18 February 2012

Ekphrasis Report #15: Pop vs. High Lit

OK, I'm not going to report on Ekphrasis. That's boring for anyone who wasn't there, and unnecessary for anyone who was.

Instead, I'm going to write a post inspired by some of the conversations and ideas sparked at the meeting, and ask for your feedback on my concept.

So, three different members of Ekphrasis are engaged in writing fantasies with quasi-Medieval settings. This prompted all kinds of chat about historical accuracy, anachronisms, diction, etc. And it led me to ask that age-old question:


That question has been asked time & time again. It has been answered in many ways. Let me add my two-or-so cents' worth here with just two speculative measures of "literary" vs. purely "popular" fiction, especially fantasy fiction.


So, I love the Twilight books. If you ask me to, I'll write a post or a series of posts justifying why I -- an English professor and writer of would-be literature myself, as well as a fairly conservative Christian -- can love Twilight. I'll be happy to do so. But Stephanie Meyers' delightful, valuable, compelling books will not be "classics," and are not "literature." They'll never be The Lord of the Rings. Why not?

Because they lack complexity. They have only one plot line. There are no sub-plots. There is no narrative frame. There is only one perspective at any given moment (although another perspective breaks in, successfully, I believe, for one third of the final book). The author did no research "except for when Bella herself does research." The sentences, while correct, are simple and unvaried.

OK, now compare that to The Lord of the Rings, which is only about 10% of the actual world Tolkien developed. He wrote at least four languages for it (in varying degrees of completeness and complexity: Sindarin, Quenya, Dwarfish, and the Black Speech). He developed the history for many millennia and several cultures. He drew the maps. All of this backstory contributes to the richness of LOTR, even when it is not directly referenced. It has the depth and complexity of a series of events happening in a real place with history, geography, and cultures all around and behind it even if they don't come into the story.

Compare the narrative simplicity of a work of pop fiction to the embedded narrative frames of, say, Wuthering Heights. In that novel, the entire story is narrated by the forgettable Lockwood (I always have to look up his name). In turn, the entire story is told to him by Nellie Dean, the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights. The story, then, happens at three removes, so that speeches made directly by characters -- say, by Catherine -- are reported by Nellie (not at all an objective reporter, by the way) to Lockwood, who then reports them (with his own embellishments and interpretations) to the reader.

Compare the characteralogical simplicity of a work of pop fiction to the elaborate psychological portraits of, say, George Eliot or Mary Shelley or George Orwell or Nathaniel Hawthorne or even Charles Dickens. Think of how a skillful master manipulates setting, weather, color, temperature, facial expression, and dialogue to reveal inner life in exquisite detail -- while a pop writer basically just says it straight out. She was furious. He was burning with desire. Etc.

Compare the simple sentences of a work of pop fiction to the labyrinthine syntax of Charles Williams, James Joyce, Henry James, William Faulkner. Try diagramming some of those guys! Whew. And then think of the mental effect of such complexity: sure, it takes more work. But the very work is part of the experience. Again, it's more like real life. Real life comes in tangles, not in smooth packages of adjective-subject-verb-adverb-direct object units.

which leads me to...


The other, equally important, distinction between the merely popular and the classic is on the level of vocabulary, or, more precisely, of diction. I'm not just talking here about the difference between "big words" and "little words," nor between "slang" and "formal" language.

I'm talking about shifts of register that reflect the variety of characters, cultures, historical eras, nationalities, and emotions in a work of literature.

The author of a novel that is going to pass the test of time, and not just the test of book sales for a few years or decades, needs to be able to code-switch through a huge range of tones, simple by means of diction.

She's got to master the sounds of words, to be able to employ those of Anglo-Saxon origin vs. those of Latinate origin. She's got to have characters who speak an elevated, formal, courtly or academic style. She's got to have characters who speak various dialects, real or imagined, and various types of slang. She's got to use a variety of idioms. She's got to be able to vary the rhythm and pace of the narrative to suit the action. Language, well crafted, can speed the reader up and slow the reader down at the writer's whim. The writer needs to know how to do this, so as to slow the reader's pace in reflective and descriptive scenes, then hurry the reader along in moments of action, tension, and climax. The writer also needs to know how to set up various historical references, real or imagined, by means of diction.

And that may very well be the biggest marker of literature vs. the merely popular -- and it's something that probably escapes the notice of most readers (and, unfortunately, writers) of the merely popular. Which is why it continues to be written. And why it continues to sell. But why it won't make the great lists centuries into the future.




Marguerite Blake said...

Good post, Sorina! Food for thought for all of us who are trying to write our lovely novels. I do refuse to add a sparkly vampire to my plot or to spend hours creating my own language. Perhaps I can fall somewhere in between Meyers and Tolkein...

Iambic Admonit said...

There are many, many places to fit in between!