Friday, August 16, 2013

What is Good Fiction?

By Susan

What is good fiction?

Elizabeth Lynd: As a reader, I really just want to be entertained, and if I can be moved while I'm at it, that's gold. As a writer, I am always on the lookout for clever crafting that I can apply to my own work. How did the writer structure the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the novel? I've learned a ton about how to write (and how not to write) from reading. I guess that's one reason I always give credit to big readers for being likely good writers.

I travelled over 3400 miles in my eight-year-old Chevrolet this summer.  My daughters and I touched thirteen states, swam in four different lakes in four different states, hiked in the forest of my childhood, and made the most of visiting far-flung family and friends. We also spent that time browsing, buying and reading good fiction. My older daughter, who turned fourteen on our journey, spent the majority of her reading time with Tolkien. My younger daughter tackled her school-assigned summer reading list, and I set out to complete all the novels of my instructors at the Appalachian Writers Workshop, which I attended for the second time over the last week in July. I was prepared to learn all I could about good fiction.

Julie Kibler: Good literature is in the eye of the beholder ... errr, mind of the reader. Is it a premise that draws me in? Do I struggle to put it down? Or think about it for days or years after I finish? Or sigh deeply at a turn of phrase or perfect ending? Or feel as if I simply spent time in the company of characters I'd hang out with in real life? Or feel stretched and challenged by a point of view or idea I hadn't considered before? That's all good. And for me, the genre is completely irrelevant if that's what happened.

James Still's Home Library
By the time I arrived in Hindman, Kentucky for the Appalachian Writers Workshop, I carried with me one suitcase dedicated to books alone, and was pleased to discover that my room for the week was actually a fold-out couch in the library of JamesStill's house. James Still, a well-known Kentucky writer, left his home to the Hindman Settlement School after his death in 2001. Suddenly, I had not only my own suitcase full of books to read, but I also slept surrounded by his tempting lifetime collection of good fiction.

Joan Mora: Good fiction? It's a great story, yes, but it¹s all about character and voice for me. Emotionally, who are these characters and what is so compelling in their lives that I want to spend 350+ pages with them? I like to learn something profound to relate to my own life or see the world through a very different set of eyes, to live for a while a character¹s world and feel drained or stunned or enlightened or frightened. Beyond that, I love when authors find ways to surprise me. Their sentences are unique ­ I have not read them before.

"What is good fiction?" On the first morning of workshop, Mark Powell, my novel instructor for the
Susan with Mark Powell.
I'm holding his latest book,
The Dark Corner
week, posed this question. In the afternoons, as I sat at James Still's desk writing the final scenes of this draft of my novel, I tried to answer the question for myself. Was I so bold as to hope that I could not only recognize good fiction but also write it myself? We spent the week of workshop diving into fiction, finding the subtleties and nuances of fiction. What makes it tick. What makes it good.

Pamela Hammonds: I look for a book to transport me--into another time, into a person's life, into a community that comes alive from the first page. I don't want to work too hard to get there, so if I have to reread lines or if I find I have to make myself pick up the book, I'll go read something else. I love it when an author takes an ordinary task--like walking a dog or cooking supper--and makes it lyrical. 

By the end of the week, I'd read and analyzed short stories by Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, Ron Carlson, and ZZ Packer. We'd talked about novels by writers as diverse as Gustave Flaubert, Zadie Smith, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, and Leo Tolstoy. My head was swimming in good fiction, but could I define it succinctly for myself? Isn't good literature, as Julie so aptly put it, in the eyes of the beholder?

Susan Ishmael-Poulos: Am I invested in the characters? Do their struggles point me toward something grander than myself? Does the story grab me by throwing characters into situations where their choices reveal their character? Are their actions and choices giving me insight into not only their own character, but also perhaps, mine? Good fiction answers YES to these questions. I'm looking for something in a good book that I can't get with a movie or a play: I want to see what happens inside the character that changes them—how their choices are driven by their thoughts.

And then there's this question: If I can identify good fiction and enjoy reading it, can I also emulate it? What should I work to mimic, and what should I avoid? How can my characters reveal the content of their character in a compelling way? As a writer, I struggle to answer these questions with every scene.

What about you? How do you define good fiction?

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