The Wound at the Heart of Serious Literature

Yesterday I held a cooking party.  (I’ll get the final recipes up soon, I promise.)  People came over, drank, cooked, ate, talked, had fun.  Every one of these I do, they get better.  More fun.  It takes a lot of work, a lot of hidden prep to make these things go off.  An understanding of when to boss people around, and when to let fortunate accidents happen.  When to sit down and do nothing, even.  To whirl with the whirlwind, to find the stillness at the center of it.  Even when to skip recipes (a lot of recipes, this time).

It takes a lot of work to make something pleasant.

It wouldn’t have taken nearly as much work to make something miserable, although I’m sure if I’d been determined about it, I could have done far more work and have been miserable.

Skill…finesse…I’ve been at serious sit-down suppers that were dull as hell and took about as much work.  Why have them, if you aren’t going to enjoy them?  And yet people do, all the time.

Because they’re supposed to, I guess.  Because that’s the way it’s done.  Because when they were small, it was considered an achievement to graduate from the messy mischief of the children’s table to sit with the Adults.

I’ve been mulling over writers lately.  People who write serious Literature.  (Or even not-so-serious-yet-deadly-serious Literature; there’s a great home for satire there.)  As I change from someone who wanted to write serious Literature at one point (but thought that I’d never be able to, because I had nothing serious to write about), I have to sort through what I left behind and why.

I think, looking back, that I wanted to write serious literature because I wanted to move from writing at the children’s table (unskillfully) to the adult table (skillfully).  I associated the seriousness of literature–the thickness of the language, and thank you DWS for that term–the lack of clarity in the plots, the depiction of reality, in one shape or another–with skill.  Lightness, playfulness, and a steamroller of a plot?  Cheap escapism; anyone could do it.

I doubt I’m the only one who thought that.  Or who still thinks that.

I went to a local bookstore lately–Poor Richard’s.  They have all kinds of curious used books.  Do you know what section they don’t have, or, if they do, isn’t somewhere that I’ve ever found in the building?  Romance.

What’s the best-selling genre?  Romance.

Why wouldn’t a bookstore–and supposedly bookstores everywhere are having trouble–not set out a section for romance?  Better yet, why wouldn’t they set out a section for romance divided by subgenre, and cultivated for high standards?  Why wouldn’t they carry the most enjoyable, most delicious books?  There’s a horror section, even a few shelves for manga.  It’s not like they look down on genre.  SF/F has a lovely stretch of books.

No, the romance writers haven’t even left the children’s table is what it is.  So their books get shelved in “fiction,” and we all pretend they’re not there.  The romance writers aren’t unskillful, either.  They’re throwing whirlwind parties full of charm and light and good food, if perhaps a few well-placed swoons into the arms of the chosen lover.  It isn’t that they don’t work at it, or that it doesn’t take skill.

It’s that they’re having too much fun.

And serious literature is not about fun.

And respect, when it comes to writing, is not about fun.


I think there’s a wound at the heart of writers, and I think it comes out of college writing programs.  College writing programs are usually about teaching people how to analyze great works of literature (some of which are very fun, but have been around so long that the grumps have had to give in and call it respectable, although perhaps not as respectable as more serious works–Jane Austen is fun, and Kafka, in his black way, is fun, but neither one is as respected as, say, The Great Gatsby).  They’re about picking and picking and picking.  And it’s useful–the one thing that I took away from my college writing program that I liked was being able to pick apart what people say, or how they act, and find the hidden motivations.  Being able to analyze fiction has made me much more able to handle the complex fictions of real life, from media spin to gossip.

But it didn’t teach me how to write.

And it certainly wasn’t about having fun (except, maybe for a beautiful Shakespeare class I took where the teacher explained structure in more distinct terms than, “It rises and falls and rises and falls, until it really rises, then really falls”–I still use his analysis of Shakespearean subplots in my work, when I want to have fun with subplots).

We’re told: stop having fun.  Be serious.  –How we’re supposed to do this isn’t necessarily addressed.  How do you build a character?  You’re inspired.  How to you plot a story?  It just forms.  How do you know whether it’s a good story or not?  You sit around in a circle with a bunch of people who don’t read the kind of stories you write and let them pick the story apart to examine your hidden motives rather than the quality of your entertainment, unless you happen to write stories that the professor likes, in which case, they’re good.

We’re told: your hidden meaning is more important than your overt meaning.  Your theme is more important than your story.  (No wonder a lot of writers go into hissy fits if you ask them about their theme: they’re defending themselves.)

We’re told: you shouldn’t have a shtick.

We’re told: tragedy is more respectable than comedy.

We’re told: you should try, in all ways, to be original.  Except in grammar.  You should be perfect in grammar.  But original in everything else.  Unless you’re writing surreal fiction, and then you can be surreal in your grammar.

We’re told: Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, but don’t try to write like him.  Because he’s just not done anymore.  Plus he stole all his plots; don’t do that unless you’re Jane Smiley, who managed to rip off Shakespeare without actually making it fun (although it was pretty good literature).

We’re told this by people who were told pretty much the same thing, and then went on to be college professors.  Not bestsellers, mind you, and usually not professional writers.  Although there are some wonderful exceptions.

Look.  The message of serious Literature has been passed down, hand to hand, from analyst to analyst–not from creator to creator.  From one person who successfully abandoned the children’s table to another.  From one tragedy to another.  Because coming to truly believe that fun shouldn’t be respected is a tragedy.

Sure, there are pleasures to be found in the autere, solitary meal.  A certain sternness of character, and the undeniable pleasure of indulging your own particular tastes.  Seriousness has its own pleasures.  Obscurity has its own pleasures; writing for yourself and finding out that at least one person likes it has its pleasures.

But–sometimes it’s fun to go to that party that everyone will enjoy.  Sometimes it’s fun to organize the party.  Sometimes you abandon perfection and rigor in the name of fun.  Sometimes you abandon originality in a crowd-pleaser.  Sometimes you set up a children’s table and nothing else.  Sometimes you indulge in a little fun that won’t survive the critical attack of a bunch of literature professors, or even the little literature professor in your brain.  “Oh!  How cliche…”

But sometimes stupid is fun.  (And sometimes a theme is fun, like the White Trash Potluck we had at an old job once, as I was reminded of yesterday.)  And sometimes fun is the refreshment you need in order to process, survive, and heal from serious things indeed.

So the next time you’re looking into someone else’s foolish garden of silly, cheesy, ridiculous, even melodramatic delights, and you feel bitter and mean and superior, try asking yourself–but if I weren’t so superior, if I hadn’t been punished for being so silly as a younger writer, wouldn’t it be fun?

11 thoughts on “The Wound at the Heart of Serious Literature”

  1. Pingback: Seriousness for the Sake of Seriousness | ***Dave Does the Blog

  2. Oh, well said, indeed. I have made my peace with the kind of stories I love to read and write. Maybe this is because my formal training wasn’t in the writing world (24 years as a physical therapist was serious enough for me), and as a voracious reader, it never made sense to me to belittle anything I (or anyone else) was reading.

    Life is too short to spend time pursuing a vocation at something that isn’t at least a little fun.

  3. Who ever told you that Literary Fiction can’t be fun? I read almost nothing but Literary Fiction, including a fair amount of books considered classics by those college professors you seem to so despise. I used to read lots of horror and sci-fi, but then…well…I hate to say this, because you will accuse me of being a poopy pants or something nice and kidsy….but I sort of grew out of it. The predictable plots and good/evil character archetypes just weren’t doing it anymore. So I switched to serious literature and haven’t looked back. Serious Literature is just a phrase; it does not literally mean one is completely serious all the time. There can certainly be moments of brevity, even whole books that have a comedic feel to them. The difference is that the primary reason for writing a comedy like, say, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, is not to make people laugh, but to illustrate the author’s theme (which is the author exploring, generally, something he or she views to be what we usually call a ‘universal truth’ of humanity, something the reader instinctively understands the veracity of and can thus be enlightened in that way) through, in Catch-22’s case, screwball, zany comedy and hilarious wordplay. Literary (or ‘serious’) fiction is all about exploring themes and expressing ideas about the world around us, about the universe, say, or about how people think, interact with each other, what motivates us ultimately, the origins of evil, etc. Haven’t you ever heard of eating a balanced meal? With literary fiction you get the grilled chicken, the baked potato (no butter of course), the green beans, but you can also get a little creme brulee for desert. I would never bemoan your reading romance, but I do find myself wondering how you could read fiction like that all the time. How are you not bored with it, if that’s all you read? It’s not like you can be surprised by the plots at this point. Reading is supposed to be good for you as well as entertaining, not just a huge piece of chocolate cake with no real dinner. See what I mean?

    1. Hm…except that I would argue that reading, being entertainment, is a dessert course – or an apertif. Not actually the main business of living, or of the meal. You can get really deep with an apertif, very philosophical. And I do likes me some literature, but in MODERATION. I don’t scoff at the chocolate cake just because there’s good whiskey to be had.

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