Monday, April 27, 2009

Faded Glory Stretch – The Way America Lives

I spent spring break on a road trip with my sister and our combined gang of five children – ages 16, 13, 11, 10 and 7. Any idea what five children do the majority of a week? They eat and they outgrow things. I’ve now seen every Walmart Super Center up and down the coast of South Carolina. On one of our forays into Wally World I picked up a cheap cotton jersey dress in a jaunty turquoise geometric pattern. Not until we got to my mom’s house in Hilton Head did I bother to take the tag off and try the dress on.

The dress? Cute, fit nicely, will probably last for three washes. What do you want for a $10 dollar dress! The tag, however, was a different story. I almost never read tags, but this one was super-sized and something about it caught my eye. The tag was so ridiculously demonstrative that I went ahead and made it the title of this blog entry. I use words for a living – not only do I write fiction that I know will be published some day (thanks Carol, for that bit of wisdom!), I’m also a published poet, and I write operations manuals for restaurant groups. I can wield a word for many different purposes. So, who in their right mind would use words on a dress tag that so clearly state the uncomfortable facts of life in modern America?

Our glory has certainly faded a bit, both as a nation and as individuals. I could look at this through any number of lenses – political, economic, inventive – but I use words so I’m going to stick with the world of words. The novel as an art form – as more than a history – has had a great run in America. We gave the world Henry James, Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway. You know, all the greats. We’ve also done some real experimentation with our novels – William Faulkner with his ever changing points of view and his 22 page sentences. Curiously, over the past forty years we haven’t churned out much that can be considered earth-shatteringly new or inventive. In this time period Latin Americans have given the world Magical Realism and the inclusion of formerly disenfranchised as writers have given us some very compelling reads that are clearly the rise to the surface of new voices. The one thing we have given the world is the memoir. And look at how that has turned out. James Frey with his brutal public busting by Oprah. Candy Spelling and Tori Spelling have new books out this month, bringing the term Faded Glory to its penultimate level. I think what we have done is given great importance to the individual voices of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, set off nicely by the egocentric homages to ridiculous wealth and the cult of personality. We’ve succeeded greatly at being splinter groups and publishing utter dreck under the guise of memoir and chick lit. I’m so proud.

The second piece of the tag is even more troubling, however. We’re fat. We’re a nation of fat people who can no longer wear clothes unless they’ve got a bit of lycra in them to accommodate our ever-expanding backsides. Okay, so let’s bring this down to the world of words again – my dress is an XL so you know I have no room to expand on the actual physical fattening of America. We’ve gotten just as fat and lazy and in need of stretch with what we read. How many times have you picked up a novel in the last fifteen years and puzzled over how bad it was? We’re stuck in a trend that requires us to write to the lowest common denominator. Mass market fiction used to have some elements of up market fiction – narrative structure that accommodated more than just dialogue; descriptive passages that allowed the story to breathe and the setting to rise up as a unique character. Most of what I pick up today is just dialogue. Why is the narrative passage so verboten? Our minds are fat, that’s why. We can’t take the time to read narrative because that requires active engagement of the brain. We just want it all handed to us in dialogue, with a side of Coke and a bag of Doritos. Re-read some of the great mass market paperbacks from the 80’s and notice that they are more descriptive, with greater room for character arcs and setting. Even romance novels from that time period are different. Where are the LaVryle Spencers and Jude Devereauxs of today? Maybe this dumbing down and loss of narrative is a result of our general culture. Fast, faster, and right now this minute.

We keep being told that we have to kill our darlings and cut the backstory because readers don’t like descriptive scenes. I like them just fine, thank you very much, if they are done with skill. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

I’m veering into the “Back in the old days” mentality and running the risk of sounding like the bitter woman I am, but maybe we need to find a path back to that clearer and sharper glory that’s faded so much. I like a little side of literary with the love scenes and I’ve purchased too many books lately that are just trite streams of dialogue with some really odd backstory inserted in conversation. Just a few years ago I submitted to a contest and got this as feedback from someone: “You should take some time to watch soap operas and note how they handle dialogue.” Soap operas? Is that the best we can aspire to? Maybe I’ll do that and then write a memoir about it. I know – I can title it

Faded Glory.

25 comments:

Debbie Kaufman said...

Wow, Michelle. No, really, WOW. What an analytcal, thought-provoking post. I'm going to email all my friends and loops to read this today.
Debbie

The Writers Canvas said...

Yep. The curious thing is that I've read various pieces like this post a lot recently--so at least some of us are realizing that we're in this situation.

Something else contributing to the trend - 24 hour per day news. The news used to come on at 5p/10p (or whatever time, depending on your time zone). Now it's 24 hours a day, served up with the late nite special at Denny's if you want.

Add in a dash of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, the news swarming around people acting like they do. Everyone is interested in the superficial, the hype, the McDonalds happy meal and make sure the toy is included because I don't have time to go through the drive thru twice.

I think it's a mesh of things, along w/ 9/11. People are too scared to think about deeper things, because it's terrifying. So we stick to the dumb and dumber things, because at least we don't get hurt or risk emotion. Yet it's sad...because I agree w/you that we need to balance it out and not throw out the baby w/bathwater.

Good post, thx -
Elaine

Tammy Schubert said...

Great post, Michelle.

How did you keep your sanity on the trip with five kids?

Michelle said...

Thanks for the nice comments. I was a triffle hesitant to post this. How did I keep my sanity? My sister makes me laugh a lot and our kids all get along really well! That and a bottle of wine every night makes for a great trip.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

What an awesome post that really captured some of my frustrations as well. At the cold reads last October, one editor got less than a page through and said, "I'm out. Too much description." What happened to reading epics like Lonesome Dove?

But, what can I add to what you've already said? You wield your words with prowess, and I can see why you're a published poet. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Mitzi said...

What a marvelous post.
In this age of text-messaging and tweets on Twitter, we are dumbing down ourselves.
One of my favorite authors when I was much younger was Anya Seton. I have a young friend (30) who couldn't get through one of her books because there was "too much description."
Technology has made immediate gratification possible.
Me?
I like a long read with lots of "stuff" - I want to be inside the book - not hurry through.
But I'm also 61.
Thanks for the thought-provoking blog.
Mitzi

CiCi Barnes said...

Amen, sister. Preach it.

I couldn't agree more. We are dumbing down on so many levels. I do love description to help put me in the scene, as a writer and a reader. And what's wrong with a little backstory (key word: little). It helps set the stage. Yes, I know it can be overdone, but what can't?

TV certainly doesn't help. They bring on a show for 4 or 5 episodes, then have reruns, then interrupt with specials. No consistency, no routine. We're all living in fits and starts these days.

I like routine. I think we need routine.

And I like this post.

Way to tell us how you really feel. Loved it.

CiCi

J Perry Stone said...

Och, get out of my head, Michelle. I think we're generally over-stimulated and under-whelmed. I've actually been trying to write my WIP in such a way so that very little effort is required from my reader--this after being told I was too too in other efforts.

Sigh.

Once I get sold (again, Carol!), I'll strike a nice balance. I promise.

And I cannot believe you mention magic-realism. As a Spanish minor (English major), magic realism occupied so many of my thoughts as how it relates to culture. The mixture of the Spanish, Indian and European and suddenly there is a Very Old Man with Enormous Wings in the village. I think now about the surge of paranormal sales and how it is strange bedfellow to magic-realism. What does this say about us now? Has empiricism finally failed us? Do we need that much of an escape? Why?

Dammit. Now I have more questions.

Marilyn Baron said...

Great post. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. But on the other hand, I've read so many wonderful books in the past few years. And I think there's room for a range of tastes and styles in the marketplace. If someone finds a moment of refuge or happiness in a book (any book) who are we to dictate to them?

My book club is reading the short stories of Flannery O'Connor and while she is a brilliant writer and I appreciate her talent, she's depressing me. I could use some happy endings.

I just finished Jodi Picoult's new book "Handle with Care" and "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," and while I enjoyed and found both of those novels very engaging, I was so disappointed in the endings.


Marilyn Baron

Michelle said...

I hear you Marilyn. I do read mostly literary fiction and I find a lot of it depresses me. Magical Realism is a genre I admire so much and wish I could get to work right, but we just don't have enough of a tradition of magic in America - outside of New Orleans and the Creole traditions. I think attempts at magical realism do run off into paranormal and I'm just not that into paranormal. I love Paulo Coelho. I read romance because I like to be uplifted and at my core I believe in love, but I'm tired of having to walk between Syclla and Charybdis in my reading (and writing) material. Why can't a novel be a romance and be literary at the same time? Why does a happy ending preclude narrative structure and why does narrative structure preclude a happy ending?

Susan May said...

Great post. I agree with you also. Maybe it is time to shift back some. Thanks for voicing so many author's thoughts.

babs m said...

Not that soap operas and other television don't do dialogue well-- that's what they are. Screenplays. They'd BETTER do dialogue well. But book readers are looking for a different experience. Maybe Russian fiction of the Nabokov era isn't what everyone wants either, but let's hope to aspire to something grander than Passions. Best wishes for your writing!

Babs

Marin Thomas said...

Michelle--great post!

I'm hearing over and over from editors that pacing is everything--fast. Cut back on character introspection and use words carefully when describing setting details etc. We're a nation of on-the-go consumers and we want our books to read like the fast food we eat.

Marin
A Cowboy's Promise (April 2009)
www.marinthomas.com

Nicki Salcedo said...

Oh, Michelle. How right (and write) you are. I can't even draft a proper comment without exactly repeating what you have already said.

The wonderful thing about being around writers (and this blog) is that we force ourselves to look at writing both critically and with joy.

I will continue to write the way I write. I will not dumb down my writing, because readers are smart. They want to be challenge even when reading popular fiction. I will work on losing those last dreaded 30 lbs. I will watch soap opera every now and then for "dialogue" and not the cute actors!

Thanks for giving us a kick in the right direction today.

Anonymous said...

Michelle, I loved your post. I hear it and have read reviews of authors about too much backstory or too much description. I tend to read on the go but when I read I'm into the book totally. I've traveled to another place or time. I like meaty stories with lots of informaiton so I can experience as if I was there.
Kathy Crouch
First Place Winner
Southern Heat Contest- 2008
East Texas Chapter -
Romance Writers of America

Cyrano said...

Brilliant!
You should write your own column. Your post was an incredibly inciteful read.
I still pine for the authors I grew up on, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Colleen McCullough, and yes, Jude Devereaux. These women actually told stories, real stories with colorful, evocative scenes and compelling narrative. They made reading an experience.
I agree with you whole heartedly. I miss absorbing elegantly written, graceful prose. I'd much rather spend a rainy afternoon immersed in the beauty of well crafted narrative than blow unimpressed through some of the novels I've started recently. I say "started" since these novels are almost never finished. They end up being slotted into my ever growing library of disapointing stories.
I'd like to start a new library. A personal library full of books that inspire me. Written by authors that make me gasp in awe of their remarkable talent.
What would make me happiest, however, is to be able to write one myself. Here's hoping.
Excellent post!
Have a lovely afternoon and may the next book you read be a great one!
Tamara

Linsey Lanier said...

Posted like a true MFA, Michelle. You have some interesting thoughts.

Are your poems anywhere online? You'll have to share the links.

A literary romance? Sounds compelling. Perhaps that "subgenre" is your calling.

Linsey

Sandra Elzie said...

Michelle,

I bow to your description of our Faded Glory...in politics, in our way of life and in our literature. Yes, I'm familiar with someone wanting to "dumb down" my writing. Sad state of affairs.

Loved your post...made me sit up and read with concentration and thought instead of my usual relaxing stroll.

Kudos, Girl. Good Job.

Sandy Elzie

Anna Steffl said...

Don't get me started on this topic. My fangs don't hold enough venom.

Great essay, Michelle.

Anna Steffl said...

Maybe it's high time to revitalize the literary romance.

Tami Brothers said...

Hey Michelle,

SEE!!! Can I say I told you so???

....grin....

I LOVE this post, Michelle! I'm glad you decided to post it. I do agree with your feelings on this. I LOVE the description that writers like Nora Roberts puts into her stories. But a lot of us today are told to trim out that extra stuff that a lot of readers love. It's hard being a writer in today's world when you LOVE the detail of the old stories...

Thanks for posting today...

Tami

Mary Marvella said...

Hey, Michelle!

How ofter do you hear, "But the reader might not understand." or "The reader will be bored and put it down if..."?

I am the reader, but the old lady reader who couldn't possibly know what younger readers like.

I'm still a reader and there are more and more of us old ladies. Old English/language arts teachers are readers and we love good writing that touches our hearts and has impact.

Mitzi said...

Mary:
Brava!
From another "old" Mary.
Mitzi

Jessica Doyle said...

Thanks for this, Michelle.

The mention of Tori Spelling writing a book made me think of a story in a biography of Dorothy Parker (whom I adore) when she was writing book reviews for The New Yorker. One of the books she savaged -- and there were many -- was a memoir by Nan Britten, who was President Harding's mistress. So in the decade during which The Great Gatsby, O Pioneers!, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider were being published, some publisher, somewhere, was paying out money to the 1920s edition of Monica Lewinsky. (For the curious: bestseller lists by decade.)

I think the same thing that happened to the literature of previous decades will happen to the literature of this one: the overhyped books will fade from view, a few lucky books will get a posthumous hearing, and some here and there will wind up in the "canon." And a lot of it will depend on the whims of editors, which are not necessarily synonymous with the whims of the reading public.

Finally, I highly recommend you check out B.R. Myers, an Atlantic Magazine critic who occasionally tackles the question "Why do modern novels suck so bad?" with vitriol, force, and wit.

Becky said...

I love books that are about people's lives. I just finished reading a great memoir titled, "Cornfield Heiress" by Errollynne Peters that blew me away! I had no idea that a person could experience so much in life! I love Tori Spelling and would also love to read her book.