Why you can’t popularize literary fiction

T.C. Boyle is one of my favorite writers. He saved me in my undergraduate program. I was buying the The Best American Short Story, Pushcart, and O’Henry anthologies. I was reading for my coursework. And so much of it bored me to death. And then one day I began reading “The Ape Lady in Retirement” and my eyes hung out because finally the text was interesting. Finally someone wrote a story I could read start to finish.

I immediately bought his anthologies–Greasy Lake, If The River Was Whiskey, Descent of Man. I was in heaven. Now, not all of his stories worked magic on me. But when I was having a hard time finding one story in a whole anthology, his books seemed like a treasure trove.

He didn’t do as well in his novels. Oh, the writing was just as good. The characters and descriptions just as odd and stunning. But he didn’t keep my interest. The problems never built into anything. Nevertheless, I loved him.

I’ve been having a brief conversation with him and the fan boy in me is delighted to finally talk to this guy. And after reading an interview with him, I realize why he probably spoke to me. While the other literary fiction authors were following the tastes of the fringe group, Boyle at least wanted to entertain.

In his interview he says.

 Everybody has forgotten that literature, like all art, is, at root, entertainment. It is supposed to entertain you. It’s not supposed to be some conundrum to be resolved by some professors in the university. It’s not a game. It’s not masturbation. It’s art. And I think great art is great on all levels. But the first level on which it must be great is that it must be entertaining.

Amen, brother Boyle. Amen!

I’m in a top-20 MFA program in the West.  And I think it’s odd that many in these MFA writing programs, mine included, totally miss the boat on what readers want and bemoan it when nobody comes to buy their stuff. They don’t get it’s about entertainment. About being moved. About much, much more than the language.

Here the full Boyle AWP interview.

However, I still think he misses the mark. In it he says about bestsellers:

But it’s mainly vampire books and Tom Clancy and all the rest of it. I don’t understand why we can’t make our books more available to everybody-not by compromising what we do, but by popularizing them, getting them out to the public.
He also says about editors and MFA programs:
I think that now we don’t have great editors. We have editors who are basically trying to hold on to their jobs and who publish good books once in a while. They’re basically cheerleaders for the books. They’re not editors, really. They’re incapable of being editors; they don’t need to be. Because editing is done-self-editing is done-through the apprenticeship in the writing programs. Nearly everyone from my generation on to your generation and beyond will have been through an MFA program. It’s just the way it is now. It’s a different world. It’s essential.

I’d like to suggest that Boyle, despite his love of entertainment, still misses the mark in his interview because you cannot popularize something that only appeals to a small market. The reason why Stephenie Meyer, Patterson, et al sell exponential circles around folks like Don DeLillo or Louise Erdrich is because Meyer and gang are very good at delivering what the largest portions of the reading public want. They deliver types of entertainment that DeLillo and Erdrich do not. (And I mean “entertainment” in a very broad sense.)

We could point at the Oprah effect (whether you like it or not, Mr. Cold Mountain) and say that’s not true. It’s all PR and marketing. But that assumes publisers are idiots. And while some of them may be, I think it’s an extreme assumption. Publishers are in it for the love AND money. And you can be sure that the board of directors is looking for smart, money people to lead the companies. You don’t make money, you’re fired.

Which means that IF the publishers found literary fiction sold like hotcakes they’d promote it like hotcakes. But literary fiction too often fails to entertain anybody but a handful of fringe readers. And so trying to popularize it can only have a limited effect. When people are thirsty, not many are going to pass up tall glasses of ice water for the pickled jalapenos at the end of the line.

Meyer, Clancy, Grisham, Roberts etc are masters of entertainment. And, like it or not, that’s the main reason the small portion of the public who actually read go to fiction.

I think it’s fine to cater to the fringe audience if that’s your pleasure. But I think it’s ridiculous to think such fare is better than what most people enjoy. Or that it deserves any special veneration. The MFA programs I’m familiar with seem, by and large, to miss the point. Instead of teaching the meat of fiction (entertainment) they focus on teaching students to serve up the parsley with great pomp. And when the customers go elsewhere to get the meat they crave (or the salad for you vegans), they respond by saying the customers are simply too dumb to get it or have no taste.

Now, I’m not saying the folks I work with in the MFA program are idiots. Or jerks. Almost everyone I’ve met has been extremely nice and smart. They have great insights. But there is a strong pressure in that culture, amost a moral pressure, to think about fiction this way. And it’s based on their tastes.

I think we all do this. 90% of what’s out there is crap. But it isn’t, really. The truth is that 90% of what’s out there simply doesn’t appeal to us. And so because it doesn’t deliver the goods, it’s crap to us. The problem is when we don’t realize the difference and begin to think that because we don’t have the taste for something that it’s garbage.

It’s not.

And that’s one thing the gentle and smart people in my program have shown me. I’m just as liable to make this mistake as anyone.

So what MFA programs need to do is teach fiction. The meat. As well as the parsley. They need to teach all the genres, not just one. Alas, for the meat you have to go to communications departments to even talk about it. And then hope you find someone like Dolf Zillman, Bryant Jennings, Jenefer Robinson, or Peter Vorderer.

Which leads me to the next point. Boyle is wrong about editors and writers. The majority of the authors that actually sell never set foot in an MFA program. MFA’s teach students to write for a small fringe market. And so they’ll dominate that fringe market, but not the big markets. Not what most people actually read.

Since I haven’t worked with any editors in that so-called golden age of editing, I cannot comment on the difference. But I do know that the editors I and other authors have worked with do many edits on the projects they oversee. They are thorough. They want it to be the best story it can be. It’s true they won’t take something that’s a complete mess and work on it. But why should they? There are so many better manuscripts out there it only makes sense.

Anyway, I love Boyle. Probably becasue he loves plot and story as much as language. His shorts saved me in my undergrad program. They were one of the few interesting things I read. I just am dismayed that these writing programs are so far off in the weeds.

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