who hits every checkbox on the literary scorecard–but whose story never goes anywhere–is like the trainer whose overbent, miserable horse goes through the motions of a piaffe without impulsion. Story (and horse) would stop if they could.

    At peak, the great dressage horse has all the fire, all the majesty, all the power and potential of the untamed horse at play…and a high level dressage test presents the animal in a variety of gaits, to the great pleasure of rider and spectator. At peak, a great novel has all the excitement usually attributed (though not by me) to cheap thrillers–the “untamed narratives” of novels–merged with the conscious control of a writer who can intentionally vary pace, psychological level–all the elements–as subtly and invisibly as a great rider signals the trained mount.

    Dragging this toward the second topic, that of YA writing…the books I still remember clearly from my youth were not those that plodded or jogged along with no problems and perfectly “good” protagonists facing perfectly “evil” enemies. In fact, I loathed the biography series we were made to read, in which notable figures had been perfect children presaging their adult careers (So-and-so, Boy This, and This-and-such, Girl That.) I remember the stories with young characters who made mistakes, who had real conflicts with family or friends or school, who were sometimes misunderstood and who misunderstood others.

    What I see in the Marketing Department/Editor’s comments is not what YA readers want, but what parents and teachers of YA readers want…and what reviewers of YA books want (or think the parents and teachers will approve of.)

  5. Thank you for highlighting some of the egregious assumptions that are Out There affecting what books we get to read. The whole point of juvenile fantasy, in my opinion, is to find engaging characters in fascinating situations exploring moral questions.
    My existence as a writer is predicated on my firm belief that I am not alone in my preferences for books about thoughtful characters and books that use magic to help the reader think about deeper issues. Unfortunately, I guess your anecdote about the editor just confirms me in my decision to go the self-published route – because I want to be able to write for the children who like what I liked (and still like), not for the publishing machine that’s only interested in the next possible action movie.

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  7. True words. I think the publishers don’t realize that a lot of readers, perhaps even all, are able to distinguish between the literary equivalent of fast food and a gourmet meal. Which is not to slight fast food. Sometimes I would rather just grab a kebab than sit through a six course theater show of food.

    As a young girl I grew up with all the great classics. Loved them to pieces, but the story that brought me home was Lord of The Rings. I finally found that other world, the new horizon, something that spoke deeply to a yearning I didn’t even know I had until that point. However, that did not refrain me from reading rather horrid Victoria Holt romances in which our heroine would find her unrequited love not so unrequited after all and end up swooning in the arms of a dark and handsome man. This served another kind of need, but not for one minute did I think that it was great literature.

    The young adults I know today are knowledgable, sensitive, and very sensible beings. The fact that they like literary fast food now and again does not mean that they don’t like anything else. They are being cheated by stupid publishers, and if they don’t already know it, they will soon find out. And talent will prevail, and today authors can actually publish themselves if necessary. The narrow-mindedness of the publishing houses may eventually put them out of business.

    Thank you again for your always remarkably precise way of adding up things.

  8. Have the fool read the Bordertown series. Or anything by Charles DeLint.

  9. Beautifully said, and suddenly I have the urge to re-read everything in my LeGuin collection, which I will happily succumb to. It does seem to me, however, that small press, which is very much a going concern, does not get fair mention here, and rather than chiding marketers for looking for profits in known quantities, much like chiding the leopard for having spots, we should exhort readers to explore new and diverse worlds.

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  18. That’s sort of insulting to teen reader isn’t it? It sort of insinuates that the teen reader can’t handle a complex story that might leave them thinking afterwards. After all, in real life, no one is purely good or purely evil, and it’s silly to tell an author that their characters absolutely must be.

    And I refuse to say goodbye to Ged!

  19. Dear Ms. Le Guin,

    How do you always come to the rescue at just the right time? I am trundling, heavily laden, through the rewrite of my first fantasy novel and as I twiddle and slash and polish it up I constantly wonder, “Will they want it?” This is followed of course by the obligatory, “Who cares? Just finish the damn thing.” But my wee affirmations become more and more silent as the sellers of words become more “savvy,” ever more skilled at telling that money-spending demographic just exactly what they want to buy. And then, when my pea of a brain can no longer take the pressure, I retreat to your website for salvation, for some small assurance that deep-thoughted people may still prevail. And now I leave comforted that even if my book is “unsellable,” at least I will have written something I love. (And anyway now, more than ever, books may find readership outside of the corseted industry, eh?)

    Thank you infinitely for your work.

  20. The good news is, all those great books are still there to be read. I’m feeling absurdly proud of the fact that I knew almost every name in your list, and I hope my son will know them too by the time he’s my age. I’m so happy I found this blog!

  21. PS- to Elizabeth Moon: I love your metaphor of the well-trained dressage horse. Well done.

  22. Pingback: Ursula K. LeGuin on the false distinction between fantasy and “literature.” | A.M. Murphy

  23. Okay, I’m reading this blog 11 months after it’s published, and need some help from the readers to identify some of the characters Ursula mentioned in this article:
    “So, goodbye, Alice. Goodbye, Curdy. Goodbye, Mr Toad. Goodbye, Little Prince. Goodbye, Frodo. Goodbye, Sam. Goodbye, Ged. Goodbye, Will. Goodbye, Wart. Goodbye, Deeba. Goodbye, goodbye… for a while…”

    Alice is the Alice in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll. That’s easy.
    Curdy, is it from the Curdy series, as in “Curdy and the MonarchStone” and “Curdy and the Chamber of Lords” by German writer Artur Balder? I had to search for this one because I have not read the books.
    Mr. Toad is a famous character from the classic “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame.
    Littele Prince is the little prince. “Le Petit Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry needs no introduction.
    Frodo is from “The Hobbit” and the middle earth, by J.R.R.Tolkien.
    Ged is from “A Wizard of Earthsea” series by Ursula Le Guin.
    But who is Sam? Who is Will? Who is Wart? Who is Deeba?
    Help! I’m missing out on so many good books. Can someone who happens to read this respond to this post?

    P.S. I say Bluh to “YA”! We should pooh-pooh the whole YA category. Good books are good books. Pure and simple. Why segregate them? To have a separate YA category shows a lack of reading skills from publishers/parents/educators. I was reading Animal Farm, Brave New World, and Metamorphosis during my “young adult” reading years… none of them were “age-appropriate” but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying them.

  24. Linda Hsu, I can help with my guesses as to who Will and Wart are, at least.
    I think Will may be Will Stanton from Susan Cooper’s “Dark is Rising” series (at least I hope so… I loved those books growing up, and for a fight between absolute poles of Good and Evil, it has an interesting amount of moral ambiguity).
    I’m pretty sure Wart is from “The Sword and the Stone” by T. H. White.
    I’m not sure who Sam and Deeba are, but judging by the company they keep, it sounds like I need to find out.

    • Sam seems to be Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and companion (again “Lord of the Rings”).