From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Landscapes, Child Molesters, and Other Elements of Literary Fiction

Strange or not, I am, at the moment, feeling frustrated with my genre.

I should say, first off, that literary fiction is what I love. There is a reason mainstream is what I write. Austen, Dickens, George Elliot, Charlotte Bronte, Wallace Stegner, these are the stars by which I hope to guide my own literary efforts.

However. The waters of the modern literary novel are not feeling very welcoming at the moment.

Firstly, I get the whole lyrical prose thing. I really do. So much so that when I write I have to be careful it doesn't become detrimental to my plot. Characters are the most important, yes, the words on the page should sing. But does every literary novel or short story have to start with a five paragraph description of setting? Setting has its place. Again, I get the character and beautiful prose thing, and my betas can tell you that my pacing is actually quite slow, but still, lets start in the middle of the action, with a person, giving us a way to get to know them.

Also, and mostly. Gah. So, I check out a Pulitzer from the library. I've been excited to read it. I sit down and open it and am stunned. The first paragraph introduces me to an interesting character. The writing is gorgeous. The story is funny and interesting and progressing and it gets darker, but in a good way, and then, all of the sudden, the thirteen year old girl is getting raped.

*Sigh*. Look. I still love these books, in a difficult way. I love the beautiful writing. I even understand that we're getting at some important and incredibly tough issues here, and that's a good thing. I know bad, awful things happen, and its the artists job to make sense of the world. I accept that, I do not begrudge it.

But, is there any chance, any possibility, of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel being happy?

Ok, I'm being facetious, because I've actually read some happy Pulitzers. Well, "happy" is definitely the wrong word. They are hopeful, but in a way they are even more intense than the quirky, creepy, child molestation ones because they are just gloriously, beautiful, richly dense and heavy just by virtue of what they are. They deal with hard things too, death, loss, love, all of it, but with this kind of sense of morality and hope. And I don't feel like they're relying on any one scenario for intensity or shock value. The best Pulitzers feel as heavy and beautiful and real as life, and I mean that. I'm talking about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Two of the greatest books written in the last century.

I guess I feel frustrated because, and I say this with full recognition of its presumption and pomposity, this is the crowd I want to run with and in my head it has become divided into two camps: one camp too divine for someone like me, and the other, while ardently admired, not quite what I'm looking for and I don't think I'm what they want either.

My absolute core is inescapably optimistic, even joyful, and if that means that I will never win the Pulitzer Prize then okay. Its even worse that, it seems to me, optimistic and happy people are taken less seriously, approached like they don't understand or have never experienced true sorrow, unmitigated despair or depression. Happiness is an outlook on experience, not an indicator of it, and is not easily achieved. Any optimist can tell you that.

It doesn't really matter, because I, and all of us, will keep writing what we write, and we do our utmost with it. There is no changing that. I guess I just don't want to be told that life is poignant because it is dark and sinister and shocking. Life is not poignant because anything; it is poignant because it is life.

And life is capital H Happy.

Sarah Allen


  1. Great post. I've also read some happy literary novels, but the rules don't apply so much, so they can feel more depressing. I guess the point of literary fiction is you don't know what you're going to get, and those hard-hitting issues can be examined more fully than in - say - a procedural crime novel.

    The best advice I've seen is write the novel you want to read, so if you want to read a happier novel, go to it (as Mr Darcy would say!)

  2. you know, Sarah, the odd thing is that while you are definitely a happy person, I'm not sure I can think of a happy story you've written...

    Maybe I'm just comparing you with another writer I know (and secretly hated--only because of her lovely writing, of course, and not in real life). She wrote personal essays that were just so happy you wanted to cry. I mean, they were really really good.

    You're an excellent writer, but I think sometimes you forget that you do have that pain somwhere deep down and that your characters draw from it...if that makes any sense. What I mean is that you write differently in your stories than you speak. You are happy and optimistic, but you know how to write with different emotions.

    What I'm saying is, you've got what it takes to write where you want to write. And while I agree that you may not fit in with the creepy, dark, child-molestor type story, that doesn't mean you don't have the rich, serious, and even kind of dark stuff in you.

    I definitely agree with (and love so much I may have to quote)your line: "I just don't want to be told that life is poignant because it is dark and sinister and shocking. Life is not poignant because anything; it is poignant because it is life."


    you're great. And already, you're doing something in the world. I can feel it.

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  5. My advice? Aim for what you want... but don't expect to find someone else doing it, because odds are they aren't. If you want something written a certain way, don't expect someone else to do it... you do it. Perhaps the reason you have trouble finding the one thing you want to read is because you haven't written it yet.

    For years, I tried not to think of myself in terms of being a genre writer (as it were). I just wrote whatever story I came up with, and it didn't matter what genre it was, I was going to try it. I was growing. I learned a lot... I learned that despite that I am very humorous in "real-life" and can write comedy screenplays very well, I really couldn't pull it off in short story or novel form. What I did find is that I was best suited in the noir category. It's where I've found my style fits most, but instead of looking to fit myself there, I just walked about aimlessly until I saw a pattern. That would be my advice. Just move with what you have, and eventually you'll see something there you hadn't noticed.

    "You can't please everyone, so you gotta please yourself."

    Any rate... thoughts to ponder.

  6. Great post! Yeah. Why does sad get the Pulitzer?

    Hugs and chocolate,

  7. That line in literary works is definitely a difficult one to balance on. I prefer the hopeful stories. Maybe you should be the one to prove that being a happy/hopeful person can still get you a Pulitzer :P

  8. I'm one of those sinister writers. :-) Guilty as charged. But I don't do it on purpose. It's just what I'm good at. I'm not too good at being happy, and I guess these other writers aren't either. (PS: I'm a huge Marilynne Robinson fan, too)
    But there's nothing stopping you from writing happy literary fiction? Try not to compare yourself to these writers. Write what's in your heart.


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