Words vs. story

Last night, my friend Sarah and I got into a discussion about “beautiful words” versus “compelling story.” This quickly evolved (devolved?) into a discussion about literary fiction vs. genre. We weren’t really arguing, since we both came from Serious Literary Aspirations and then broadened our scope to include Passionate YA Love. But I was probably harsher on literary fiction than she was.

Sarah and I are both loud and opinionated and like to have the last word, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when she continued our discussion via email. She said:

“I feel like I need to justify one point that literary has going for it — it is often a very close reflection of real life, real human thought. Human stories are not always or usually plotted.”

And you know what? She couldn’t be more right.

Part of what makes life so interesting, so compelling, is its unpredictability. A plotted story is expected to have twists (ironic, no?), often at certain points within the narrative. But life, life can throw you a curveball whenever the hell it wants. (And oh boy, will it.)

As a halfie, I’m very familiar with the idea of straddling two worlds, and that’s what I’m trying to do as a writer, too. I want to take the best parts of my literary background and merge them with the best parts of the commercial/genre stories that I love. Why does it have to be words versus story? Can’t they work together?

I think they can. If you’re looking for good reads that live in the middle of the spectrum, here are a few of my recommendations:

Do y’all have any others to add to the list? Literary books that have commercial-style plotting, genre fiction that uses literary turn of phrase, or anything in between?

12 responses to “Words vs. story”

  1. Sonja Avatar

    I’d say that “Seeking Sara Summers” by Susan Gabriel straddled two worlds: literary fiction and romantic fiction. That’s all that comes to mind at the moment.

  2. Amanda Kendle Avatar

    No books spring to mind to add to your list (it’s early in the morning over here …) but I totally get where you’re coming from! When I write I really try to combine the beautiful words/compelling story thing; I pretty much only read literary fiction but don’t seem to write what I would exactly call lit fic because I seem to get more involved with the story side … perhaps this is a fault and I should figure out where I want these books to sit, or perhaps it’s OK – will figure that out if or when they get published (and if they don’t, that should be a big telltale sign!).

  3. […] Hoffman, my loyal commenter and a writer who inspires and motivates me, blogged about writing with beautiful words versus telling a compelling story, and I was reminded that I really want to work on my ability to use beautiful […]

  4. Sarah Avatar

    Oh man, do I feel compelled to get the last word! I’m a nightmare, really. :) I agree with you Kristan that the best books are those that somehow combine good story with excellent turning of phrases and metaphor. For me, part of the enjoyment of a story is the language. My favourite example is David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, number9dream.
    He lived in both Japan and the UK so he very much straddled cultural divisions. His novels reflect that in how they combine several different genres in one book and do so with beautiful language.
    I feel like a “halfie” too in that I grew up in the US, but a huge part of my adult formation happened while I lived in England. I like to call myself and “in-betweener.”
    I like your recommendations and realized I haven’t read any of them–I’ve been so absorbed in YA. Will get on it!

  5. Kristan Avatar

    That works. Do you think I’d like it? Maybe I will buy it on my new Kindle after xmas… ;P

    I don’t think it’s a fault, at all! I don’t think there’s anything *wrong* with books on either end of the spectrum. It’s just my personal taste to prefer the books more in the middle. (That said, I recall thinking your excerpt was *lovely*!)

    Also, books in the middle seem to sell really well, haha. Jamie Ford’s HOTEL has been on the bestseller list for over a year (and with good cause!).

    I’ll have to check those out. Any recommendation for what I should read first, out of those 3?

    And yes, you’re very much an in-betweener. I like how you embrace it, instead of letting it make you lonely. I think some in-betweeners feel lost as opposed to doubly-found. :)

  6. Les Avatar

    I wish I was more into the literature aspect of things. Maybe that’s my problem when it comes to writing? I tend to not differentiate between genres and purely read what I like… which isn’t a bad thing, but with it comes a distinct lack of understanding.

  7. Sonja Avatar

    Hmm, well, it’s about a woman in her 50s, in a loveless marriage to a man, who ends up falling in love with an old childhood friend who is a woman. It’s definitely well written. Some of the plot isn’t that strong (which is in line with the point of your post) but the plot is fine. So it’s up to you if any of that sounds appealing!

    But you should totally read “Lost in a Good Book” and “The Well of Lost Plots” first. ;)

  8. Kristan Avatar

    Mmm… Yes and no. I think ignorance can be bliss, sometimes. At a certain stage, we all probably have to pull our heads out of the sand, but when it comes to just reading or writing for fun, sand can be great. :)

    Sounds pretty interesting, actually. And yes yes, Fforde!

  9. Jon Avatar

    Faulkner writes some beautiful, exciting prose along with good stories–As I Lay Dying or Light in August are pretty good examples.

  10. Kristan Avatar

    Oh, thanks. AS I LAY DYING is definitely on my TBR list; sometimes I just forget the “golden oldies.” ;P

  11. Jamie Ford Avatar

    There’s definitely a sweet spot between commercial and literary (and agents are ALWAYS looking for these types of books).

    Nothing wrong with literary, nothing wrong with more commercial reads. Plenty of room in the bookstore for both.

    The only thing that confounds me is when authors lament where they fall on that literary map. I know a lot of literary authors that complain about not selling any books, and on the flip-side are best-selling genre writers that complain about not winning any awards.

    Oh, the humanity…

  12. Kristan Avatar

    “Nothing wrong with literary, nothing wrong with more commercial reads. Plenty of room in the bookstore for both. The only thing that confounds me is when authors lament where they fall on that literary map.”

    Yes! I think I missed those two points in my rambling… But I agree 100%, and I’m so glad you said them.

    I think things always looks better in the other lane (inevitably the one you switch to seems to stop moving!) but bottom line, we’re all driving, right? So why don’t we enjoy our car, our lane, our journey? :)