Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gourmet Gummies

Yesterday we had an agent visit this blog. She left an excellent comment concerning the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Thank you, Eva! Her explanation of literary fiction blew me away because it is, perhaps, the first time someone has explained literary fiction in terms that make complete sense to me.
Literary fiction . . . happens between the lines. The plotting may be as tricky as any thriller novel and the pace may be fast or slow, but what distinguishes literary fiction is what is left unsaid. Narrators may be self-absorbed or unreliable, things are pointed to without being explained. These are the novels that make you re-read every third paragraph because of they way it makes you think -- then you re-read the entire book and discover new things therein.
It seems like literary should be easier to write, huh? Just leave a lot of stuff unsaid! Not so. What is left unsaid is obviously the key. The gourmet gummies, I like to say.

I was riding in the car with my dad one morning. He had a package of gummy candy between our seats. On the back it said something along the lines of: "Gourmet Gummies! We choose the finest ingredients and craft our candy for the ultimate gummy experience." Sounds great! And they were good. Really good. Like discovering a treasure.

The ironic thing about this ride with my dad was that we talked about literature that day. My dad made it absolutely clear that he'd rather not read something if he feels like he has to go back and reread things, or even worse, read the book again just to understand everything about it! I made it absolutely clear that I thought a good literary piece of fiction could entertain and offer more to chew on in a second read.

I used to think the gourmet gummies I loved in literary fiction were: symbols, deep and meaningful subjects/characters, and layers of meaning. These are parts of literary fiction - and any fiction - that get me excited. But what it seems I really love is what is not there. The interpretive part of the genre. What is not spelled out. What is built into the story without being built into the story. Tricky. Tasty. Like fine ingredients crafted for the ultimate reading experience.

Questions For The Day: Do you try and craft gourmet gummies into your fiction, or do you avoid the whole "literary" aspect of writing? Do you feel like this "going unsaid" theory needs to be done consciously in literary fiction, or do you think I'm high on sugar?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. I think it's funny you're using gourmet gummies to discuss literary fiction because, though they may be gourmet, they're still just candy! Although, I do love gummy candy. Anyone try the Gummy Tummies penguins at Trader Joe's?

    The thing I love about literary fiction is as I'm reading it makes me think about all these things about my life or life in general, and I stop reading and stare off into space and start thinking or having realizations that I wouldn't if the author hadn't written what was on the page. I imagine that's hard to do, as a writer, to get the reader off the page and thinking, yet keeping the reader interested and coming back for more.

    When I read The Fountainhead it took me forever (yes, it's long, too) because I had to keep stopping to think.

    The lit agent's comment is great. I will keep it prominently in mind.

  2. How true! I don't remember who said it, but one of the speakers at the James River Writers Conference last fall said that in dialog, what isn't said is often as important or more important than what is said. A reader gleans a lot of information from subtext. So by this definition of literary fiction, the whole book has to contain subtext. Writing it well is the ultimate "show, don't tell."

  3. I think the real challenge is to make the first read complete, but still leave gems to be mined in subsequent readings or discussions (personally, I rarely re-read a book).

    I think many people shy away from "literary" because they are afraid that two or more readings will be required.

    It should not be that way. The second-time reader should find new things that they did not see because the primary story was so engrossing on the initial read, not because they struggled to understand it.

    It's like a really funny movie you watch again and catch all the jokes you missed the first time because you were laughing so hard.

  4. It's funny, I've intrinsically understood what literary fiction is, but would have had a difficult time nailing down the exact definition like that. What Eva said makes perfect sense and sums up my own interpretation.

    Awesome posts everyone!

  5. Great post! And I write straight-up genre fiction, so I don't consciously think about putting literary gummies in my work (yum). But I think it slips into everyone's work without them realizing it.

  6. How cool that an agent trolled this blog. No surprise, you guys do good stuff here.

    I don't try or not try to write literary. Some people have said my writing has a more literary feel, but it's not by any design of mine. Maybe I should pay more attention and it would improve my craft. thanks :)

  7. Great post. I sort of agree with your dad, in that I don't like having to re-read things so that I understand what is being said. For example, if a sentence is just poorly constructed (or a paragraph), it drives me batty. If a book poses larger unstated questions however, questions that I later sit and ponder, then yes I enjoy that type of writing. I can't say I have attempted to put this in my own works yet, but that's probably because I'm still working on just being a decent writer first. Then I'll learn how to do the "advanced" stuff :)

  8. Not to throw a wrench in a pile of screwdrivers, but I think any well-told story, regardless or genre or "nongenre" (please), should, and I've said this before, reward the ambitious reader.

  9. Michelle: I don't know if this is something we can do deliberately, or if it's just a natural function of writing the type of books we write. I mean, if we tend to read "literary" fiction and think of fiction in those terms, odds are that we'll write this way.

    Mr. Bowman: "Should" is easily said.

  10. MMM, gummies. I think the agent did a marvelous job of explaining it. But so did Davin. I love reading literary fiction. It makes us think. Writing it? Hmm. I have some that I started but never finished. Maybe I'll get them out and dust them off, huh? Great discussion going on about this. :)

  11. I once heard a good painting compared to an okay one: "When you looked at an okay painting for a bit, you see all of it; however, if you looked at a great painting for a bit, you can come back in a month and still see more." I think that good literary fiction is similar to a great painting.

    I'm currently writing a book in which I try to invert some traditional archetypes as I go. People can figure out the hidden meaning as they see it. (Heck, even if I didn't consciously mean that doesn't mean I didn't mean it on some level.) I try to add layers, and if they work I'll be glad. If they don't work, I'll be take them out.

  12. Scott: You stink. Replace "should" with "will," darn it.

  13. Annie: Yep! Gummies are still just candy, just like literary fiction is still just a story There's just different kinds. The way I see it anyway. I haven't read the Fountainhead yet. Sounds like I need to!

    Michelle: I agree with that wholeheartedly! And oftentimes I find it's harder NOT to say things, and finding the balance between what works and what doesn't.

    Rick: I agree. That's why I told my dad I think good literary fiction entertains and then leaves more for later. If you want.

    Megan: I was in the same boat as you. Between both Davin and Eva, I'm getting a better definition in my head.

    B.J.: I think gummies are in every piece of writing, whether the writer intends them or not. I know that many of my "gourmet gummies" happen naturally. This probably comes from studying literature so much as an English major. And why I can't stop searching for those gummies in everything!

    Tess: I think your work definitely has a literary feel. I think it's partly because of your authentic voice, and partly because you do leave a lot of room for interpretation. It works out nicely.

    Eric: I agree, as well, that a written work should not be so poorly constructed that you have to reread it. That's just bad. But I certainly love work that makes me think so much about it that I have to read it again just to get to the bottom of things. I usually never to get to the bottom, either, which is just how I like it. I love layers. And I'm a literary snob.

    Justus: I don't think you understand the point of the post. Or maybe you do. I'm confused. I think ALL genres of writing should reward the reader. And I find "gourmet gummies" in works not labeled literary all the time. Would it make you really mad if I just said I think literary is better than ever other genre?

    *steps back to avoid claws*

    Really, I'm kidding. :D

    Scott: I agree that we're affected by what we read most. It's like you are what you eat. I also think that writers are born with different tendencies, like how some people are more organized than others. But I also think that writers can learn how to work their writing in different directions.

    Robyn: Davin did a great job, too, yes! And go ahead and dust off some your literary work. Like we say here on the blog, we think all genres can benefit from literary techniques.

    Dominique: That's a good comparison. Yay for layers! I'm sure the ones you put in subconsciously will work very well.

  14. Michelle,

    I wasn't trying to reiterate the point of the post, as some like to do. Nay! I'm greater, in a less great sense. I wanted to express my opinion about your post, which was essentially this: if a story offers nothing beyond face value, regardless of whether it's literary fiction or not, it's not a very valuable story.

  15. Hmm, assume that last part was my opinion, not your post. It's possible I misplaced "which." Doh!

  16. Gotta admit, I steer clear of literary writing. Not intentionally, but I have simply come to discover that I am not -that- kind of writer. :-)

  17. I think mine will eventually straddle the line between literary and commercial when all the edits and rewrites are done and things are wrapped up. There are some gourmet gummies hidden in there for those who find them, but I think it will be accessible to most teens. At least, that's my goal.

  18. I really like what Rick had to say. The story should be worthwhile even for someone who doesn't want to invest as much energy into it. "Should" is not the best word to use, though. I guess I mean that I personally strive to make my writing very accessible, but to have more if someone should look for it.

    So, I do try to craft the unseen. That's my main goal, but I hope that the surface read is interesting too. it doesn't need to be a conscious decision to put in the unseen stuff, though. I think if someone is fully engaged with the work, it will happen naturally.

  19. Hm. So how would you categorize a historical saga like James Michener's The Source? Based on this definition, I would say it's mainstream but not literary.... On the other hand, each time I read it, I have new insights. Not so much about the characters, as about history itself, the rise and fall of civilizations, the sweep of time....

    Maybe this makes historical fiction more like science fiction than like literary. I'm not sure it's between the lines, but it does touch on things which cannot be fully illuminated, like trying to see a museum by candlelight.

  20. "On the other hand, each time I read it, I have new insights."

    Part of the problem of categorizing by rereadability is that even simple books offer new lessons once a reader's matured. How do you separate that type of insight from the writer's-so-smart insight?

  21. Justus, you're right. I think that's what the agent meant that a story can be "deep" yet still forthright rather than "between the lines." As I thought about it, I decided most of the deep themes in The Source are part of what you see explicitly, not something you have to infer. That is, the story shows you vignettes over six thousand years of history, shows you civilizations clashing and changing.

    I started to say more, but it got long winded for a comment, so I've moved the rest of my musings on this topic to my blog. :)

  22. Melissa Oh, I understand. It's like me trying to write horror. There's just no way!

    Lois Yes, I can see your book having a lot of literary elements. It will be so good!

    Davin I agree. That's what I was trying to say with the bit about telling my dad I thought good literary fiction still entertains, but provides more as well. I love stories that work on a lot of levels. It seems that most of the really great classics are that way. To me, anyway.

    Tara Thanks for your insights. And I'm off to read your post. :)

  23. I like literary fiction when it's really good. Some people claim to write it, but when it's bad it's like getting stuck at a bluegrass festival when your ticket is for the opera. Just this weekend I've been analyzing A Worn Path by Eudora Welty. There are so many directions in which that story could go. It's fascinating.

  24. Amy: Eudora Welty is one of my favorite authors. I understand what you mean about bad literary fiction. I just hope that's not what I'm writing, haha. :D

  25. Haha, I love the analogy!

    I agree with commenter Rick and your father--I love a book that is full and entertaining, but has another layer of "yumminess" beneath that you can discuss for days on end.

    Even though I'm a "genre" writer (fantasy and sci fic), I try to do this, because it's what I love to read.

    Books that do this really well in Science Fiction are A DOOR INTO OCEAN by Joan Slonczewski, and HYPERION by Dan Simmons. Loved the layers!

  26. Rebecca, thank you for the book suggestions!

  27. Great post! How delightfully surreal in using gourmet gummies as an analogy for literary fiction!

    Literary is also geared towards making the reader think, as opposed to more commercial fiction forms that are for entertainment purposes,but there's nothing to say that literary fiction can't both entertain and provoke thought


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