by Bill Stephens
Okay, I’ll admit it. I lack what it takes to write serious literary fiction. Stephen King settled that issue for me in his book, On Writing, when he said, “You will never be a great writer unless you are born with it.” Great writers must be passionate about something, right? I’m only passionate about things I shouldn’t eat or drink.
So the arrogance of someone so lacking as myself, offering up a thesis that literary fiction doesn’t sell and inferring that cognitive critters might solve that problem, is not lost on me. But even the most calloused devotees of esoteric fiction among publishing gurus, are hard pressed to make the case that a Nobel Prize winner will outsell a good murder mystery, thriller, vampire, S&M, or diet book.
Obviously there is a market for literary fiction. I buy lots of it myself. Among that dedicated cadre of serious readers that have not already jumped ship for nonfiction, there remains a market for quality fiction. Not a huge market, but a market nonetheless.
What’s the problem? The characters in literary fiction spend so much time thinking; they never get around to doing anything. They constantly are confronted with deep issues of: Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do? Where am I going? Why can I not love/be loved? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m right? Why is life more difficult than it has to be? Who out there makes my life more difficult than it has to be, and a myriad of other “Oh, woe is me” considerations. There just is no time left to do much. This leaves heaps of the reading public wondering, “Is anything ever going to happen in this book?”
Yet, during this stultifying process of self-examination, these characters and we readers constantly rub up against all of God’s creatures both large and small. Some of these creatures we make into pets. Some we watch with unfeigned interest in the wild or in cages. Some we feed. Some we nuke with pesticides. Some we eat. Some we squash unknowingly underfoot. Some we train to do tricks. Some we shoot for sport. Some we just enjoy. But none of these do we assign any cognitive powers except for “fight or flight” responses, and occasionally mistaking the attention our pets pay to us as affection – when in reality they probably are thinking, “Oh, boy! It’s the food guy.”
There are academic papers illustrating the increase in ethyl alcohol production and the decrease in impurities created by yeast when Mozart is played to them during fermentation. If the lowly yeast can enjoy classical music, then maybe we do Nature’s woodland creatures a disservice by denying them any cognitive powers.
Here might be the salvation of literary fiction. What if we let our characters do lots of fun, interesting, creative, exciting, mysterious, fulfilling, and/or amazing things – while letting the creatures that the characters encounter do the heavy thinking about what is happening to them. The reader gets the best of all genres – plus completely new perspectives on life and the world around us.
I had this idea while in the shower. I shouted the traditional, “Eureka,” and ran naked through the house to my computer. My first venture into this new genre of fiction, Vámonos!, released mid-December.
The result of my effort is not great literary fiction for the reason stated above by Stephen King. In fact, most would call the book a humorous, action-packed romp. But nestled amongst all this whirl of activity, adding depth and meaning, are the musings of the creatures the characters bump up against. Ruminations like, “Who out there keeps jerkin’ me around, why, and how about cuttin’ this crap out?”
I’m enough convinced that this new genre of fiction has a future, that I my second novel molders, awaiting a final rewrite. I urge all of you literary authors, more gifted at birth than myself, to let a few cognitive critters do some thinking to free up your character’s time. They then can get off their butts and do something; possibly winning back some of the literary fiction market.
Bill Stephens is a graduate of The University of Texas and studied creative writing at Trinity University, San Antonio. He has written over 1,000 weekly wine columns for Harte-Hanks, Murdoch, and Hearst newspapers. You can follow Bill on his Blog, “Read It and Weep.”
He lives in Texas with his wife and her critters. Learn more about Bill and his writing from his Amazon author page.