Rock, Jazz, and Literary Values
by Brian Plante
I've seen the debate over literary values vs. traditional storytelling bandied about in several places in the past few weeks. The March Fantasy & Science Fiction has an editorial on the subject, as does the February Scavenger's Newsletter , and a lot of recent on-line chatter on Genie has dealt with this topic. This seems like a good time to air my two cents worth.
The issue at hand is whether genre writers should attempt to raise their craft to artistic heights or continue to provide easily accessible entertainment for the masses. On the one hand, you have the more "literary" writers, creating sophisticated forms of fiction in highly stylistic prose. On the other, there's the meat-and-potatoes storytellers, writing plot-driven stories using simple, straightforward language.
Consider genre fiction like music. I liken the high literary styles of writing to the more refined types of music, like jazz and classical. The simpler modes of writing are like pop, rock and rap music. Certainly each type of music has its fans, but who's to say which types of music are more valid?
Let's carry the analogy further. Pop and rock music, because they are more basic and accessible, will always be more popular than jazz. More people can relate and enjoy them on the first listening, without having to understand all the fine nuances and history of the tradition. It's easy to like these forms of music, and that has a lot of appeal for a great many people who listen casually.
Jazz and classical music take some extra work to appreciate. Kids don't intuitively like these forms of music. It's only over time, when one has become a more discriminating listener that one begins to appreciate the finer details and superior musicianship that these forms offer. There is great richness in the more refined forms, and the effort a listener invests to understand these idioms pays off for them.
Sometimes, when I'm in a mood for it, I listen to jazz and classical music. Most times, though, I prefer pop music. The Beatles still rule my CD player. My tastes in reading run similarly. On occasion, I can appreciate an insightful, highly literate character study, but most of the time I just want a damn good story. I read genre fiction primarily for entertainment, and highly sophisticated literary techniques are often lost on me. When I'm reading for fun, I'm just not reading that deeply to care about whether the prose is sparkling or pedestrian.
The literati insist that the readers should be educated to understand and appreciate the finer points of good writing, just as the disdainful jazz and classical musicians look down their noses at the wild-haired rock musician playing three-chord ditties to the masses. The rock musicians laugh all the way to the bank.
Where should you stand as a writer? From an exclusively commercial standpoint, the plot-driven story, written in simple, clear prose will always have an audience. Highly stylistic "literary" prose is a smaller niche. Maybe that's a niche you are comfortable with, maybe not. I'm not suggesting you should dumb down your writing, but rather that you shouldn't try to force overly literary tricks in your writing just because you think it's required.
As for myself, I mostly write traditional plot stories in a fairly unadorned style. Once in a while I'll throw in some embellishments to make my prose look a bit more polished, but it's still simple storytelling. It's not the type of stuff that will win me awards, but I do sell a story now and then.
Maybe some day, when I've been writing longer, I'll develop a more literary style. And maybe I'll listen to more classical music as my listening tastes mature. A more artistic writing style may come naturally as I get better at writing, but I'm not trying to force it. I'm just trying to write good, entertaining stories. I think it's a mistake for any writer to decide that what he's doing is art. Whether something is "art" is always up to the audience to decide. When the artist decides that what he's doing is art, it's often just pretension.
Copyright © 1997 Brian Plante, first appeared in The New Jersey Graveline , March 1997. Count=5111
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