Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pink covers.

‘When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.’
--Enrique Jardiel Poncela, Spanish playwright and novelist, 1901-1952

There is a difference between being able to adequately assess whether or not the writing behind a project is good, and dismissing an entire sub-genre out of hand. Why is it that those projects which avail themselves of the rich trove of archetypal characterizations and plotlines and those which garner critical acclaim often congregate at opposite ends of the continuum?

To put it another way, why are the pocketbooks of the masses open for the presumably inferior devices of ‘commercial’ writing while the more refined eye of the intellectual elite appears to delight— if in a muted, ironic fashion— only in stories which regularly eschew the time-honored hero’s journey altogether?

Put yet another way, why is it that the Katherine Heigl vehicles and the Nancy Meyers projects consistently rake in the bucks while the depressing— arguably demoralizing— films and genres of literature mostly concerned with meeting Waterloo are often leagues ahead in racking up the ‘serious art’ brownie points? Why is there a disconnect between what the average heart races to consume— again and again— and what the above-average intelligence scrambles to approve of? And— perhaps most importantly— can we, as writers, heal the breach?

Is it tone? Is it execution? Or is it subject matter? Is it the difference between tying up all the loose bits at the end with a tidy bow and leaving the characters flailing in a vat of angst and lack of resolution that determines the credibility conferred upon a work? Is it all of these things? Is it any of them?

Perhaps it’s compression, the sense that if the writing is swiftly and methodically touching all of the mile markers— the call, the reluctance to answer, the introduction of allies, obstacles, heightened stakes, the turning point, the moment of grace with— on celluloid— the gratuitous close-up, the dark moment which more often than not smacks of contrivance at the end of act two chased by the scene with a manufactured sense of urgency as it barrels toward resolution— that leaves certain readers/viewers cold with the awareness that attempts at emotional manipulation are underway. Well, naturally, all experience of art is an exercise in emotional manipulation. The question then becomes is the manipulation seamless or do the seams show? And my question to you— as the writers responsible for many of these journeys— is why do the seams show more consistently in the stuff that sells?

I recently watched a Katherine Heigl film with the express purpose of dismantling the experience in order to study it. There was a row of women behind me in the theatre who laughed a lot. They peppered my viewing experience with exclamations of, ‘Oh, snap!’ and— in the moment that the boy does in fact return to the girl at the end of act three— ‘I knew it!’ When the lights went up, they cheered.

In other words, these women were moved enough by unapologetically formulaic premise, plot and execution to grow noisy and applaud— though it must be said that, personally, I gave Heigl herself a fair amount of the credit. In any event, the consumers got what they paid for. And as I sat there in my movie bucket seat next to a fellow scribe along for the experimental ride, a jumble of thoughts rushed through both mind and heart— the most salient of which were, for whom am I writing? And why?

Is my writing trying to be an artful interpretation of human experience? A commentary that is ethical in nature? Moralistic? Subversive? Sublime? Is it trying to emerge as something which pulls a more visceral punch or something that—perhaps, finally, by unabashed design— simply goes down easy? I know I want my readers to feel, but how do I want them to feel? Do I want them to laugh? Cry? Both— often? Or do I want them to think? Do I want to rout expectation or do I want to take them where they’re paying me to lead— straight through the reliable climb of escalating emotion and down a safe descent into surprising inevitability? Can I even decide— with authority— and, if so, do I have the chops to carry out any intentions with excellence?

Though a novelist, the bulk of my night stand material— say, 85%?— is non-fiction. When it comes to story, you might call me immoderately particular. I like a smart read, but not one that is too heavy. I’m partial to sharp banter between expertly-drawn voices but not too many graphic scenarios (or any, really.) I like to read characters stripped of their complacency but not of their dignity and— if at all possible— with a light touch. I favor subtlety but not authorial conceit. I like to laugh but not at the expense of substance and I like to grow but not at the (total) expense of levity. But perhaps most of all, I like to be left on an auspicious— but not hackneyed— note.

Which leads me to wonder, is it possible to write a book that can translate to a two-hour capsule— easily consumed with a side of popcorn and Junior Mints— which at the same time does not inspire the roll of a more discriminating eye? Because to imagine that a description like ‘bubble-gum pink’ covers the scope of the contemporary female living— largely through accident of birth— in an industrialized society as she grapples with vocation, love and progeny is both an indignation and a challenge.

So— in the end— does the onus of responsibility land on us as writers to execute these reputedly bromidic arcs in such a way that the dismissal of the erudite is not a foregone conclusion? Forgive me, as I seem to be all questions, today— and with precious little in the way of answers— but I’m stumped, and have been so for a rather annoyingly long time.

Perhaps you can shine some light along the way?

Until next time, dear reader.



  1. Aurora...sweet Aurora,

    I too have no answers, but this I do know.....whatever you are writting, I want to read.
    Until next time, dear writer.

  2. I am glancing over at my nightstand after reading this, and taking inventory. On one side I have my periodicals: Mental Floss, InStyle, Cook's Country, Psychology Today, Vanity Fair, The Sharper Image catalogue. On the other, the books: a collection of love sonnets by Pablo Neruda, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, What the Dog Saw (Malcolm Gladwell), and a book called An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. Perhaps this puts me more squarely in one camp than the other.

    I know that he is not a female, obviously, but the writer that always comes to mind when I think of bridging this gap is Nick Hornby. His works are smart, current, universal. I love him to pieces; his work just feels real. And I think that is all that matters. That something feel REAL to the reader, whatever their reality might be that day.

  3. Sister Aurora,
    I do hate Katherine Haigl films and I hate her. In fact hers was the only character I disliked in Grey´s Anatomy. Aside from that point, she and her clones represent a very strange mass culture that pretends to be egalitarian, feminist and deep. I am a great fan of massive culture, but I resent this XXI century brand that dabbles in pontification while being unbearable frivolous and phony.
    PD Thanks for that Jardiel Poncela (such a great but forgotten writer)quote.

  4. I also love the quote. Funny because I'm now reading another Spanish humorous writer: Alvaro de Laiglesia (Violante, I finally found a copy of Cuatro Patas para un Sueno!)

    Aurora, I think that it is possible, but very difficult, to create a product that will sell to the masses without provoking eye-rolling. I think a movie that does a good job at this is Juno. Even though it follows the structure of the hero's journey and there's growth and all that good stuff, I think the seams don't really show (though there is definitely emotional manipulation when dealing with babies and adoption, but I think it was expertly handled.) I'm sure there are many other examples, but this was the one that came to mind.

  5. Aurora,

    It seems to me like you are thinking way too much about this very simple topic. Light and literary fiction are extremely different from each other. I don't think it is possible to blend them together in a single, successful project. That would be like a boxer holding both the featherweight title and super-heavyweight title. It's like trying to Tango and Two Step at the same time. You might like to dance both rhythms but you certainly can't do them both at once, can you?


  6. Sandra- 'Thank you' could never cover it.

    Maggie- High Fidelity is next on my reading list.

    Violante- I loved that quote, it really resonated with me.

    Lorena- I agree with you about 'Juno.'

    Danny- Me? Overthink?? :)

    Thank you all for your words.

  7. I'd have to say I agree with Danny. If we put too much of a thought process into what we write, hoping and praying everyone will like it, then we will never get that novel written. In my opinion (and remember, it's just mine ☺) I don't believe there is anything that really crosses all lines and draws literature together as a whole. But that's the beauty of it. Everyone likes a different flavor, so there's always something for everyone. It would be sooo boring if everyone wrote the same thing, wouldn't it be?

    And I can't agree with you and Violante more when it comes to Heigl. Her acting drives me nuts. She was way to whiny and crying all the time on Grey's Anatomy. And she's just the same in most of her movies!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  8. Thank you, Mary Mary, for your comments.

    As for Hornby, Mags, I never made it to his books on the shelf. I was detoured by a collection of Vonnegut short stories. I think it was the foreword by Dave Eggers that did me in.

    I was sorry to see that this post did not generate more traffic and commentary, but thank again, whole heart, those of you who did take the time to read and comment.

    Enjoy what's left of the weekend, everyone.

    All best, always,

  9. Well I don't know if I can single-handedly generate more traffic to your post but can I say in my defense that I'm frequently a late commenter, and that this is no reflection on the quality of the material I'm reading. It's simply due to a lack of time!

    To the matter at hand; BIG questions Aurora. Perhaps the world of movies and the world of novels should be treated separately when answering.

    I know some commenters have said that commercial and literary fiction are too different for one work to appeal in both categories - but I've often read on agent wish lists that they're seeking "literary writing with commercial plotting". It's certainly not unique for so-called genre writers, like Le Carre, or more recently (to use an example local to me) Peter Temple to garner critical acclaim, as their writing quality has been judged by some to surpass that generally expected for their 'genre'. So...a novel can be commercially appealing but still well-written. There are dozens more examples.

    Having said that, sometimes the aims of a blockbuster movie or commercial novel will simply be incompatible with the expectations of a high-brow audience (whatever that is). If a reading or viewing audience is wanting and expecting an unchallenging, feel-good, predictable story and ending, they're hardly going to be satisfied by something which is whimsical, thought-provoking, emotionally challenging, hard-hitting, raw. (and vice versa)

    So the answer depends. But you knew that already.

    My last post was on overthinking a project almost to death. Seems you and I might have that in common!

  10. Adina, you have been a kindred spirit from the start. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. Don't know if you'll be back to read this but I'm kind of wondering, how would you describe your writing on the lit v. com continuum?

  11. Formulas are comforting because they are familiar. sometimes literary fiction can leave the reader/viewer feeling alienated.
    There's room for all story structures, some people enjoy a literary tale and are not concerned about plot, other like the hero's journey, it's been popular for a long time. Write from your own voice and be proud of that.
    Wagging Tales


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