The Value of the Unexpected

I have decided I want to purchase a copy of A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose by B. R. Myers (0971865906).

A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose

I am not a “literary” reader, at least not of those vapid works prized by the literati and the supercilious MFA-laden aspiring scribblers seeking the approval of mundane critics. I can think of few tortures superior to literary novels, though listening to a parade of preeminent poets read their works in public might approach my tolerance for pain and agony.

What I dislike about literary works is that they tend to lack the one quality genre fiction embraces: the unexpected. This is not to claim that all literary fiction is predictable and dull, but the focus on style and language often comes at the expense of storytelling.

Yes, genre fiction is formulaic. The first suspects are usually innocent in the procedural. True love does not come easily in the romance. The Western hero will have to make a costly sacrifice in the name of honor. Technology often turns nightmarish in science fiction. But, these roadmaps for writers leave plenty of choices. Just as it is statistically possible to plot millions of routes across the United States, the number of stories that work within a structure defy calculation.

A good mystery is not predictable. We know there will be a solution, but there will be twists and turns along the way. What makes horror interesting is the sense that the unknown will happen. A political thriller will include the “man of the people” who is a power-hungry tyrant in waiting. Yet, we take the trip because we don’t know every road.

When an MFA professor told a class that structures destroy creativity, I asked her about Shakespeare. Didn’t William follow the rules of rhyming poetry? Didn’t his plays follow the standard structures of his time? He borrowed plots from existing plays and popular legends. The professor responded that it was different for Shakespeare; the Globe Theatre was not a multiplex with 24 screens.

This does not answer the primary question. Didn’t Shakespeare cater to audience expectations? And his audience was the commoner. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to impress the audience with his greatness. Bill wanted to sell tickets! He’d be competing against Cameron and Bruckheimer for opening day records. As Lucas and Spielberg were inspired by past filmmakers, Shakespeare found inspiration in popular plays.

I would compare the Globe to a multiplex. It was the affordable, popular entertainment of the time. Maybe that’s not a good comparison. Susan and I don’t go to movies because they are so expensive, now.

Avoiding traditional structures and audience expectations ironically becomes its own form of orthodoxy. The result is literary works that resemble each other, written by MFA graduates for MFA graduates. Impenetrable works are celebrated, even though only a handful of people finish the books. The insulated community wonders why people don’t appreciate them, while they snicker at the insults to suburbia and middle-class normalcy within literary fiction.

I want a story. I want to read books that are difficult to set aside at the end of each chapter. I want the writer to tease me with “what ifs” and “why nots” along the way. If I’m not trying to anticipate and solve puzzles, I don’t want to keep reading. I get bored if I don’t believe the story is in some way interactive.

For some, literary fiction is a celebration of form and style. The idea is to admire the technique more than the subject, as one might look at a still life painting. I’m simply not an aesthete.

Drag me into your story. Make me care what happens to the characters. I don’t want to sit with a dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia on hand to appreciate a work. Yes, I love language. I like a beautiful paragraph as much as the next reader. But I want more from a book than a self-congratulatory homage to university educations.

This explains why I like genre fiction. A mediocre work of “chick lit” beats most “magical realism” or “surrealist fiction.” I’d rather read most young adult series books than endure Auster, Barth, Proulx, or Weinzweig. The incestuous literary establishment honors authors few people actually read. Why don’t we read these “great” authors? Because they don’t write great stories.

Give readers the unexpected and they will buy your books. Give them condescending, pretentious texts and you will only sell books to other snobs.

Blog Launched

They say the best way to learn about writing is to read. Thankfully, we read a lot.

Apparently, book publishing is still a $24 billion a year industry. We do our small part to help the industry. (see

According to an article in The New Yorker magazine, one out of ten adults shopped at a used bookstore in the last year. We’re part of that ten percent, too.

Books on CD

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before, but instead of wasting the daily commute time on radio stations, I finally got a library card and began checking books on CD out of the local library. So far I’ve checked out non-fiction books that I own, but have not yet managed to read in my spare time, and I have to admit, this is the best use of that otherwise wasted time spent in traffic.

Though I’ve only listened to about six or seven audio books so far, I’ve noticed a few things.

First, books read by the authors are much easier to understand and more pleasant to listen to. Maybe it is a coincidence and the authors I’ve listened to just happen to be better at reading out loud, but is likely their greater familiarity with and interest in the subject makes for a smoother delivery.

When the authors read their own work, there were fewer changes in tone, pitch, and tempo of reading, and it was more difficult to detect where the different recording sessions were spliced. This smoothness of delivery was most obvious when listening to Malcolm Gladwell reading Blink, and Stephen J. Dubner reading Freakonomics. Both authors were pleasant to listen to and their delivery made it easy to follow the book. I look forward to listening to SuperFreakonomics (Dubner) and Outliers and The Tipping Point (Gladwell).

In contrast, listening to Johnny Heller reading Liberal Fascism was painful. Although the topic was interesting (and scary), the delivery was mediocre or worse. The tone of the narrator changed so often it was difficult to tell when he was reading text from the book or reading a quote from the book. I was constantly changing the volume on my car radio to accommodate the changes in the narrator’s volume. One of the more grating habits was when Johnny Heller imitated a Boston accent when reading a quote from John F. Kennedy, and mimicked the distinct upper class accent of Franklin D. Roosevelt when reading his quotes. Liberal Fascism was difficult to complete, partly because of the narrator chosen.

I loved listening to Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs, and Steel, because I am interested in history and, though I own this book in print, will probably listen to the audio book again someday. This was the first audio book I listened to, which may be why I do not recall noticing any problems with either the writing or the delivery.

While listening to a second book by Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I’m noticing too many style issues that the editor in me just itches to correct.

The use of “in order to” on almost every page is driving me crazy, as is the frequent incorrect use of “due to,” at least one instance of “situated on,” some which/that misuse (at least in America), and a few other wordy, unnecessary phrases.

Another pertinent observation is the use of foreign words. When reading the book, it is easy for a reader to flip back and forth between the pages using unfamiliar foreign words and the pages containing the definition. This is not possible in an audio book. In the chapter about Easter Island and its basalt statues, I was confusing the many Polynesian terms Diamond used, especially when several of the words were used in the same sentence. It would have been easier to follow if he’d used “statue” and “platform” to describe the statue and the platform on which it rested instead of using the native terms.

I enjoy reading or listening to books that combine history, archaeology, and science, but some of these authors with something interesting to say need to work with good editors to improve their writing.

Oct 2009