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.