There’s a certain amount of accuracy in the old saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  Every professional writer also knows, whether he or she will admit it or not, that the best fiction is far more “true” to life than life is.  Seemingly “impossible” coincidences and occurrences happen in life.  Almost everyone knows of one or has experienced it, but, especially if it’s a happy or fortunate one, it won’t ring true in fiction.

Is that because, at heart, we all know that impossible doesn’t happen most of the time? There’s a rule of thumb in writing that the only kind of coincidence or improbable happening that will work is one that goes against the protagonist… and even that’s iffy.

The word “fiction” comes from a form of the Latin verb “fingo,” meaning to fix or make, but, in Latin, there was usually a connotation of falsity attached to its use, such as putting on a brave face, and even a statue was an “imago fictum,” a made image, if you will. So how has fiction, or at least “serious” fiction, come to the point where it has to be, if you will, truer than true, or seeming to be more true to life than life is?

For that matter, why is “uplifting” fiction seldom considered “great” literature?  Does fiction have to be depressing, with a dark ending, to be considered “great”… or is it just the critics who think so?

Then, the other day, I ran across a forum entitled something like “Worst/Most Overrated Books.”  I couldn’t help myself – sometimes I do have a morbid streak – and I read through the entries.  I was amazed, because only two of the entries I read described what I would have thought were really “bad” books.  Interestingly enough, both those entries came from librarians.  Almost all the complaints were about books that someone, and sometimes, lots of someones and critics, had suggested were good books, books by people like J.D. Salinger, Ian M. Banks, Orson Scott Card, Stephen R. Donaldson, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Steinbeck, and a number of others. Two entries even mentioned the Bible and Shakespeare as vastly overrated.  Even the very worst works by any of these writers are vastly superior to much of the true garbage being published today… and yet… why do readers pick on what they think of as the weakest work of good writers?  Because those works don’t meet the readers’ expectations?

And how many of those expectations come from the readers’ perceptions of what “reality” is and by how much the writer fails to portray the “reality” the reader wants?

Of course, if that’s so, it does suggest that most “professional” critics either lead pretty dismal lives or have a rather poor opinion of life and the world in general.

2 thoughts on “Fiction”

  1. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Let me add my own personal theory of some of the criticism. It seems to me that one of the things that teenagers seek is shock, and often it lingers in later life. For endless generations, college students direct their protests in directions that their elders find shocking, often precisely because their elders find it shocking (“they did it ’cause we said no”). In teenage conceptions of sex, what is “forbidden” and therefore shocking is more arousing, and that carries on in later life even when it becomes clear that the behavior is not unusual or disturbing to society at all.

    In the case of books, often what originally attracted people to it was partly its shock of novelty, as in Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal that sarcastically proposed to solve the “population problem” in Ireland by eating babies. But the critic looking back is looking from a later generation, and often the novel parts of the fiction have spawned their own imitations or “series”, so that the novelty has become boringly normal and seems hackneyed. Still, just the notion that the fictional work may have been popular somewhere may trigger the critic’s visceral teenage response.

    Imho, this often causes the critic (and readers) to underestimate the writer’s very real strengths in a “mixed” work. I see Stephen Donaldson as a case in point. It is hard to find a more jarring lack of tone when he has one character say of another that he is “fey, anile, and gutless” — thereby combining three words from three eras of the English language with the widest possible difference. And don’t get me started on “Under her shirt, her breasts traced opaque circles of invitation.” On the other hand, he consistently attacks profound ideas, he opens his heart to his characters, and his gifts when he is writing in modern English are often great: I believe that his fictional speech near the end of the Gap series is one of the best that I have ever read, combining meaning, character, style, appropriateness, and tone.

    Frankly, if I had to pick bad writers, the first ones I’d think of are Gary Gygax and John Jakes. Gary’s characters are laughably stereotyped, his English style skills minimally competent, and there is no character movement. However, he does have a gift for fast action and for cliffhangers, which is very serviceable for some readers. John Jakes moved from science fiction into Civil War bodice-busters, but never lost his shallow and unchanging characters, slightly awkward and cursory writing style, and perfunctory “good” and “evil” categories, but he found a niche where his very predictability served the historical romance lover looking for a “good read” — and at that, he was pretty good. The only book I can think of that stands out as pretty bad is Tristram Shandy, the prototype of the shaggy dog story — and once you realize that it is intentionally bad, you begin to admire the writer’s skills at writing really funny prose that always looks like it’s going somewhere and never fails to disappoint.

    Anyway, I just love the idea of critics as overgrown teenagers.

  2. Sam says:

    One quick thought that occurs to me is that believing something to be overrated does not neccessarily mean that you think it’s terrible or even mediocre. You just don’t think it’s as good as everybody else seems to think.

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