An American Editor

September 3, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What is literature, anyway?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:28 pm

© Carolyn Haley

Early this year, I wrote about the challenges that contemporary-novel-writing authors will face in adapting to the “new normal” (https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/thinking-fiction-whats-next-for-novelists/).

Things haven’t settled down much in the months since then, but enough time has passed that new novels are coming out, through both traditional and indie publishing, in which authors who write contemporary fiction have adapted to the times in different ways.

Some of these works were in process when the combined pandemic and political upheavals started; others have been written since it became clear that daily life and culture were going to change permanently. Enough novels have crossed my desk for purposes of editing, reviewing, and recreational reading that I’m beginning to see patterns.

Even though these books qualify as commercial fiction, I’m interested in them collectively as a facet of literature. I read mainly American fiction but also samplings from western Europe and Canada; this essay is limited to personal observations about contemporary fiction written in or about those parts of the world.

Definition

To better understand what “literature” means today, and how it reflects our era vis-a-vis any other time, I turned to my trusty dictionary as a starting point.

Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged lists several definitions of “literature.” The one I was looking for is this:

3b: the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age

This definition embraces fiction, my central concern. But the literal definition does not expand to include purpose, so I went internet trolling to find a more nuanced meaning.

The first search results (I stopped after 20) agreed in principle, albeit with different wording, that the purpose of literature is to explore and express human nature. I refine that to mean creative writing that reveals truth and possibility through story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple genre romance or multi-generational saga or anything in between. Storytelling is as old as human civilization, and capturing it in writing is what constitutes literature.

In fiction publishing, there’s a distinction between literature as a written art and “literary” as a writing style and marketing category. My interest is in the former, and in seeing how authors across genres — the body of literature — are adapting to a global pandemic concurrent with intense sociopolitical changes.

Multiple adaptations

The trends I see so far among fiction authors are clustering in four approaches.

(1) Some novelists have simply incorporated societal changes into their stories, including peoples of all colors, cultures, and genders in their character sets as part of the norm of their characters’ worlds.

In physical descriptions, when characters are described at all, references to their racial or ethnic heritages are as generic as possible, country of origin omitted unless directly relevant to the story, and nonbinary sexuality alluded to by casual mentions, such as a man having a husband or a woman having a wife. All human varieties are assumed to be normal. No commentary about it in the narrative; the story just moves on.

(2) Other novelists have gone the apologia route, inserting front matter into their books to define their positions to readers before they launch into the story. Some literally apologize for even mentioning difficult subjects. Those subjects can be the pandemic or socially sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, politics, or violence.

(3) Another group has failed to separate their personal positions from their characters’ positions. I’ve seen this several times in prolific, popular series authors who are confident about their readerships. I usually read those books in pre-press for review, and recently they’ve been keeping me awake at night wondering how to honestly and fairly evaluate those works. Subtle, intermittent shifts in the narrative change the voice so reader attention is broken by what I call “author intrusion.” While the story is doing its job of expressing the position, the author seemingly can’t resist elbowing in (and the publisher’s editor[s] doesn’t elbow them back out), resulting in a distracting mixed message that undercuts the book’s own merits.

(4) Then there are authors who put their positions solidly into their characters’ mouths and actions, leaving themselves invisible but making their points loud and clear.

Art vs. propaganda

Just about every author writes from a political, emotional, and personal perspective, and has done so since the beginning of publishing time. Same is true for almost every creator who expresses through an artistic medium. People flock to the arts to find resonance for their thoughts and feelings. Nothing abnormal there; in fact, that’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is how well they do it — or not. Authors who draw readers into their worlds and involve them in the trials and tribulations of the characters/setting/time succeed in conveying their messages. They make readers think and feel, and indirectly advance their own thoughts and feelings while remaining offstage. The work is its own self.

But when authors step outside the story world to manipulate reader impressions, things slide onto the slippery slope between fiction and propaganda. In my opinion, if authors feel so strongly about something that they can’t keep themselves out of their story, they should switch to a nonfiction vehicle. Or write op-eds (opinion-editorial pieces).

My personal opinion is meaningless in the larger scope. As a professional editor, I strive to put aside my biases and be as neutral and analytical as possible when I edit or review a fictional work. (But I’m totally subjective when I read for recreation!) If a story is historical fiction, I expect the author to adhere to the mores of the time for plausibility. Unfortunately, this has become a flashpoint in some circles, where people judge historical scenarios by contemporary mores.

I think this is unfair. In most cases, the purpose of the story is to show how things were in comparison to today’s sensibilities. Condemning authors for being accurate — and in some cases, calling to ban a book because it’s offensive to contemporary tastes — is unreasonable. Let literature, let art, inform us about the past to help us analyze the present and advance toward the future!

Who owns the viewpoint?

Some contemporary novelists have become scared to write what they want to say because they expect rejection or pushback, even shaming, from a polarized, judgmental audience. I see reports about this on social media, writing/editing/publishing forums, and articles in publishing newsletters. I also hear about it directly from clients and associates.

This anxiety differs from the common one among authors about their work being accepted by a publisher or an audience. Their anxiety has broadened to social and political spheres, which has undercut their confidence.

Some of them question whether to hire sensitivity readers in cases where they wrote outside their everyday reality. Which is worth thinking about, because storytellers have been walking in “other” shoes for as long as people have been writing stories. What’s different now to make that a problem?

I don’t see a problem, because it’s standard practice for conscientious authors to research what they don’t know and round up more-knowledgeable people to vet their work where it touches unfamiliar areas. Acknowledgment and dedication sections in books are full of credits to people who have helped authors with verisimilitude and factual accuracy.

A sensitivity reader is nothing more than an individual offering insight into a different culture or norm. Just like any technical professional, a sensitivity reader is only one person representing a great body of information. Their insight may be valuable, but it must be taken with the same grain of salt as any other resource. How the author handles that information is ultimately what counts.

Context is the bottom line

What’s often forgotten in the world of literary criticism is the world itself. We all belong to an immense, diverse population spread across the planet. Something that’s meaningful or controversial in the United States of America might be irrelevant, inflammatory, or incomprehensible somewhere else — even at a regional level. For instance, rural Alabama in a bayou environment has little to do with the Minnesota boundary waters, or downtown Los Angeles or New York.

A novel’s content has to be framed by not only its subject but also its context. Authors with commercial ambitions must direct their work toward a specific desired audience. By definition, that eliminates others.

“Otherness” has long been a concern of science fiction and fantasy authors. They have the advantage of being able to make it up. Who can speak for aliens from other planets?

Extrapolating from there, nobody on Earth can truly speak for anybody else, so the purpose of a novel is to present what’s happening to a unique character(s), expressed by a unique author, in hopes of finding commonality among unique readers.

The benefit of this is a constant stream of education and enlightenment about different people through their adventures and misadventures. The only thing that matters is story. Story expresses our shared humanity, and the infinite number of stories expresses our individuality. How wonderful is that?

The word that encompasses it all is “literature.”

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

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