Fiction Seminar Highlights

March 1, 2009

Much to enjoy at Fiction Writing Seminar at George Mason University yesterday (February 28). I won’t recap everything here, but just hit some highlights. (And for more (and far wittier) highlights, check out Laura Ellen Scott’s blog post here.)

Jeffrey Deaver tackled a question he gets often — “Why don’t you write real books?” — and listed four principles for writers, readers and critics to consider in this regard. First, instead of trying to insist that there is no difference between literary and genre fiction (commercial fiction, as he termed it at one point), he stressed that there was a valid and important distinction between the two, not in style or subject or length but rather  in terms of the author’s purpose; literary fiction, he explains, seeks to rearrange perceptions, challenge and question intellectually, and helps readers to flesh out their world views, while commercial fiction seeks to entertain, amuse, thrill, or distract. (He did clarify that the two goals are not mutually exclusive, of course.)

Second, he explained that it was invalid to judge a work solely on that difference — using by way of example two meals, the first a turkey sandwich with a Belgian ale (eaten during a UNC-Maryland basketball game) and the second a date night meal in a nice restaurant, featuting lobster bisque, coq au vin, and a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape. Which was the better meal? Neither, he explained. Though the first might be considered a “genre” meal in some ways, and the second more elevated and high-class, each was exactly what he wanted at the time. 

His third principle followed up to say that the only criteria for judging a work was by how successfully the writer met his or her goals — judging not the goal in itself but how well the author executed that goal.

A final principle — directed toward the writers themselves — admonished writers who write for themselves and not with their readers in mind, whoever that audience might be (even if a small group of people interested in obscure, postmodern stories). Carrying on the food metaphor, he said, “Remember that whether we’re serving chili dogs or beef wellington, our guests come first.”

Other highlights:

A panel continuing that discussion of literary versus commercial began with a look at Stephen King’s special National Book Award  recognition and then stretched back to consider some of the writers who began as popular writers but whose works are considered great literature today. Panelist James Grady pointed out that Dickens was viewed far differently in his time than we view him no and that Shakespeare’s plays were performed with bull and bear baiting taking place just next door.

In a panel on new media, Laura Ellen Scott talked about the evolution in short fiction — with many writers today “shaking off” the literary story that dominated much of the 1980s and 1990s, not spending years crafting a story but instead relying on internet publications to publish a lot of stories, very quickly, and then using those publications as a platform for book-length projects; she pointed particularly to writers Shane Jones, Nick Antosca, and Blake Butler in this regard. 

On the same panel, Mark Athitakis talked about literary blogs and specifically how twitter has contributed to the growing idea of “slow blogging.” 

A panel on second novels not only brought talk about craft lessons that various authors learned from their first book and applied to their second but also about some of the potential difficulties of moving in new directions with your writing when the marketplace has already placed you in a “niche” of some kind. Andrew W. M. Beierle, for example, talked about the great differences between his novels The Winter of our Discotheque — more of a “beach book” in his words — and the more complex and ambitious First Person Plural, but the struggle that the second book has had to reach a wider, more literary audience. 

As for the panel I myself was on: Lou Bayard, Sudip Bose, and Nandini Lai each proved articulate and informative about the world of book reviewing, while my greatest contribution was the confession that I’m apparently marrying either Tana French or Philip Roth (or perhaps both). I wish I could say I was just overcaffeinated or something, but most excuses now just seem elusive. Rest assured: The engagement to Tara is still on.

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  1. Sounds fascinating! The genre/literary discussion is one that goes on between me and another writer with regularity.

    Thanks for posting.

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