Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why It's Easier to Love Straightforward Fiction

Since we seem to be on a roll this week with the topic of disorienting fiction, I thought I'd carry on the torch and talk today about why I think many of us prefer to stay in a specific realm when it comes to the stories we read and write.

For the most part, we all live in a structure with four walls and a floor and a roof. We sleep in a bed. We eat three meals a day. We do something every day to earn money. Our lives are pretty straightforward (with a ton of complication beneath, of course), and I think most of the reading population out there prefers straightforward fiction. We like our plots linear, our characters flawed and working toward fixing those flaws, our prose structured in the traditional manor with paragraphs and forward-moving thoughts. Sideways? Distracting? Choppy? No, thanks, right? We like to see things connecting. We like to see layers. And most of all, we like a satisfying ending.

As I was growing up, I stuck with straightforward fiction. I didn't know any different. Then I went to college and jumped into a pool completely foreign to me. It was disorienting, to say the least. I had never read authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce who threw a lot of things I was used to out the window. I was uncomfortable reading sentences which followed no set structure, but ran and on, going nowhere if I didn't pay close enough attention. Gertrude Stein made me want to gnaw my way through a piece of wood. I didn't understand a lot of what I read for a long time. Students surrounding me kept acting like this deeply literary fiction was something truly special and amazing, and I seriously didn't get it.

Why read something that makes no sense?

Then I discovered poetry and a whole new world opened up to me. I learned how to look past the surface layer of confusion, and slowly, I grew used to the idea of loving something different and crazy. My brain evolved, I guess. I saw the treasures inside classical fiction - if I was willing to work for them.

That's the thing. I think most of us prefer fiction as an escape. Most of us want to pick up a book and be entertained in the most traditional manner. Tell me a story. Let my mind turn off a bit while I absorb it. Then at the end, make me smile. I'll admit I read a lot of fiction like this because I enjoy it. Even most of the classic literary fiction on my shelves is straightforward. I don't have a lot of the disorienting stuff, but I love what I do have. I'd like to discover more, and as Scott and Davin have talked about disorienting fiction this week, I can add Nadine Gordimer and Alice Munro to my list.

Once I had read enough disorienting fiction, I noticed that it began slipping into my own short fiction. I wanted to experiment and see where that took me. Some of these pieces have become favorites of mine. A few of them are in my short story collection, True Colors. Some readers have already told me they didn't like those stories. I expected that, but I'm not going to let it stop me from doing more and more original things in my fiction. Things that fall right into that disorienting category, because I think when we really get into a piece of fiction that makes us feel like we're in some sort of strange land where we're not entirely comfortable, we're allowed to let our thoughts and experience go to places they wouldn't have gone before. For instance, Woolf inspires me on a level no other author can even touch. It makes me sad that a lot of readers won't even crack open one of her books. She is, however, one of the most disorienting authors I've read. Some authors who do disorienting things in their fiction are still very accessible. I'm thinking Alice Munro is one of those authors.

So, tell me, why do you love straightforward fiction? Have you tried to delve into any disorienting fiction? If so, who?


  1. I do love straightforward fiction. It's probably more of what I read and write. I can't think of any off the top of my head that wasn't straightforward, per se. Then again, I might have read some and didn't realize it. I'm a bit odd. Even Inception made perfect sense to me. *laughs*

  2. Cherie: Oh, my fault for posting an Inception picture, lol. I don't think that movie was really disorienting, per se, in terms of storytelling. I think too much was explained, number one, and not left up to the viewer to interpret, but that's just my opinion. Don't get Scott started on that

    I think I've read some disorienting fiction and not realized it, either, until later.

  3. Really great post. I think the main thing is - if you want to read for pleasure stick with straight forward. It's hard to concentrate on nuances and squirrely plots. It's all preference. I read the hard stuff in between the relaxing stuff to stretch my mind a bit.

  4. The thing for me is that I've read so much Modernist fiction that it seems like the norm.

    I'm fine with straightforward narratives. Last night Mighty Reader and I watched "Firefly" and not only was the show canceled about five years too soon (damn you, SciFi Network!), it's a nice bit of straight-ahead tale telling and I enjoyed the heck out of it.

    The thing to ask is maybe what are the limitations of straightforward narratives; what is being accomplished by breaking up linear time or refusing to resolve conflict or restarting the story every 50 pages or whatever else the writer is doing? What is Virginia Woolf doing with stream of consciousness that Jane Austen wasn't able to do? What is James Joyce doing in Ulysses that he wasn't able to do in Dubliners? It's still just storytelling; it's still just talking about life, isn't it? I seem to be rambling so I'll shut up.

  5. I'm with Amie in that I mix it up a lot. Usually I like to read the classics, which I'm sure is no surprise. Some of those are straight forward (Tolstoy!) while others are not. If my brain is tired, I'll also tend to drift towards more linear storytelling, which I really admire when it's done well. When I'm writing, it's very hard for me to write linearly, so I'm impressed by people who do. Believe it or not, I keep trying to write linearly, but then I fail.

  6. I think my natural narrative structure, chronology-wise, goes like this:

    NOW->(loop backwards)->NOW->NOW->(loop backwards)->NOW->NOW->etc.

    The more intense the "NOW" scene is, the greater the temptation to step out of it and loop backwards in time. I have done this in a bunch of stories. My WIP novel has two stories that alternate by chapter; I'm not sure if they're happening simultaneously. I don't think they are, but I don't know yet.

    I don't know if I notice when a book is nonlinear, as long as the writing is compelling. How far away from perfect chronological order can a writer go before something becomes "not straightforward?"

    Anyway, everyone should read Tristram Shandy. It's postmodernism written in 1760, and it's damned funny, too.

  7. My narrative structure goes:

    now->(LOOP BACKWARDS)->now->now->(LOOP BACKWARDS)->now->now->etc.

    The present scenes somehow never seem as dramatic as the flashbacks. I think I often use the present tense scenes as nothing more than glue, which I'm trying to get away from.

  8. I'm relieved you've all used the word disorienting because reading the type of fiction you're talking about actually makes me feel dizzy.

    I didn't have the opportunity to go to college, but I know I would have reacted he way you did with exposure to this disorienting fiction. I still do. I'm trying to learn, or maybe I should say unlearn, so I can appreciate it more.

    And yes, I've been a little dizzy reading True Colors ... but not terribly so. I love it. :-)

  9. Most of what I read is straight-forward fiction. It's not that I don't love a challenge, and I have nothing against stories that break the norm in storytelling technique...It's just what I read. Although since I got my Kindle last year I have been more likely to buy something outside my comfort zone.

  10. To escape from real life, I absolutely stick to straightforward reading. But when I find I have some time to learn something new, I like to disorient myself.

    I liken it to art. I'm a big fan of Monet. Water Lillies get me every time. But just to shake myself up, I look at a Picasso, and wonder.

    Same with music. Give me some old Linda Ronsdat or CSNY anyday. When I want to really throw it down, I break out the Marsalis boys. Maybe a little zydeco for fun.

    I think we all need to break out of our comfort zone sometimes. It keeps us from falling into a rut.

  11. Anne, have you been to the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris?

  12. Don't they serve those frozen fruit drinks at the Musee de l'Orangerie? In America we call those Orange Julius.

  13. I associate having an Orange Julius whenever my parents or aunt would take me to the Santa Anite mall as a kid, usually to buy Transformers, and now I want both the Julius and the Transformers.

  14. I guess I'm going to have to admit that I don't much like disorienting fiction. I enjoyed To The Lighthouse and The Sound of the Fury very much but I think that's about it as far as stream of consciousness goes. Never been a James Joyce fan (I love his The Dead, however).

    A few years ago I tried to read a book called House of Leaves and while it was interesting and creepy and weird - sometimes there would be pages where the sentences scrawled sideways or crazyways or there would be maybe one word on the page. Just one. Argh! Made me want to pull my hair out.

    So, yeah, I guess I like a story plainly told.

  15. Domey, only in my dreams. I have one of those old PBS VCR tapes that brings you "there" so every so often when I need some "culture" I put it on and sob quietly that I'm not there in person. I also have several coffee table art books that I use for reference so there is that. Not the same though, I know.

    My bucket list between 50 and 60 is to live in France for at least 2 years. We'll see how that goes. As a matter of fact, I'm relearning how to speak French again. Love the m. and f.

  16. I read straightforward fiction for fun and usually don't seek out disorienting fiction—but I do like disorienting fiction very much. I read what suddenly seems like a surprising amount of it in high school. I didn't seek it out then, either, it was for assignments—we focused a lot on world literature and magical realism (the "real" stuff in Latin American writing, which is somehow more magical than the stuff I read labeled magical realism in American lit.).

    I'm not really sure why I don't seek out more disorienting fiction these days. Of course, I have more books to read (which don't require a ton of work to understand) than I have time for already.

  17. Straightforward reading (Did you just coin this term?) is the norm for me as well. Honestly, I'm a lazy reader. I have no time to read these days. I saw the list of books read by you guys and felt like a moron. I read eight book, if that. Half were YOURS. I want to be transported to someplace with little effort. Maybe, if I get hooked by someone's writing, I'll take the time to delve deeper.

  18. Anne, I do hope you get to live in France for 2 years. That would be so fantastic!

  19. I'm not sure if I enjoy non-traditional fiction as much as I do other sorts, but I do recognize that it's something I need to keep feeling out on a regular basis, because reading different things is one of the ways we grow as writers. I honestly don't know if I'd ever try to write something super-experimental. Maybe one day, if I'm feeling really awesome and inventive or something along those lines.

  20. I tend to use “just a story” as a rather disparaging term these days. I’m really not interested in a book if all you can say about it is that it’s “a good story.” It’s one of the regrets I have since accepting books for review that most of them are books I would not have chosen myself. My preference has always been for literary fiction. I’m not interested in plots. I’m interested in characters. One of the most disorienting writers—to use your term (it’s not one I would use)—has to be the Australian author Gerald Murnane. He refuses to even call his book ‘novels’ preferring to simply refer to them as ‘works of fiction’ or ‘true fiction’. Like Woolf he has a fondness for long, involved sentences. Much of Beckett’s later prose work could also be called ‘disorienting’ but it is worth struggling with. His earlier work—heavily influenced by Joyce (and who could be more disorienting than him?)—I am not so fond of.

  21. Amie: You know, though, I read Woolf for pleasure, but that's only because I've reached a point in my reading lifestyle than I can do that. When I very first read her, it was quite difficult. I get lost in her prose now. In a beautiful poetic way. :)

    Scott: You just barely watched "Firefly", huh? Isn't it fabulous? You should watch all the episodes and then watch the movie that finishes them all up. Fantastic series. I'm really pissed they cancelled it. What they were thinking is beyond me. And you should watch Dr. Horrible. You'd love it. :)

    Davin: That's interesting! I've never thought of your fiction as disorienting, but now that I think about it, you do write in a roundabout way. Your kidnapping novella seriously made my mind go in knots. I loved it!

    As far as narrative structure goes, I'm not sure...I have no idea what mine does. I'm too tired to figure it out right now.

    Linda: Dizzy! Yes, I actually love that feeling, like a little kid, when I'm reading. Whee!

    Rick: Kindles are good that way. I've found the same thing happening to me. :)

    Anne: You're right. I think this can go for any art medium!

  22. Cynthia: You make me laugh. :) You seem to like a bit of disorienting fiction, so I'd say you've got a good start. It's like sushi. Just build yourself up! Looks like you have the right foundation, anyway. That House of Leaves book sounds a bit odd and self-aware. I often hate that.

    Jordan: I read a bit of that Latin American stuff in college, I think. I loved it!

    I think when our kids get older we'll have more time to read. I like to pretend, anyway.

    Charlie: I think I read 8 published books this year. Maybe. If that. I plan to do much better this year. :)

    Dominique: Oh, I hope you do experiment! It's so much fun, and I'm often surprised by how much I like some of the stuff that I end up with.

    Jim: I should start calling my novels "pages filled with words." That would be cool. Ok, maybe not. :)

  23. Michelle: I've seen all the "Firefly" episodes many times, and "Serenity" as well. "Dr. Horrible" was fun, too. Especially Captain Hammer.

  24. I don't think that loving a piece of fiction has anything to do with whether the story is straightforward or not. It has to do with whether the theme resonates with us or not on a personal level.

  25. Scott, oh, I didn't realize you had seen all those! Yay! You have probably told me that before, but like I'd remember. I forget everything, hah.

    Julia: True, but you have to admit that themes oftentimes come about in different ways, and one of those ways can be through the disorienting storytelling. Woolf does this very well. And I've noticed that if the theme comes about in part with the disorientation, that will affect how we connect on a personal level.


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