Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Little Fires Everywhere: Are Rules Different for Literary Novels?

Let me preface this blog post by saying that my main diet of reading genres consists of page-turning thrillers, dark suspense, police procedurals, and clever mysteries. I rarely read literary novels and am choosy about which ones I pick—books I’ve loved like The Kite Runner and Love in the Time of Cholera, and books I didn’t love that others did, like The Help. I have dozens of books on my home bookshelves and in my Kindle, but the stay at home order has limited my library visits. I decided to expand my reading into books that have reached bestseller status that I can download from my library’s Overdrive/Libby app. That’s how I chose Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. Most of the reviews were stellar. The book starts with the semi-ending, a device I dislike. Many people hate prologues. I don’t mind them. This wasn’t a prologue; it was part of the ending, and it took away some of the edge. The book is a story of privilege, of mothers’ love, and of class.

I started writing late in life. I learned from writing classes and from people who knew writing and who eased me into what I needed to know and showed me where I was wrong. I’m still learning. That’s the same way I learned my art when I went to art school. Call it the rules, if you will. I call it learning the basics. Once you know them, you can veer off and “create” something that might not follow the rulebook. If you study Picasso, you will see that his early work is traditional. He learned the rules, then created his specific style that others copied. I try to follow the writing rules when I write, and I notice when they’re so flagrantly ignored in others’ works.

Ms. Ng’s writing is lovely and beautiful. That is a fact. In some scenes, you’re blinded to the fact that the author is writing pages and pages of descriptive, flowery details of the character’s photograph compositions. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to be able to write beautiful, poetic passages, but then I’d probably have a gruesome murder that would erase all the beauty. We write what we write, but let's not forget that beautiful writing does not solely make a great book.

What really annoyed me were the POV switches. We’re in one head with a long internal, then there’s a thought from the other person in the scene. Throughout the book. (I just broke a rule with a fragment.) One friend who read the book didn’t notice. I noticed, constantly. Head-hopping is okay if it’s well done, another writer friend said. Still another writer friend said it best, and I quote, “I'm sick of hearing how 'literary' authors don't have to follow the rules we mere mortals do.” There’s the old saying that rules are meant to be broken. Maybe, but when it’s distracting, doesn’t it defeat the purpose?

I almost quit reading after the first fifty pages. Why did I continue? I wanted to know what happened. Chalk that up to the underlying mystery and the author’s clever way of pulling the reader along. I also wanted to know how these two disparate women evolve throughout the book. One didn’t, the other did though too late for any meaningful changes in their lives. Both were self-absorbed and shallow.

Some claim this is more of a young adult book. It is and it isn’t. The teens in the book are an important part and the driving force, but the two mothers ultimately control the story. Reese Witherspoon thought it was such a great book, her production company made a series for Hulu, though I’ve read they changed the ending. I have no desire to see it.

There are side plots: an adoption trial pitting a Chinese woman and her baby against a privileged couple who lovingly raised her for a year. It’s complicated and one of the more interesting aspects of the book though the outcome is contrived and manipulated and unforgivable. There are teens in love, a friendship betrayal, and a mother’s love so strong and deep that she doesn’t realize what she’s doing to the most important person in her life: the teen daughter who unbelievably goes along with being uprooted over forty times in her life. There’s so much more that strains credulity, but I won’t elaborate. I also won’t make a judgment on what I thought of the ending, nor will I judge the characters and their choices. Those are for the reader to decide.

The theme of this blog is about the writing, at once lyrical and even magical, and sometimes overwritten, along with the first person, POV switch, and narrator storytelling, all sometimes on one page and a couple of times in one paragraph. I will never reach the bestseller status of Ms. Ng, but I’ll plod along, keeping to the rules the best way I can, maybe veering a little, and hoping my characters are believable. Murder is seldom magical.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

20 comments :

  1. Your post is so timely for me. I write literary fiction because character development and a reader's ability to identify with one or more of the people populating my book is important to me. This in no way demeans the value of a strong plot. The best characters will fall short in a weak story, so I try to create a balance of 55-60 percent character driven and 40-45 percent plot driven. This gives my reader the best of both worlds. My current project, a final revamping of my first novel, includes the introduction of a new protagonist, who will also appear in future stories. As that work proceeds, serious consideration will be given to the points you made in this post. On another note, you have inspired my article for this month. I hadn't settled on a topic, so thank you for giving me the nudge I needed. Well done on all fronts, Polly. :-)

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    1. Linda Lane: "I write literary fiction because character development and a reader's ability to identify with one or more of the people populating my book is important to me."

      Polly Iyer: I write crime fiction, and character development and a reader's ability to identify with one or more of the people populating my book is important to me.

      Character development isn't genre specific. I don't care how good the plot is, if we don't dig into our characters and make readers care about them, we lose. How many reviews have you read where the reader says s/he didn't care what happened to the main characters? Frankly, in the book I'm blogging about, I didn't care what happened to the two women, but I did care what happened to the daughter of one of them.

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    2. If I seemed to imply that character development in genre fiction isn't important, I apologize. Good plot development and characterization are essential in all stories--in my opinion. I found an interesting discussion of genre, literary, and mainstream fiction, and I'm including the link. After reading the description of each, I think my books are closer to mainstream than to literary. [ https://www.toasted-cheese.com/community/fiction/ ] Regardless of category, the rules of good writing apply to all works. By the way, I agree that a reader has to care about at least one character. Otherwise, what's the point in reading the story?

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    3. In the old days, whem I entered contests, I always had a problem putting my books into a genre until an agent said, just call it crime fiction. So I did. The link you posted is great and deserves a blog post. I don't mean to sound like a know-it-all, but I really hate the compartmentalizing of novels. I know the biggest question is on what shelf will it go in a bookstore, so it's important. I just have a hard time with it.

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  2. Great post, Polly.

    When I read "There’s the old saying that rules are meant to be broken. Maybe, but when it’s distracting, doesn’t it defeat the purpose?" I immediately shouted, "It most definitely defeats the purpose."

    Being different for different's sake doesn't necessarily make for something GOOD.

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    1. We as writers read differently, and I think in some cases, it has destroyed enjoying some books because we're reading through a different lens. Before I started writing and learning those rules, I would never have noticed the things that drove me nuts about the technical aspects, but I sure would have noticed the manipulative story plots.

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  3. The thing about good art is you really like it or you really don't, and neither interpretation is wrong. I haven't read this book under discussion so I won't comment on that. Polly's comment about being dragged along due to strength of story struck a chord. Even though many elements of the story construction didn't work for you, the glue of the story held you fast. That's good storytelling, one that all authors strive for across genres. I'm glad there are so many kinds of books because there are many kinds of readers too. And too, once a person knows the generally accepted elements of storycraft, it's impossible not to see when those lines are crossed, so I can see how it was a challenge for you to finish a very different styled book. Good for you!

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    1. You're correct, Maggie. Yes, it was a challenge to finish this book, and I almost didn't. I've tried another genre I don't usually read, science fiction, again a bestseller, and I quit that one last night. But I'm trying. (Patting myself on my back.)

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  4. Love this post, Polly. My daughter read and enjoyed the book, but I have not read it. After reading your post, I'm not sure I'll try it. I have so many good books already on my shelves and in my Kindle, I don't need to add a "maybe."

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    1. I think it comes down to how much a reader knows about the technicalities of writing. Like I said, those things might not have bothered me if I didn't know them, but the story would have.

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  5. There are mystery/romantic suspense authors who head-hop and never lose the reader. Nora Roberts comes to mind. But, she does it very skillfully, and seldom occurs within the same paragraph. I don't pretend to have her skill. I do POV switches, but they are in different scenes/chapters with clear breaks. If I find I'm reading a book that annoys me, I put it down. Too many options of great books and I'm too old to feel compelled to finish an annoying book. Read for the joy!

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    1. I treat POV switches the same way you do, Linda. After all, you were one of the people who taught me. I thank you.

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  6. I agree with Shonell, above. I feel that any phrase or device that pulls me out of the narrative and makes me uncomfortably aware of the act of writing, it could have been done better. Devices that call attention to themselves aren't being used well, IMHO. I can think of several novels that one of my profs called "writerly"--calling attention to how clever the author is. I cringe a bit at those. POV switches can work, but they also have to be thematically appropriate. For example, I can imagine have a POV switch mid-paragraph maybe if a young woman is strongly identifying with her mother, or her mother is domineering; if their psychologies are blurring together, a POV splice might work. My two cents. But I write in first-person, so I don't head-jump. That has its own challenges and limitations. :) Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Polly!

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    1. Yes, your example works. I'd probably use italics in that case, but that's a matter of style. Anything that takes a reader out of the scene defeats the scene, and that includes a $100 word. Thanks for commenting, Karen.

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  7. I see this in British, and some Canadian, mysteries. It drives me bonkers! I cannot honestly tell whose head the thoughts are coming from. Sometimes I can't tell who is supposed to be speaking. I KNOW that some readers don't even notice this because those books win all kinds of awards. Not everyone knows, or follows, good fiction-writing practices. Outside mystery, I'm sure it's worse! I don't read much non-crime fiction, mostly non-fiction for palate cleansing.

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    1. The bestsellers are the most annoying. We who follow rules rarely get to that level, so it's maddening that a book like this, with such flawed, unlikable, and irresponsible characters, gets to the top of the charts.

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  8. I just get annoyed if the broken rules stand out enough to get my attention and take me out of the story. I've set aside many books for this very reasons. For me, head-hopping is the worst broken rule of all. I once did a novella-length story with the intention of breaking as many rules as a could. Rereading that piece is painful.

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    1. You would be annoyed at this story, Pat. You can't miss the fact that it's a three-character head hop, the character, another character, and the narrator. My head spins thinking of it.

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  9. I get bored with long descriptions, even if they're well written. I also am leery about head hopping. I prefer separate chapters for each character's point of view, so I can easily tell who's experiencing what. I'm not sure if I would have continued reading that book to find out what happened. There had to have been a great hook involved.

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    1. Morgan, with so many rave reviews, I guess I wanted to see why, and that had to come as the story progressed, or so I thought. It didn't.

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