“Too many writers of literary fiction tend to stage intimate stories in the hermetically sealed worlds of their own imaginations, but Mathis never loses touch with the geography and the changing natural culture through which her characters move.” Bravo! I loved this comment when I came across it in a Star Ledger review by Ron Charles of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, a much-praised debut novel by Ayana Mathis.
I think Ron is onto something. By definition, literary fiction is concerned with style, but a preoccupation with this aspect of craft often gets in the way of telling a good story. Sometimes, especially when I’m reading a contemporary writer with a reputation for being a literary heavy weight, I find myself put off by a kind of contrived artfulness. The writer is so busy calling attention to his or her style that each sentence seems to end with a little sign that screams “Aren’t I clever? Did you see how I managed to put these weighty thoughts together? Ain’t it grand?” To be honest, this kind of literary showboating doesn’t appeal to me; in fact, it’s a definite turn off.
I’m not especially interested in roaming around the “hermetically sealed worlds” of authors’ imaginations, as Ron Charles put it. Worlds like these seem cramped and narrow — and often inaccessible and self-absorbed. To my mind, literary fiction that puts writing in the service of the story is far more expansive and engaging.
Take Flaubert: He’s a flawless stylist who rewrote relentlessly in his search for the right words to capture his meaning. And yet, his style is never labored or stilted or self-involved: it flows naturally and lyrically. And far from being a “hermetic” world, the world of Madame Bovary for example, opens into our own. Her world may be narrow and stifling in her mind, but it has a universality — a spaciousness — that we recognize because we see ourselves and people and situations we know mirrored in it. For a reader, this is far more satisfying than rummaging around in a writer’s mind looking for clues about what he or she is really trying to say. So let’s forgo “hermetically sealed” worlds and embrace the wider ones waiting patiently beyond them. Write on!