“ A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are”
For most beginning fiction writers, the phrase Write What You Know sounds like advice to produce thinly veiled autobiography. That’s what I heard in those four words, and judging from what many of my MFA classmates churned out back in the day, it’s what they heard, too.
It makes perfect sense; what subject could you know better than yourself? The bitter realization that comes later—if you’re lucky—is that just because something happened in real life does not necessarily mean it will work in a story.
Let me repeat that. Something that happened in real life will not necessarily work in a story.
Kate Southwood, “Write What You Know Is Not Good Advice”
Genre stories are made to showcase the genre. They generally feature static characters, whose purpose is to serve the story’s plot. There is little to no character development and they tend to be fast paced and “action-based” (not necessarily intense, fighting action; could be dramatic action like in romance/erotic novels).
Literary stories are made to showcase the theme. These stories generally feature dynamic characters; and in these stories, the plot serves to develop these characters, in turn, expounding on the story’s theme. Like many classic novels, these stories are often much more slowly paced, with a focus on introspection and social commentary (those boring stories we had to read in our English classes).
Every so often I have this conversation at a school visit.
THE CAST: STUDENT ENGLISH TEACHER ME THE SCENE: After my presentation, a student drags a beleaguered English teacher to my side.
THE CONVERSATION: STUDENT (always with a rather mocking tone): So, Maggie, when you put red curtains in a scene, does that mean that the characters are angry and stuff? ENGLISH TEACHER: That’s not quite— STUDENT: —Because we are supposed to analyze all of these books and I don’t think any of the writers actually put in an ocean in the scene just so that two hundred years later we could read it and think the ocean stands for longing. ENGLISH TEACHER: Sometimes a literary device— STUDENT: I think we’re just looking for stuff that isn’t there. The writer just put in an ocean because the book TAKES PLACE BY THE BEACH. And the rest was invented by evil English teachers. ENGLISH TEACHER: If I were evil, I'd— STUDENT: —So, you’re the writer: do red curtains mean anger? ME: Curtains do make me angry.
And then I was at LeakyCon, sitting in on a panel called “Is YA Literature?” to find out if I was writing literature, and this (summarized) conversation happened: THE CAST: A SMART YA WRITER A SMART ADULT WRITER ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER
THE SCENE: The panelists have just been asked to define what is meant by literary fiction.
THE CONVERSATION: SMART ADULT WRITER: All I know is, I know literary fiction when I see it. SMART YA WRITER: I got a look at the guidelines for assigned school reading and they suggested it be a book with enough content to be analyzed. Enough depth to support multiple interpretations. ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER: I think literary is a ridiculous term and value is assigned by our readers, right here, right now: do they like it or not? There’s no such thing as a good book or a bad book. There’s a book that matters to a reader.
I think you can talk in endless circles about what constitutes “literary” fiction and whether it’s good or bad or has no value or can be traded for a gallon of milk. And I also think you can talk in endless circles about whether or not there are “good” books and “bad” books and who gets to decide which is which. And if you do ever find an end to these circles, you can finish up with a indefatigable dessert course of the literary writing versus commercial writing debate.
So I’m instead going to talk about the one thing that interests me about fiction: getting into your head and moving stuff around. I am in the business of changing people’s moods and making them see scenes the way that I see them and feel things the way I want them to be felt. You may consider me Very Interested in learning everything I can about doing all that more effectively.
Sometimes, dear reader, this is going to mean making the curtains red.
Please know that I’m not much for literary writing for the sake of literary writing. I enjoy a nice turn of the phrase, sure. I do enjoy picking apart novels to see what makes them tick. But my academic pleasure runs out very quickly (now there is the least sexy sentence I’ve ever written). As a writer, I am delighted to be given literary prizes, but they aren’t on my list of goals. I’m chiefly interested literary devices insofar as they allow me to more effectively get inside your head and move around the furniture.
And they do. Allow me to demonstrate.
Here are two paragraphs from one of my favorite sequences from The Dream Thieves*:
*these are not spoilery, although they are from the middle of the book, so if you want to be totally uninformed on the action of Book 2, I suggest you wander to another corner of the Internet.
Oh, I had such
for this party scene. I wanted the reader to see it just like I did. The all-encompassing luxury, warm and old and unquestioned. The complexity of the political world, the beauty of wealth, and the stagnation and corruption of old, unchallenged value systems. Adam, as my point-of-view character, is feeling and thinking about all of these things, and I wanted the reader to experience it with him.
I could have told the reader all of those things. Point blank. I could have gone with a barebones description of the driveway:
The circular driveway was packed with so many elegant vehicles that the valets had to turn cars away.
And then just had Adam muse in italics about his feelings on being there. But then you would only
it. You wouldn’t have
it. I wouldn’t really be getting into your head and moving things around unannounced. I’d be walking in, hanging up a mirror, then pointing and saying “there’s a mirror. It’s yours now.”
Here’s another snippet from later:
Okay, the curtains aren’t red. But the runner is purple. How noble!
Man, I was working hard in this little section. In reality, the hallway of the house is lush and content and established. But inside our two protagonists, trouble brews — you can see it in the mirror. The side table, on the outside of the glass, is
But the mirror-image of the tidy hallway is
. Again, I could’ve just told you: on the outside, the boys look foxy and orderly in suits, but on the inside, they are hot messes. But I don’t want you to know. I want you to feel. And our old friends, those countless literary devices of simile, metaphor, allusion, figurative language … that’s the way in. It’s not about fancy literary prizes. It’s not about seeming impenetrable or smart or high fallutin. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am trying to make you feel a story, that’s all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe in the literary/ commercial divide. And I don’t believe that literary is good or bad. I believe that good novel makes readers feel, and the more readers I can make feel, the more successful I will consider that book. I also believe that sometimes that means making the curtains red.
My Rating: 5/5 (10/10, Can’t rate it high enough on any scale really)
Describing it in one sentence: Historical Fiction + elements of Urban Fantasy = a heartbreaking and beautiful story abut Jewish and Syrian immigrants, and magical creatures trying to adapt to life in turn-of-the-century NYC.
Who I would recommend this book to: Probably anyone who speaks to me. Like, instead of saying “Hello” I would probably begin a conversation with “Have you read this amazing book called The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker?No? Go Read It.”
JK. In all seriousness, probably fans of historical fiction, fantasy, and books that are more “character-based” “and prose-based” than “plot-based”.
“I don’t deserve you,” he used to say, before they were married. “Your goodness, your stability, how calm you always are - the way you just get on with things, and make it look so easy…”
Respect - that was what she’d taken his words to connote, but might they not in fact have been intended as a confession, that whatever it was he felt for her, it was nothing even remotely resembling love?
What drew me to it: Pretty cover? I was wandering my local bookstore and it was one of the staff picks. I gave the cover a quick read and it looked interesting.
Rating: 5 stars
History of Wolves follows young teenager Linda as her life is shaken by a variety of events, which unravel slowly and mysteriously. One of her teachers is arrested for possession of child pornography, and there are allegations he kissed one of his students, a girl with whom Linda is obsessed with. These allegations later grow in magnitude. Linda becomes a babysitter for a young mother who has recently moved into a cabin near where she lives in a nearly dissolved hippie commune. She connects with her and her young son, Paul, more than she has with anyone else in her life. The story is told retrospectively in first person, and although the majority of the story is spent over that summer, we do get glimpses into Linda’s adult life and how the events of her teenagehood have unfolded. That description doesn’t do it justice because what makes it brilliant is the writing and how the story is unraveled.
But yeah, it has nothing to do with actual wolves.
I’m shocked by this one. This was fantastic. From page one I was captivated by a smooth yet gorgeous writing style. The story is simultaneously simple and complex. Simple events in a complicated way, with complicated undertones. The plot is a bit messy–this is heavily character driven–but Linda’s life is a messy thing. There are a lot of layers, and it’s not always clear how they are connected. There are frequent time jumps and skips between different facets of Linda’s life. I didn’t find it hard to follow at all, but it’s definitely not a clean linear narrative.
What I admire most about this story was the way Emily Fridlund managed to maintain an undercurrent of eerie discomfort throughout. Even when nothing was overtly wrong, everything felt off. This is a story that might seem simple on the surface, but is layered and layered. It’s haunting. Linda is a very, very unreliable narrator and seeing the world through her eyes will make you uncomfortable at some times, especially as we get deeper and deeper into the story. The setting is remote and removed, and the people are all a bit ‘weirdened’ you could say, by this detachment.
On goodreads this book is shelved as YA and let me say right here: It. Is. Not. YA. It’s really not. It has a teenage protagonist, but it’s not young adult. That said, if you usually read YA but want to give adult LitFic a try, I think this is the perfect place to start. It’s a very easy read, so smooth because of the polished writing, and is a short, quick read. Although I will say, if you’re young and are used to reading young adult, this is an adult book and will likely make you uncomfortable if not heartbroken at times. The story is disturbing. That’s what I loved about it. It wasn’t drastically gory or graphic like other books meant to disturb. It was subtly disturbing. It’s nuanced, haunting, and delicately written.
Personally, I think this book might be a new favourite of mine. I couldn’t put it down because I was so drawn into the world and its eeriness. Its one of those books that sneaks into your bones while you’re reading. The subtext is done expertly, holding onto that precarious balance where it bubbled under the surface.
The one thing I would have liked would be a bit more information about Linda’s home life. She lives in a dissolved hippie commune, but this isn’t even touched on until late in the book. I see that the writer was being very deft in terms of information reveal, which I appreciate, but I had so many questions about her home life and I feel like it could have been explored a little more. A tiny complaint overshadowed by the absolute beauty that was this story!
You might enjoy this book if you like: unreliable narrators, complex relationships, eerie atmosphere, stories that make you feel uncomfortable, very character driven stories
You might not enjoy this book if you don’t like: books with slow information reveal, books where a lot of information is left unsaid, books that showcase unhealthy relationships, frequent time jumps, stories weighed much more on character than plot
Coming in November:
“Beulah Land” by Nancy Stewart
Nobody’s going to stop me from saving my family—and myself.
Coming in November, literary fiction for Young Adult readers: Nancy’s Stewart’s Beulah Land, a dark, evocative, and ultimately triumphant story of a girl surviving the deep-rooted clan culture of Ozark Mountain life.
Seventeen-year-old Vi Sinclair’s roots run deep in the Missouri Ozarks, where, in some areas, it can still be plenty dangerous to be a girl who likes girls. Her greatest wish is to become a veterinarian like her boss, Claire Campbell. Fitting in at school wouldn’t be so bad, either. Only one obstacle stands in the way: She may not live long enough to see her wishes fulfilled.
With help from her only friend, Junior, Vi unravels a mystery that puts her in conflict with a vicious tormentor, a dog fight syndicate, and her own mother. Vi’s experience galvanizes her strength and veracity as she overcomes the paradox of mountain life, in which, even today, customs and mores seem timeless, and where a person can wake up dead simply because of being who she is.
About the Author
As a professor of education specializing in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Nancy Stewart’s love of words and stories aligned with valuable life experiences and drew her to write her first book. She is the author of the Bella and Britt series and Katrina and Winter: Partners in Courage, the authorized biography of Katrina Simpkins, a special needs girl who found herself through Winter, the dolphin (Guardian Angel Publishing).
The original manuscript for Beulah Land received the 2015 State of Florida Rising Kite Award (first place) from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
A frequent speaker and presenter at writing conferences throughout the United States, she conducts workshops and seminars for school children on helping save their planet. She lives with her husband and an adopted Bichon/Shih Tzu pup, Louie, in Tampa, Florida.
Jude shrugged, and Willem noticed for the first time that his lips had gone a strange color, a not-color, although maybe that was the streetlights, which slapped and slid across his face, bruising it yellow and ocher and a sickly larval white as the cab pushed north. Jude leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes, and it was then that Willem felt the beginnings of nausea, of fear, although he was unable to articulate why, only that he was in a cab heading uptown and something had happened, and he didn’t know what but that it was something bad, that he wasn’t comprehending something important and vital, and that the damp warmth of a few hours ago had vanished and the world had reverted to its icy harshness, its raw end-of-year cruelty.
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
This book’s out in March, and it is so, so good but so, so difficult to read. I keep thinking the word harrowing, how before harrow had a figurative meaning it was a spiked agricultural implement, dragged over the earth to tear it up. Both because that’s what it’s about–about being broken past the point of endurance, about the inadequacy of love in the face of trauma–and because that’s what it’s doing to me.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues (The Supremes #2)
Edward Kelsey Moore
A novel of friendship, family and forgiveness, from the author of the bestselling The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, perfect for fans of The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul.
When a late life love affair blooms between Mr. Forrest Payne, the owner of the Pink Slipper Gentleman’s Club, and Miss Beatrice Jordan, famous for yelling warnings of eternal damnation at the Club’s departing patrons, their wedding summons a legend to town. Mr El Walker, the great guitar bluesman, comes home to give a command performance in Plainview, Indiana, a place he’d sworn never to set foot in again.
Among those in this tightly knit community who show up every Sunday after church for lunch at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat are the lifelong friends known locally as The Supremes: Clarice, facing down her chance at and fear of a great career; Barbara Jean, grappling with the loss of a mother whose life humiliated both of them, and Odette, reaching toward her husband through an anger of his that she does not understand.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues brings together a lively cast of characters in a heartwarming, life-affirming tale of small-town community and female friendship.
‘A joy to read! Besides being laugh out loud hilarious, Edward Kelsey Moore has a profound understanding of human nature’ Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
Out this week from Ballantine Books, author and Seattle-native Jamie Ford’s new novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes—a wonderful, heartfelt piece of historical fiction set during our beloved city’s 1909 World’s Fair.
Today the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced and I could do this whole thing where I talk about the merits of the ones I have read from the longlist and all this fancy literary stuff, or I could just blab about it. So imma do the second.
This is generally considered a literary prize, although they claim to pick “accessible” works. And look, I get it, but five pages into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (by Arundhati Roy, was on the longlist but didn’t make the shortlist), and I was just like… nah. Not right now. I can’t pay attention to this, it’s Work.
Another one I’m glad didn’t make the shortlist was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Now I think my problem with this book was just that I tend to not get along with this author. We don’t vibe. I know tons of people like this book and it has won other prizes, but put this down as over-hyped, imho.
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time also got cut from the list, and while I really enjoyed her writing and liked 90% of the book, there was a plot twist involving a sex doll that really had me side-eyeing the whole thing.
Another one that was cut that I read was Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. I’m sad that this one was cut because I loved the narrator’s voice, it was completely unflinching and unapologetic about its subject material, and also had a queer main character and I was really emotionally invested in the characters. :(
So on to the ones that were included - Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West made the shortlist, and I’m glad it did. This is a perfect example of a literary book that is actually accessible, tackled current issues, had good rep (POC and queer characters), and also had a bit of magical realism. This one might be my fave so far.
I’m currently about halfway through History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, and this might also be a contender for my favorite. Hopefully it doesn’t have any weird ass unnecessary plot twists, although there have been vague references to a trial and something bad happening, so we’ll see. (Also take the jacket off this bitch, it sure is pretty underneath, if you have the hardcover!)
Of the other four books on the shortlist, I own two - Autumn by Ali Smith and Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders, so I’ll get to them soon-ish. The other two aren’t even available yet in the U.S. so whomp whomp. But I’ll get my hands on them asap, probably from Book Depository.
Ok so there is my assessment of the Man Booker Prize shortlist, maybe you got some book recs out of it, I dunno, I just wanted to throw in my two cents.
From an evolutionary point of view, most emotions — fear, desire, anger — serve some practical purpose, but nostalgia is a useless, futile thing because it is a longing for something that is permanently lost…
It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.