I’ve written before about how I like stories in which men cry, and emotional stories in general. But in my reading experience, big emotional scenes are harder to find in literary fiction.
The undergraduate fiction workshops I attended didn’t encourage writing those kinds of scenes. Invariably, people would argue that they weren’t “earned,” even if the story did lead up to them. Sometimes students would wind up changing the bang at the end of their story to a whimper.
It perplexed me. The stories I loved most – from Shakespeare and Dumas and Dickens to contemporary fantasy novels – featured characters taking heroic or tragic action, making grand gestures, and saying things that warmed or broke my heart.
I craved stories that, among other things, delivered brain-chemical-altering emotional highs. I liked novels that – as certain drugs do, I’ve heard – made me feel epic. But no one was encouraging me to write stories like that.
I still made A’s and won distinctions for my writing. Most of us can learn how to follow the rules. I won a coveted poetry fellowship to a MFA program.
In one of the first workshops, the professor asked what we wanted to accomplish with our poems. This was an easy one for me. My favorite poet was Walt Whitman—exhilarating, expansive. I said I wanted to write poetry that moved people emotionally and inspired them.
My professor explained that this was called Romantic poetry, and nobody wrote it any more.
Of course, nobody read poetry any more, either, or at least not “literary” poetry. I wonder why?
Every genre has its conventions, and one of the conventions of contemporary literary writing is emotional stinginess. There are some literary novels in which emotions run high, but they are unusual.
More often in “serious” novels, the dramatic moments are muted, and you have to slog so long to get to them. It’s like running on the treadmill for an hour before you get to have a chocolate bar, which turns out to be a dry granola bar.
You wanted an over-the-top gesture of defiance? An act of courage? A grand declaration of love? Sorry, you get a quiet realization, or a conversation in which most things go unsaid. Thanks, literary fiction!
This is supposed to make characters more realistic. I’m not sure it always does. I know my share of emotionally open people, and dramatic and rash people too, I’m happy to say.
I think the other reason why literary writers are wary of big emotional scenes is that they are earnest. You have to mean them. It’s much safer to maintain a sense of being too smart to fall for sentiment, perpetually in on life’s mostly-crappy joke.
The miserly attitude to emotion and sincerity bleeds into matters of style. Yes, writing can get too flowery, and yes, one doesn’t want to over-use adverbs, but to behave as though every long word or adverb is a mistake is conformist and ridiculous.
In the past several years, some people have written about how pathetic it is for adults to read young adult novels. Fans of romance and, to a lesser degree, fantasy, have always attracted some scorn.
Lots of us who read genre fiction like this don’t have any trouble reading and digesting “serious” novels. Lots of us can appreciate exquisite prose.
We’re not reading young adult novels because we’re immature, romance novels because we’re unrealistic, or fantasy novels because we have no grip on reality at all.
We just want emotional stories that thrill us, make us fall in love, and make us cry, and literary novels don’t always provide that emotional ride.
Do you read both literary fiction and genre fiction, or just one or the other? Do you crave emotional scenes, or do they not make much difference to you? I always learn a lot from commenters, so please share! Thanks for reading!