Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why is Literary Fiction so dark?

    It’s a common observation that Literary Fiction tends to be dark and even sometimes depressing compared to popular genre fiction like mystery, romance or sci-fi. And it seems to me that this dismal tendency, in a type of books we often praise and tend to teach in English classes, needs some explanation. I’ve heard the idea that this grimness reflects reality or at least a common view of reality. I’ve read theories that various pressures in the selection process are having causing the darkness as a side effect. While I don’t discount these theories I think is also something intrinsic to literary fiction that may be a major cause of the negativity.
The writing in Literary Fiction is supposed to be like a stained glass window. The language is supposed to be beautiful and interesting in and of itself. You’re attention is meant to be caught by a novel expression or well turned phrase, occasioning admiration for the author’s creativity. The metaphors are supposed to reward careful study. There should be important layers of meanings that are only available to a careful and detailed analysis.
    However, in genre fiction the writing is supposed to be like a plate glass picture window. The language is supposed to be clear, smooth, and polished. You’re meant to be able to fall into the story without stopping to think about the writing. You should be able to get so caught up in the characters that you aren’t aware of the author at all. You should be able to absorb information and ideas in the story without breaking your concentration on the narrative flow.
    One thing that I notice about stained glass windows is that you need a bright light behind them to appreciate them. A picture window functions pretty much as well on a cloudy day or at twilight as on a sunny day. But when the sun disappears the functionality of a stained glass window changes entirely, and it loses all its interest. When you are writing fiction you already have to exaggerate the drama and the emotions of a story. After all, the reader has reality all around them and the only thing a writer has to compete with that are black and white letters on the page. But a Literary Fiction author has the additional problem, in impressing the story on the reader’s mind, that the story is weighed down with linguistic ornamentation.
    And when it comes to making an impression not all emotions are equal in creating that impression. Research has shown that negative event makes a makes a much stronger impression on the mind and the memory than an equivalent good one. If you want to display intricately crafted and detailed use of language the perfect means of making it stick in someone’s mind is to use a story that is tragic of despairing or generally upsetting. So the most successful examples of beautiful language are going to be those that tell a distressing tale. In the case of Literary fiction emotional darkness is the equivalent of bright sunlight for a stained glass window.

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