Fiction – What’s It All About?

According to A Handbook to Literature [Sixth Edition], fiction is “narrative writing drawn from the imagination rather than from history or fact,” but because of the intrusion of personal events, history, and other factors into such narratives, the Handbook then offers an alternative definition of fiction as “any of the ways in which writing seeks to impose order on the flux of thought or experience.” From my point of view, the first definition is too narrow and the alternative meaningless.

One of the aspects of the Handbook I also found most interesting was that I could discover no definition of “literature.” “Comparative literature,” but not literature. For a textbook/handbook that is all about literature, I found that omission unfathomable. But then, in the academic and critical worlds, what narratives are considered “acceptable fiction” and what are literature are all over the place.

At two universities I was considered qualified to teach writing, and one even found me qualified to teach introductory literature and a science fiction and fantasy fiction course. A third university allowed me to teach an honors seminar on F&SF literature and writing techniques, but wouldn’t let me near “regular” literature. Another writer I know never finished an undergraduate degree, but when that writer, who has published more than twenty genre fiction books [from major publishers] largely in the romance field and won awards, went back to school, the administrators of that university insisted on the writer taking a beginning course on fiction writing.

As that example indicates, there are many universities, colleges, and scholars that contend, if almost covertly, that genre fiction can’t be literature. That’s also why I found the absence of a definition of literature in the Handbook to Literature amusing. When there’s not even a written definition of what’s included, how can you logically exclude anything?

In her 2014 acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters given by the National Book Foundation, Ursula K. LeGuin took dead aim at the fact that the corporate profit motive can be contrary to the art and truth that can lie in fiction and to the freedom necessary to express them. That’s true enough, but what often gets overlooked is that there are two other factors that can also strangle art and truth in fiction. One is sheer popularity. I have absolutely nothing against popularity. Any writer who does is a true hypocrite. But popularity has nothing to do with excellence. There are excellent books that are multi-million copy bestsellers, but damned few. Since most multi-million best-sellers range from almost terrible to fairly good, when publishers concentrate on finding and publishing primarily ginormous multi-million copy best-sellers, fiction and readers both suffer.

One of the character traits I loved about the late David Hartwell, who was my editor for 36 years before his untimely death not quite a year and a half ago, was his ability to make quite a number of good and sometimes excellent books “popular” enough that their authors could continue to be published, rather than merely seeking the best-selling and the popular. David’s editorial and marketing skills, and his mentoring of a huge percentage of editors, contributed markedly to the improvement of “literary” quality in F&SF, while still ensuring a good storyline. In a time when publishing margins are razor-thin, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to David’s legacy in this area.

The other factor that has a tendency to strangle good and great fiction is the proliferation of so-called impartial or judged awards that are essentially “insider” awards, awards given on the basis of criteria judged “great” or “vital” by a small group. No matter what any “expert” declares, there are too many ways in which writers can artistically convey great ideas, images, action, thoughts, and more for those ways to fit inside a fixed mold. Ironically, critics from both Salon and The New York Times have declared that the annual National Book Awards have become awards for insiders. There’s also a set of F&SF awards that is fact similar [and it’s not the Hugo awards, which are a straight fan popularity contest].

So… long live all kinds of fiction, especially all kinds of F&SF, because without all kinds, we won’t have the gems buried among the others.

6 thoughts on “Fiction – What’s It All About?”

  1. Frank says:

    Once upon a time, I was in an small art shop in Naples, Florida. I went there to kill some time while my late Mother and my (then) wife shopped. I was “looking at the paintings” in the shop and saw that a couple was being taken around the shop by what appeared to be an owner or employee of the shop, as their discussion sounded like an “Art Appreciation” class to me, (I stayed out of their way).

    Later they left and the owner (I found out in the ensuing discussion) came over to me and asked if there was anything I needed. I told him that “I was just looking” and that I didn’t know anything about art…I just liked to look at the paintings. He said that was good, and that was the only thing that counted, anyway.

    I don’t know if that is true, but I do think that the (outside/professional) critical review of art, including writing of any type, is greatly over emphasized…as opposed to “what you like to read.” You make the comment that some/most of the very popular best sellers range from fairly good to terrible. I guess you mean by your standards of writing. I am sure your standards are considerably more rigorous than most people, but should that effect mine (or anyone else’s) rating of those books?

    I am a HUGE fan of your books, and I really don’t care if some critic or group of critics decide that your writing is good, fairly good, or terrible. I like it…quite a lot…and will continue to read it because it entertains me an makes me think.

    So…long live all kinds of fiction.

  2. Thomas Woods says:

    I am a huge fan of yours, I am a huge reader of fantasy and science fiction. While I have read a lot of “popular” fantasy, none make me return as much as yours does. My eldest daughter is a huge fan of popular fiction and doesn’t understand why I love your thought provoking style. At the same time she is an extrovert who needs to be popular, while I am an introvert. My other daughter is starting to read your books, and we are very similar in thought and manners. I say keep writing and I will keep reading. I love books that provoke thoughts and emotions over blind profits.

  3. Sam says:

    It’s rare for me to read something that I consider truly badly written. The last book I read that I thought was pretty bad was the omnibus of the Ancient Future Trilogy by Traci Harding.

    I do draw a distinction between what I consider badly written and what I simply don’t like.

    After that though I don’t really have any criteria to define excellence. I either like something or I don’t and I either consider it bad or good in a technical sense. Usually if I consider something bad in a technical sense I won’t like it barring the occasional exception. Perhaps that is simply a matter of it not being bad enough to completely ruin any enjoyment. On the other hand it is quite common for me to read books that are perfectly well-written that I just don’t like.

    I’m reading Peter Hamilton’s Night Without Stars at the moment and for whatever reason I’m enjoying it quite a bit.

    I think the simplest way for me to measure how much I’m enjoying a book is how long it takes me to finish it. The more I’m enjoying a book the less I want to put it down and the more frequently I pick it up. Whereas other books I almost have to force myself to pick up. At the rate I’m going I will have finished Night Without Stars – a 764 page tome – in around a week. Whereas the last book I read – Lois Lane Fallout by Gwenda Bond – took me around 2 and a half weeks to read and was only 300 pages in length with larger print.

  4. John Prigent says:

    My measure of a good book is whether I want to read it again. Nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes I will go back to page 1 and reread immediately – others make me pull out the first of a series and reread the whole set immediately. (You’ll be pleased to hear that many of yours fall into those categories, Lee.) But sometimes I pick up a book, or start reading a story in a magazine, and simply can’t be bothered to finish it because the characters or the plot are so boring – or sometimes so unpleasant.

  5. Tom says:

    If … “No matter what any “expert” declares, there are too many ways in which writers can artistically convey great ideas, images, action, thoughts, and more for those ways to fit inside a fixed mold” then how can one consider any book excellently written or not, as in “There are excellent books that are multi-million copy bestsellers, but damned few.”
    Is “excellence” thus a measure of whether or not the reader understands what is communicated in writing; so then excellence may depend on style and presentation and not content? I am one that does look at ‘content’ especially when I am looking to read something for fun rather than ‘presentation’ when reading to gain knowledge.

    1. There is such a thing as technical excellence in any field, including writing. Excellence is independent of popularity, and as you suggested, there’s not a specific formula for written excellence, but it should include clarity of expression, skillful use of language, ability to convey meaning without intended ambiguity, and in fiction an interesting, well-plotted, well-characterized story that holds the attention of the reader for whom it is intended.

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