Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Study in Literary Fiction

I picked up a book two days ago off the library book shelf because the title sounded familiar. When I brought it home, I realized that I had stumbled across its recommendation a while back and had labeled it "want to read" in my Goodreads account. I read it. Was it a good read? It's difficult to say.

And that's because I found myself mired in the depths of literary fiction. And if you've kept up with me, at all, you know I have trouble with many of the books labeled as literary. Why? I'll tell you, again. It's because NOTHING HAPPENS.

So last night, I found my way 3/4 of the way through the novel, and realized that the only plot points were this: teenage child is sent a raunchy video by someone at school; he forwards it to someone, which causes a cascade of forwards; he's suspended at school and his family hires a lawyer; the entire debacle affects his family.

Well there you go. You have the book in a nutshell. (I think if I wrote literary works of art, I would have a much easier time writing query letters, since I wouldn't get stuck in determining the essential plot points. Of course, I would have trouble holding up a monologue for the entire book, so I guess we're back at me writing books that aren't considered literary.)

But really, this book wasn't that simple, nor was it that bad. I enjoyed rereading sections and looking at how the author created phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. As with most literary fiction, this author certainly did give us a true study of her characters. By that same point in the book (where nothing had happened), I understood pretty well who her characters were and what they might do in certain situations. This was, to be completely honest, a character-driven piece.

Who were these characters? I'll show you. And just to have some fun, I'll also show you what the character might look like if he or she had been written for a piece considered genre fiction. (And I'm being generous here, with the genre fiction parts. Some genre fiction is so devoid of description, it's difficult to take in.)
Genre fiction: Jake was Liz's oldest; he had long brown hair that brushed his collarbones and deep brown eyes.

Literary fiction: Jake, the eldest--his longish brown hair suddenly grazing his collarbones, his eyes the color of muddled mint--was on his own that night, of course.
Simple example, I know, but I think even with that description of Jake, you can see the difference.
Genre fiction: Audrey was in the same grade as Jake, and she had short, dark hair, cut so that it hung straight and sleek, until it curled under her earlobes.

Literary fiction: Audrey was in his grade, but as with almost everyone else at school, she was older. She had short, sleek, dark hair, thick and lustrous, black as an oil slick. It dripped perfectly down around her perfect head,like a shiny onyx glob. Audrey's hair was cut so that it hung straight and glossy and curled under just at the tips of her earlobes, like two commas, strangely sexual, tiny clefts; it was that little swing that made it girl's hair, not boy's hair, and it was the swing--more of a sway, really, and undulation, a quaver--that drove Jake crazy. 
Let me interject that I'm dumbfounded and awed at the same time, with the above description because an entire paragraph passes and I was still reading about Audrey's hair. But commas! Commas! That's genius!
Genre fiction: Juliana was a sweet kid.

Literary fiction: Juliana was a sweet kid, all button nose and sass and a sprinkling of cinnamon-colored freckles.
I really liked the above description. Something similar would fit well into my fairy tale.
Genre fiction: Henry thought for a moment, his eyebrows furrowed.

Literary fiction: Henry thought for a moment. His eyebrows were like twin caterpillars crawling across his forehead. They met in the middle and rubbed noses.
Ditto what I said just prior to this example.
Genre fiction: Kevin was a mountain of a man.

Literary fiction: The man was a mountain. He reminded Liz of one of those mozzarella pigs she'd seen hanging in the shops in Rome, his skin a little yellow and oily like a giant smoked cheese. On Halloween, he'd good naturedly don an XXX-large version of the Lower School girls' pleated gray skirts; it was the size of a beach umbrella, his mammoth naked calves goose-bumped and hammy in the breeze. 
What an image, don't you think? Can't you just see this Kevin fellow?
Genre fiction: He noticed that her eyes were blue, like the sky on a summer day.

Literary fiction: He noticed that her eyes were very, very blue. Almost as if these were holes in her head and he was seeing the sky behind her. Or mirrors, mirrors at two intersecting forty-five-degree angles reflecting the blue above. Like her eyes were a light box.
As much as I'd like this description, you can tell that a teenage boy thought it. Because which girl, of any age, would want to know that her eyes are like holes in her head?

Anyway, I've gone on long enough. The book is This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman (and all of the above literary descriptions were written by her). I wouldn't call it a must-read, but it was an okay read. I don't feel as though I wasted my time with it, although I am horribly disappointed by the ending. Or lack thereof. (That non-ending is another trend I see with many literary books. The author gets to the end, and because nothing happened and their characters will continue to live on, he or she doesn't know how to end the story. Or, a deadline looms and the agent asked for the book. Either way, the endings, unlike the character descriptions, are thoughtless and not well-planned.)

Enjoy it, if you will, or then again, don't.

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