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