On Literary Fiction


I once read what Dean Koontz had to say about literary fiction. His feeling is that literary fiction is written primarily for the ivory tower type people, not for the masses. Who reads their stuff after they're gone? he asks. No one. Who buys it when they are alive? Few.

The authors who have mattered and made a real difference were those who appealed to the masses. Think Dickens, London, Steinbeck, and hundreds of others who's works have survived and are still loved long after their deaths. They were not literary writers. In fact, Dickens was considered a hack in his day, as were London and others. But they wrote what appealed to the people, to their audiences. They wrote about what mattered. And, they made a difference in people's lives.

That's what's important, I feel. To make a difference.

I hear so often that writers must NOT insert their own agendas into their writing. We have to be neutral and let the characters work out their own stories.

Balony! I think if we writers don't have anything worthwhile to say, then we have no business writing. Do you for one moment think Dickens, London, Steinbeck, and the hundreds of other great writers in this world didn't have anything to say? Why else are their works still being read today? Because the DID have something to say, something that mattered to the people to whom they wrote.

That, my friends is what makes for great literature, not the literary style that ivory tower professors like to tout.

About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Thursday, September 28, 2006

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This question recently came up on an on-line writing forum. Should we use the "F-word" in young adult or younger literature? A lot of people said, in effect, that using it just made their works "sound" realistic, and not using it would sound fake.

How about we look at this issue from a moral view point? Aren't most writers adults, many of us writing for teens and children? Shouldn't we then be held to a higher standard than the kids to whom we're writing?

I know kids hear this kind of language all the time. It's nothing new to them. My own kids use to come home from school and had to wash their ears out every day. Still, should we condone that kind of language by emulating it? By including it in our writing, I think we are in effect endorsing it as acceptable.

I think we, as adults, need to set the better example. There are ways around using vulgarity and the infamous "F-word."

In my own novel, I've written about some pretty tough characters who use vulgarity in nearly every sentence, yet you never see the actual words. They are alluded to, but not written, and I do not think it hurts the flow or flavor of my novel. Simply saying, "so-and-so swore," then adding the rest of what he says, gives the readers the understanding that the kid in the story said a bad word or two. The reader can supply the words in his/her own mind without having to actually read the offending word.

I know of many writers who have used this technique quite successfully. Writers like Orson Scott Card, Dean Hughes, and others. I know, for me, I hate having to weed out those offending words as I read a novel, especially if the novel is written primarily for my own children to read.

Don't get me wrong, I do not read my kids books to censor them, but at the same time I don't want to read them as I read a YA novel. I also don't think we adults should write things we wouldn't be proud of having our children read either. We are adults. We should be the examples of a better, moral way of living, not sink to the level of degenerates.

I've also heard the argument that some authors think they need to use fowl language for its shock value. Personally, I feel that is a cheap and lazy way of achieving shock. To truly achieve shock, it should come through the actions and "real" dialog, not cheap tricks.

Let's clean up our acts first, then maybe our children will follow our examples.
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