Literary Fiction: Why does it matter?

Literary Fiction: Post 2 of 3

I recently came across a Facebook post in one of the writers’ groups I have joined in which a fellow member lamented the frustrations of a ‘wannabe’ writer.

I responded, “Writing is not about writing. That’s the paradox of our vocation – a quirk of soul that keeps writers at it for decades, whole lifetimes, sometimes without ever being published or making money at it.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘wannabe writer’, only a ‘hafftabe’. Yes, the craft is important; true, we must pay attention to promoting and selling books if we want society to provide an income that allows us to write more; of course we want our stories to resonate beyond the closet shelf, into the greater consciousness, to be reimagined in the minds of readers.

“But all those facets are like heat coming off an engine – necessary, but not essential. The driving force is an urgent need for the transformative experiences of imagining and sharing new possible worlds, be they fictional, poetic or descriptive… and recreating ourselves in the process.”

That dynamo is what makes writing, and literary fiction in particular, matter.

Of course, the arts in general transport us from day-to-day worlds to realms of heightened thought and feeling. Music, dance, theatre, painting, sculpture, photography, writing – they all explore and express meaning with intensity and imagination. They are rooted in theme. Often the portrayals are ugly; sometimes deliberately exaggerated or distorted; other times austere, ethereal, inspiring in their beauty. But ‘art’ in the broadest sense is about creating striking, meaningful illusions.

Each form has its own preferred audience; the question becomes, what is the unique power of literature in the 21st Century? In an era when the collective conscious is bombarded day-in-day-out with an unrelenting stream of visual, audible and even physical ‘arts & entertainment’ stimuli, writers increasingly have to determine and play to their strengths. For example, to write-on, as if books could compete with virtual-reality movies and video games delivering immersive, sensory experiences would be foolish.

So here’s my best guesses as to why literary fiction matters in the age of wrap-around imagery and earth-quaking volume. From a reader’s perspective, literary fiction is or can be:

A creative activity – More than any other audience, readers (a term that includes listeners) are involved in the creative act of telling a story. They are handed a do-it-yourself kit of words, phrases and sentences, which each participant imagines and puts together in his own way. Of course there’s a shared sense of the emerging tale, but in terms of emphasis, visualization, voice and meaning readers are creators in their own right. Each interpretation of a book is a unique, new story.

Psychologically engaging – The opportunities for an author to include anecdotal and tangential information, that enrich a storyline, cannot be matched by other arts. Literature is a form of speech, and there is an expectation between speakers that there will be plenty of asides, shedding light on the psychological state of the characters; referencing the symbolism built into a scene; providing flashbacks and historical context. Literature shares with theatre the underlying structure of a plot unfolding through time, but the opportunities for consciously looking up, down, sideways and inward is one of its outstanding strengths.

Portable & Affordable – More than ever, literature is portable and affordable. The ramifications of these features are important. Readers (and listeners) can now access stories on their ubiquitous mobile phones, tablets, eReaders. They can take in a few paragraphs at a bus stop, and a few more once they’re on the bus – even if they’re standing in the aisle. Since books can be produced at a fraction of the costs associated with making and presenting movies or stage plays, they are relatively inexpensive. TV, of course, is often free; but we pay through an incessant barrage of advertising, or fees. Readers can engage in their own time, pace and place at a price that can’t be beat.

Seminal & Experimental – Although the image of author as recluse, banging out stories in his lonely garret, has never been generally accurate, there is an element of truth to it. Books, more than other narrative forms, are written by one person, and don’t require large organizational commitments to produce and present. Books have a long tradition as an artistic medium that can reflect unique and divergent points of view. It’s important for society to be open to the kinds of challenging notions literature can foster, dealing sympathetically with complex, controversial issues.

Extensible & Interactive – Modern modes of communication, production and distribution make it possible for authors to interact with audiences in ways that have never been open. From inspiration, through development, writing and distribution authors can engage readers and expand the boundaries of literature – books in the 21st Century don’t need to have covers, nor do they need to be ‘finished’ in the traditional sense of the word. Social media, web sites, eNewsletters, Skype, digital video… all these media and platforms and many others offer possibilities for authors to work fluidly with audiences. For example, Direct-to-Web books can include space for reader comments, a writer’s blog, video trailers, links to supporting information or graphics… authors have only just begun to explore the potential of new media, and – again – literature more than most other narrative forms, is positioned to take advantage of the intriguing possibilities.

Although there has been a decline in the earnings of writers over the last two decades, and literary fiction has suffered a decline, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated (to misquote a misquote attributed to Mark Twain).

But despite the unique and vital function literature plays in modern culture, and the opportunities that are opening up to it through modern media, authors are facing tough times. There’s a need for dialogue and action to provide a sustainable environment for writers, and support transitioning from traditional modes to new media. That will be the subject of the third and final post in this series.

Post 1: Literary Fiction: Are all the canaries dead?
Post 3: Literary Fiction: How do we make it work? (Coming soon)

Written for The Federation of BC Writers
CraigSpenceWriter / Out of Bounds

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