What makes it good? (pt. 2)

I don’t think it’s a secret that this blog sides with the Crime and Punishments, War and Peaces, and The Strangers of this world, and tends to avoid the Twilights, and Fifty Shades of Grays. It’s who we are. This does not mean that we dislike popular literature, genre literature, YA literature, children’s literature, graphic novels, or picture books. We do not. We do not care if your book is about the gender politics of 19th century Russia, empty pants with nobody inside them, people with wings, costume heroes, space battles, time travel, or giant monsters. All we ask is that the book manages to challenge the readers, to create something beautiful, to move beyond the clichés and tropes and distinguish itself as something of value.

This is where we distinguish the reader of certain literary aspirations and critical thinking skills (literati), and the reader who prances about with a Harlequin Romance novel and proclamations of self-ascribed McGenius.

It would be tempting to say that the avid reader of Shatter Me and the avid reader of Neil Gaiman could not possibly see their favorite works in the same way. However, as I said in my previous posts, most people do not only have reasons for why Twilight is better than Neverwhere, but have many, many reasons. And, since we have absolutely no problem with saying that not all reading is created equal, let’s look at one of the most popular of these excuses.

The fact is, no matter what you believe, it sounds absolutely daft to go about saying, “I like Dragons of Grathaba and Tolstoy is Satan!” without any reason for it. What is more, these readers are often genuinely fond of reading (and even more fond of using large words and being seen as a “voracious reader”). So, they will come up with their pet reasons for why great books “suck”. And they will use these reasons again, and again, and again.

Construction is one of the biggest pet terms for explaining why Dostoyevsky cannot write as well as, say, Danielle Steel. Anything that is loosely plotted, too introspective, having many plot lines, non-linear, experimental, or abstract is “poorly constructed”. “I like construction! It’s clear, it shows organization! This author is a poor constructor!”  they say.

The trouble is that this definition of construction (when even defined at all) is too limiting. Could you really say that a loose narrative is poorly constructed if an author manages to weave each thread beautifully through the entirety of the human experience? Is life itself a triangular set-up of conflict-climax-resolution? Is this person really valuing the art of construction itself when denying the beauty of a delicate, carefully balanced plot that exists on the edges of extremes and experiment? Is this reader really a lover of construction, who enjoys seeing the tiniest of literary building blocks moved into magical formulas and systems that create whole new geometries of poetic landscape? Or, is this person really just looking for a simple a-b-c construction, with even set pacing and easy-to-follow narrative? Can this person enjoy the labyrinthine constructions of tantalizing vignettes that rise within the psyche and open new chambers, new passages of revelation concerning character and plot depth? Or, is this person using construction as a stand in for straightforward, conflict-resolution, conflict-resolution, conflict-climax, denouement?
Moreover, where does that leave Dickens, whose plots are full of tangents and back story, or even Victor Hugo? I think such readers probably would despise Great Expectations or Les Miserables, and yet it is by the authors’ mastery of construction that they were able to create such multifaceted works.  I can only imagine that these supposed preservers of the prose form would die a painful death if touched with James Joyce! And yet, isn’t the construction of Joyce’s kaleidoscopic language what makes him so delightful, not to mention influential? Are the critics really preserving anything, or are these complainers depriving themselves of the beauty of writing in its diversity?

I don’t think that there is much to back up the construction arguments. What makes them especially frustrating is that the critics rarely define what they mean by construction, and usually only bring it up when focusing on something they dislike. I have yet to hear one of these critics take a look at their favorite novels and explain what it is that makes it so well constructed. How does the plot of Dystopia Girl from Planet Vampire Academy’s Erotic Dragon Adventures preserve some illusive standard of great construction? Or, on a positive note, how does a decent work of popular fiction, like Harry Potter, express positive construction techniques? I don’t mean to say that every person who complains about construction has horrible taste. I would simply like to see what they believe makes for good construction.

It strikes me as a sort of arrogance, really, that looks at the vast majority of great literature (which is not constructed in an a-b-c format), and sniffs disdainfully. What, exactly, makes a person so knowledgeable about writing that they*can look at their personal tastes and reason backwards, ignoring the entire progression of literature and its influence? Have you already arrived? You like to read, so you clearly know everything about writing as an art form?

To be continued…

-C

*Intentional use of the third-person singular neuter “they”. Make it happen.

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