The Eternal Controvery of Good and Bad Writing by Paul Saevig

There are almost as many versions of what good fiction is as there are writers – not to mention readers, teachers, professors, lecturers, editors, publishers, reviewers and agents. Yet each one has valid points. Let’s consider them and see if they all connect to one idea.

We all know popular fiction, which people in a bad mood call pulp fiction. This is fiction for popular consumption, and in theory, universal consumption by all those who can read. The most popular of the practitioners of popular fiction are John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and the others who sell millions of copies of their novels. True, they are classified in subcategories, which we’ll discuss below.

The distinguishing characteristic of popular fiction is its single level of significance. That is, it’s a story and usually nothing more than a story. It does not usually have multiple levels of themes, symbolism, allegory, social commentary, deep character development, subtlety of plot, or moral or philosophical significance. A literary novel must achieve a high level of perceived truth and beauty.

Some readers, though, may attribute these multiple layers to a popular novel and so do some of the authors themselves. For example, Dean Koontz often discusses the themes of his many novels, and implies their delivery of deep human truth.

In a sense, every statement or writing has a theme. When you say hello to a colleague or friend or even a stranger, your greeting has a theme of greeting, friendliness, acceptance, irony, sarcasm, love of humanity, erotic love, or whatever the case may be. So it is with urban graffiti, for example, with themes usually of youthful defiance, anger, frustration, types of humor, or violent or sexual messages. Greeting cards have themes, and so do television scripts or commercials for hamburger chains or insurance companies or cosmetics.

In the context of fiction, however, “theme” usually refers to a meaning beyond the literal and superficial, and is sometimes called “the message”. Popular fiction does not often have this kind of meaning, such as condemnation of hypocrisy in The Catcher in the Rye, an indictment of bigotry in *, or the significance of a quest in Moby Dick or the Odyssey. Novelist and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett once spoke about “smuggling a message into” a novel or movie, so sometimes a theme can be present.

In literary fiction, however, theme is surely present and usually of great importance, even though it may range from obvious to subtle to chimerical. No one fails to see that War and Peace is about war, peace, and human nature in an exceptionally broad scope of uncommon texture and depth. The same can be said of Barbara Kingsolver, Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, or Jane Smiley, among active writers, or Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, and others who have died in recent times. Some of these literary writers may enjoy the popularity of so-called popular writers, and now we begin to feel the confusion in labeling novels.

Literary and popular are good concepts to describe all novels, with subcategories. Historically, the majority of novels fall into the popular camp, and also most science fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, Gothic, Western, mystery, detective, thriller, and all the others. Few novels are literary, and understandably, most non-literary authors resent literary novels being called the best writing of all.

That’s the rub. Almost all the novelists we consider great are literary novelists, from Richardson to Sterne to Defoe to Dickens to Trollope to Austen to Hawthorne to Melville to Twain to Lawrence to Joyce to Woolf to Forster to Ford to Fitzgerald to Dreiser to Jessamyn West to Miller to Faulkner to O’Connor to today. Their work is distinguished by a high level of virtuosity, fineness of characterization, compelling drama, depth of feeling, scope, power of meaning, effectiveness of dialogue, freshness of ideas or treatment of eternal ideas, and indeed, a sense of timelessness. The novels of Dickens are alive to us today. The same cannot be said, for example, about Cakes and Ale, Liza of Lambeth, or even The Moon and Sixpence by Maugham, although Of Human Bondage does rise to greatness.

Most popular novelists fade from public memory or are forgotten by the end of their own generation. Generally, only literary novels remain in memory beyond that, with notable exceptions such as Gone With The Wind or *.

A middle area exists of writers such as W. Somerset Maugham, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John Marquand, John O’Hara, Norman Mailer, Dorothy Sayers, Mary McCarthy, J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Kingsley Amis, for example. Their work includes some first class stories, wrought with excellence which is not consistent from novel to novel.

We also recognize specialists who are great writers for a particular reason, such as Zora Neal Huston, Aldous Huxley, James Jones, or Paul Theroux. Huxley, for example, was not a great novelist, but he captured a time in history and also wrote as a prophet. James Jones mastered a segment of American military life, rendering it virtually universal. With compelling beauty and grace, Huston described the lives and stories of a specific people in time. Theroux is good at setting and the exotic or unusual. Yet whether these writers were great or first rank is dubious.

The idea of “readability” has been understood everywhere since the 1920s, at least, and is defined as the human appeal of a novel. Some call it the page-turning power of a novel, meaning how much a reader is moved to keep on reading, beyond bedtime, for example. Readability cannot be but a general, popular idea, though. If Coca Cola or Playboy magazine or MacDonald cheeseburgers or the London tabloids or Italian pizza were novels, they would have immensely more readability than the finest wines, periodicals, haute cuisine, journalism, or Northern Italian cooking. Virtually any popular TV show is more “readable” or appealing to most people than Chaucer, Dante, or maybe even Shakespeare.

This idea of readability is mistaken for merit in writing and grafted onto the most popular of popular books, with resulting claims that Stephen King or John Ludlum or James Michener or Danielle Steele is the greatest of writers, the best. This mistake would be comparable to arguing that because Herman and His Hermits or Michael Bolton or Rod Stewart is enormously appealing (that is, readable), they are therefore better or at the least comparable to Beethoven, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Aretha Franklin, or Maria Callas. And they are not.

A link exists between how much we enjoy books and what value they have for us, but these propositions are not identical. Some of the most enjoyable novels – again, to most people – have merely throwaway value. That’s one extreme, and the other is that some great literary novels, such as Bleak House, are not much fun for many people. Greatness, though, is demonstrable and verifiable, and not a Platonic ideal or a vague concept floating in space. Most of us have an intuitive appreciation for value in writing, especially if we’ve ever studied it or tried it.

Therefore, is Tolstoy better than John Grisham? Is Martin Amis better than Charles Dickens? How do David Lodge, Mark Twain, and Larry McMurtry compare in value? These are pointed questions in the context of taste, and can never be definitively answered except by an individual.

It is possible, and even easy, though, to demonstrate that Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and the River) is a literary author whose work embodies the virtues such as high level of virtuosity and fineness of characterization much more strongly than popular novelist Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities). Tom Wolfe is infinitely more popular now, and known to millions more people than Thomas Wolfe, whose great novels are generally remembered by the World War II generation and scholars most.

In regard to taste, then, Tom Wolfe’s novels are much more palatable to a contemporary popular reader, but that tastiness does not indicate quality of writing. Thomas Wolfe’s novels will endure, and Tom Wolfe’s probably will not. Thomas Wolfe’s novels have the potential to deliver a much fuller, more compelling experience of truth and beauty than Tom Wolfe’s, also.

Marginal factors enter our discussion, too. How much a novel is advertised and promoted influences opinions about, too, now more than ever before in publishing history. Novels cobbled together from the scripts of popular movies often became best-sellers and adored by vast millions. As we’ve shown, though, these ersatz novels have no claim to quality.

Nevertheless, most readers I’ve talked to find the very term “literary fiction” offensive and snobbish. These same people find the enjoyment of opera or fine wine snobbish, or even love for the Kinks or Laurel and Hardy. They interpret praise of these previous works of art and artists as a putdown of the current things they enjoy. Never tell a U2 fan that The Beatles or The Beach Boys were a better band. Never argue with an Elmore Leonard fan that Edgar Alan Poe was the superior writer.

Art, quality of art, popularity, and taste all have their own standards. The first two sets of standards tend to be stable and permanent, with cyclic variation. The latter two tend to be temporal if not seasonal.

All sincere attempts to write well, and their products, are honorable and admirable. This fact holds true for the greatest genius as well as the most lamentable hack.

Read and enjoy what you want. Recognize or reject these traditional ideas as you choose. Please, though, do not feel personally aggrieved if you hear someone say that Virginia Woolf was a far, far better writer than Toni Morrison. She simply was.

If this piece strikes you as snobbish, elitist, or arbitrary, I’ve heard these accusations before. How then do you see it?

Copyright Paul Saevig 2002

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