Creative Writing and Fiction Subgenres Help (page 3)
Literary versus Genre Fiction-- What Do the Labels Mean?
Literary fiction is usually considered writing in which the author's concern is to be "writerly." Genre fiction is usually considered writing in which the plot and narration appeal to readers less interested in the literary merit of the writing. Authors of genre fiction, which includes mysteries, action thrillers, science fiction, and romance novels among its subgenres, are said to focus on plot and suspense for supplying reader pleasure. In literary fiction, even when utilizing plot devices like love stories or murder mysteries, authors say they work with the style of their language and the depth of their characters to investigate complex human themes, whether these themes appeal to a majority audience or not.
But there is irritation about what is exulted as literary and what is excluded. B. R. Myers wrote "A Reader's Manifesto" for the July/August, 2001 Atlantic Monthly magazine. It is subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose":
Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"—at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most "genre" novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.
Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance… What is not tolerated is a strong element of action—unless, of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep suspense to a minimum.
Despite the distinctions critics, publishers, and award givers make, most of us strive to write well and find our audience after we have written. To do this, though, we must be aware of the fiction subgenres.
One way to break fiction into categories (whether that fiction be literary fiction or genre fiction) is by length. Wikipedia's entry for fiction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiction) includes these popularized page-length guidelines in ascending order:
- Flash fiction—a work of fewer than 2,000 words (but often 1,000 or even less by some definitions)
- Short story—a work of at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words
- Novelette—a work of at least 7,500 words but under 17,500 words
- Novella—a work of at least 17,500 words but under 50,000 words
- Novel—a work of 50,000 words or more
Whatever the length, though, to be considered a satisfying piece of fiction, in addition to having convincing characters, settings, and plot, the author must create a tone or voice for the work through word choice, narrator personality, background, and point of view, as well as through choice of images and details.
From these elements, a theme develops; it is the point the story makes from the outcome of the actions, reactions, and interactions of the characters, as well as the narrator's thoughts and impressions. A writer doesn't often start with a theme in mind. Instead, the theme develops as the characters reveal themselves to the writer. For William Faulkner, according to his statement in a Paris Review interview (www.theparisreview.org/viewinterview.php/prmMID/4954), the novel The Sound and the Fury arose not from a grand idea but from the kernel image of a little girl in white clothing muddied by the splattering of horse hooves as her grandfather's buggy arrives home.
All fiction deals with the notion of "what if?" In fictional worlds, authors can make suppositions about what would have happened under altered circumstances, circumstances the author in fact alters. Carol Bly puts it this way in The Passionate Accurate Story:
I think that the moment we are processing or typing along and we change how it was to how it might be, the natural ethical tastes of our species jump in and begin "loading" the situation. Suddenly, something very electric in our minds, but which goes about under the boring title of "values," has entered. It joins the first-draft writer and starts steering the story…
From Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to Nora Ephron's Heartburn, from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series to the recent mysteries of Janet Evanovich, and from Richard Wright's Native Son to Alice Walker's The Color Purple, we know that novels create ordinary as well as spectacular worlds, empathetic characters as well as antagonistic ones, and evoke both the baser and higher of our human characteristics. We look to novels when we want days of immersing ourselves in a fictional prose narrative with a plot that unfolds through the actions, speech, and thoughts of characters in whom we are interested.
Although novels date from early times (The Tale of the Genji was written around 1007 and The Adventures of Beowolf around 1100), it was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that the form gained eminence. From Amazon.com lists to librarian and book expert Nancy Pearl's Book Lust, More Book Lust, and Book Crush, we can find novels, as Pearl points out, to read for "every mood and season."
Like the word novel, the word novella is from Italian, in which it means a tale or piece of news worth repeating about town and country life. Over the years, authors broadened the idea of town and country life to include whole regions of the world. Although the novella is a flexible form, most authors of novellas present one suspenseful event, situation, or conflict that leads to a surprising turning point. With a length shorter than a novel, the novella's conflicts are usually fewer, but they have more time to develop than in a short story. They are often concerned with personal and psychological development.
In introducing an anthology of novellas entitled Sailing to Byzantium, Robert Silverberg writes:
[The novella] is one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms…it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.
Although European authors use this form more often than North American writers, American authors do use the form, and we have studied many of these novellas in school: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus among them.
Other novellas we know well by British and European authors are: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony, and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Shorter than a novella and longer than a short story, this form has been considered trivial or sentimental, but science fiction writers in particular are making use of it and believe it differs from a novella in word count only. Typing "science fiction novelette" into your search engine's browser will yield many titles. The Science Fiction Writers of America organization includes this form in its categories for annual awards.
As the novel arose, the short story, which had originated from oral story telling and the use of anecdotes to make a point, became more like a miniature version of the novel. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe are among the form's practitioners who published in the magazines of the 1800s. Today, many national magazines continue to include short fiction stories in each of their issues or publish a yearly fiction supplement, but most short stories appear in literary magazines, and then eventually in collections by particular authors or themed anthologies.
Short stories may give the impression that the reader is coming in on the middle of things, because of abrupt beginnings and endings that leave readers to imagine what has happened before and what will happen later. Even so, readers leave a good short story satisfied. They feel that by reading it, something has occurred in their own consideration of human values and traits, even if the character hasn't yet demonstrated the results of new perceptions.
In fact, many if not most short stories take on the negative aspects of human existence and character, exposing frailties. As sobering as these stories are, they can also make us laugh. Ron Carlson's famous story "Bigfoot Stole My Wife" is narrated by a husband who we believe can't see that his wife couldn't stand their life style anymore; as we laugh, we are forced to consider ways in which we don't take responsibility and misconstrue the truth. Grace Paley is known for short fiction with a wry political spin. Her story "Wants" weaves a spell in the voice of a woman who raised children during the Vietnam War era; though the character doesn't quite get it, with her whimsical way of recounting her past, she illustrates the way that the birth of feminism caused partners' goals to become disparate, prompting divorces.
Many of us read Aesop's Fables as children and enjoyed the short, pithy moral lessons. Although many modern writers have produced what used to be called short short stories, the Internet has increased demand for this concise form, now usually called flash or sudden fiction. Ezines such as SmokeLong Quarterly, Flash Fiction Online, and Vestal Review publish the genre.
Sometimes flash fiction journals specialize in very short stories with exact word counts: Nanofictions are complete stories, with at least one character and a discernible plot, exactly 55 words long. A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, excluding titles, and a 69er is a story of exactly 69 words, again excluding the title. The 69er was a regular feature of the Canadian literary magazine NFG, which featured a section of such stories in each issue. Short story writer Bruce Holland Rogers has written "369" stories, which consist of an overall title, then three thematically related 69ers, each with its own title.
Though short, flash fiction stories have a main character (usually called a protagonist), conflict, obstacles or complications, and resolution, even if some of these elements are only hinted at or implied. Flash fiction enthusiasts often quote Ernest Hemingway's six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
A Note About Young Adult Fiction
In the 1800s, Sarah Trimmer founded the periodical The Guardian of Education and in it introduced the categories "Books for Children" (those under 14) and "Books for Young Persons" (those between 14 and 21). Her lists established the idea for what we now call children's books and young adult books. In the nineteenth century, book publishers didn't cater to young readers, but, as Trimmer informed the public, many published novels appealed to young readers: The Swiss Family Robinson, Great Expectations, Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Heidi were among those she cited.
Later, in the 1900s, novels such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Green Gables, The Yearling, and My Friend Flicka were of interest to younger readers. In the 1950s younger readers enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Because of publishers' marketing approaches, much fiction classified as young adult no longer comes to the attention of most adults unless the book, like Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, is made into a movie, or the series, like J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, is a blockbuster. However, there are books that have quietly become "cross-over" books, starting life as young adult novels before being picked up by mainstream publishing. Kyoko Mori's titles One Bird and The Dream of Water are examples.
Although many writers in the book-length comics field object to the term graphic novel and consider it a marketing term only, it seems to be sticking for describing a lengthy comics project to be understood as a single work. Many science fiction tales are told in graphic-novel form. Many books called graphic novels are actually nonfiction works. Will Eisner's A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories was one of the first such works to be labeled a graphic novel. Others of note are The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (some of which was made into a film featuring the book's graphics) and The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman. A new graphic book gaining attention is The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. That the form is used by authors taking on social oppression and telling stories from life as well as those writing fictional accounts addresses the form's ability to speak strongly in images as films do, but with intimacy, as only books can.
If you are interested in exploring the making of a graphic novel, read Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel to learn the genre's background, understand current issues in the genre, and find instruction.
A Note About Experimental Fiction
J. Robert Lennon writes online in Ward Six:
…how do you judge, say, a novel made up entirely of anecdotes about literary figures, delivered in a quasi-psychopathic deadpan? Or a short story in which all the words relating to sex are amusingly misspelled?…[The authors] are people whom you feel, obtuse as their writing may be, are trying desperately to express something that is deeply important to them, in the only way they know how.… it's the personality… the feeling that a writer is cackling as he types, thinking, "This is never going to be published, NEVER!" It's the sensation, thrilling and vertiginous, that a writer is doing something simultaneously pointless, vital, and frightening.
Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon, among others, all play with changing traditional form, structure, language, style, voice, and other elements of fiction to make readers put events together in new ways. Each of these writers has their own idiosyncratic way of structuring their work.
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