The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
The complete title of this section is Slick Fiction, as against Quality Fiction.. In it Hills presents a historical timeline, describing how slick, serialized fiction moved from magazines to television in order to follow the migrating mainstream market. And he’s not shy about characterizing that market:
What the magazine readers wanted from it was entertainment and escape, and television can do that now more mindlessly than magazine fiction ever could. As is well known, you can’t beat a skunk in a contest that involves smelling bad.
Hills’ dismissive critique seems all the more snobbish given the passage of time. But Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular was originally written in 1977, and at that time many of the complaints Hills levels against television were broadly valid. Formulaic plots and cliche characters abounded, even as some writers tried to buck the creative and cultural constraints imposed by the networks.
I’ll have more to say about TV and storytelling in response to another section of Hills’ book, but for now I want to focus on the crux of his observations and complaints:
The writers of slick fiction went along, with the audience, to television. For unlike serious fiction, which has always been written whether there was any demand for it or not, the whole point and purpose of slick fiction was that it was written to order for a market, and once the market was gone the writing ceased.
If you think about storytelling in terms of gross tonnage, there’s no question more writing is done in the service of established commercial markets than is done in the service of art. That’s neither a surprise nor a pejorative observation. I don’t know what the ratio is of visits to amusement parks and museums, but I’m fairly confident that in most locales amusement parks beat the stuffing out of museums.
It doesn’t take a fiction editor to note that much of commercial storytelling is derivative, redundant, formulaic and, too often, just plain bad. Like anything that’s mass produced — and here you should be thinking of the corporate hot dog — the emphasis in commercial works is generally on satisfying demand as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Great writing is as necessary to the average commercial story in any medium as great cuts of meat are to commercial hot dogs. The difference might be noticeable, but neither the manufacturer nor the customer is willing to pay for that difference.
The effective limits of mass production function in commercial storytelling as they do in any commercial endeavor. Over time the manufacturing process is distilled to a profitable formula, giving rise in the storytelling industries to — literally — formulaic storytelling.
In a broad sense, then, Hills was and is right. The machinery of production drives storytelling conventions that are not, from the point of view of literary works, artistic. But since the metric of success in television is economic, not critical, it’s a moot point.
I do think television is embracing more innovative and artistic storytelling these days, precisely because there is no longer any monolithic control of the medium. Between fragmentation caused by cable and decreased market share driven by the internet it’s harder to capture market share by formulaic means. As a result artistry has a seat at the television table in a way that it probably never has, but that seat is available only because artistry has become a viable niche in the diluted TV market. It’s not art for art’s sake, it’s art for the market’s sake.
Interestingly, I think the following statement by Hills has also been affected by the passage of time in ways he might not have anticipated:
…serious fiction, which has always been written whether there was any demand for it or not…
It’s not that this statement is no longer true. It still holds, and holds equally for all arts. Since 1977, however, a new market for quality fiction has gained such prominence that it, too, is affecting what’s being written.
An MFA in fiction or poetry used to be both a terminal and practical degree. It was granted to students who demonstrated that they were qualified to write — or attempt to write — art. As MFA programs have grown, however, workshop fiction has taken on a life of its own. Not only have the number of MFA programs exploded, there are now Ph.D’s being given. Too, the degree itself is quite often pursued not simply as training for authorship, but as a gateway to a life spent teaching storytelling in a college setting. As a result there is concern that fiction written for admission or graduation from MFA workshops has become its own formulaic genre, and for the same reason that slick fiction came to be formulaic. It’s where the steady money is.
From a business standpoint the explosion of MFA programs only makes sense, provided demand stays strong. Other than the salary of the staff, there are no facility or material costs for offering an MFA. If the tuition of the students pays for the staff and provides a profit it’s a win-win for everyone.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s important to note that it has little or nothing to do with art. The MFA world, like mainstream entertainment, is now a market with its own demands. Fiction that used to be written by people who tended bar or worked other non-writing jobs, who had little or no expectation that their work would ever provide food and shelter, is now being consciously composed in service of salary and sabbatical. That doesn’t mean the writing is necessarily invalid as art, but it does mean that it’s being written — like mainstream fiction — for reasons other than art.
Fortunately, Hills posthumously rescues himself from such entanglements by retreating from his admitted literary bias to an emphasis on craft:
Along with the daydreaming and the cliche in slick fiction almost always goes the character shift. And all three abet one another.
And that, in the end, is the real distinction between slick fiction and quality fiction. Slick fiction is defined not by an intent to entertain, but by bad craft. Similarly, quality fiction is defined not by an intent to create art, but by successful craft. Hills’ belief about literary fiction, which I broaden to include all fiction, is that you should always try to write qualitatively superior work. And one of the easiest ways of doing that is to avoid character shifts in your stories.
I’ve read some well-written literary entertainments in my day. I’ve also read a ton of failed workshop fiction. In all cases, without exception, stories that work do so for craft reasons, not reasons of intent.
Next up: Moving Characters, as against Fixed Characters.
— Mark Barrett
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