A few days ago I was having a debate with a chap who is both a genre author and genre critic. Not surprisingly, the core of the debate seemed (to me) to be about “pulp” values versus “literary” values, as applied to genre fiction. My opponent seemed to believe that I was an all-pulp man, since I have frequently and vociferously advocated for storytelling that makes adventure and exploration the “vehicle” with message/theme being the “passenger” in said vehicle. He, on the other hand, seemed to be saying that literature is “progressing” toward some as-yet-unseen horizon of literary perfection? For all definitions of “progress” which include, “The stuff this decade is automatically better than the stuff two decades ago, and the stuff two decades from now will be automatically better than what’s being published in the present.”
I’ve encountered this before. It’s similar to the straight-line theory of history, which assumes that human events are (more or less) traveling along an ever-ascending ramp that leads upward to some kind of lofty nirvana of human civilization. I suppose that’s a natural enough assumption, given the fact that the period since the Industrial Revolution has seen an astounding array of technological advancements which have made your average 21st century American’s life both cushy and long; at least by the standards of someone stuck on the farm in 1758. Or even 1902.
But just as history does not travel an arbitrary path — it’s a variably oscillating waveform, not a straight line — there is no “final destination” for literature. There are merely the two ends of what you might imagine to be a literary horseshoe:
At one end of the horseshoe you have the “pulpy” stuff: visceral, action-packed, perhaps even hard-boiled? Emphasis on “doing” versus thinking.
At the other end you have the “literary” stuff: cerebral, theme-intensive, and sometimes abstract. Emphasis on “thinking” versus doing.
There are audiences waiting for you — the author — at both ends of the horseshoe. But there is nothing to say that you can’t combine both. Too much action and not enough contemplation, and your story becomes the tale of the idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Too much contemplation and not enough action, and your story becomes the prototypical MFA piece: your main character does very little, thinks about a great deal, and again your story signifies nothing.
In order to hit the “sweet spot” you need to aim for the zone at the top of the horseshoe.
I’ve color-coded the diagram, for emphasis. Red is “hot” in that it reaches for the primal instincts in your reader, while blue is “cool” and emphasizes contemplation and meditation on deeper issues, beyond the actual story proper. The big green oval is the melding of the two: just enough “oomph” to keep your reader pumping along, but also enough pondering on subtext and meaning that when the reader finishes the tale, the reader can walk away believing (s)he has experienced something worthwhile, and which may stick with her long after the final page has been turned.
There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of many literary critics and taste-makers to favor blue, over both green and red. I have a lot of pet theories as to why, but I think one of the chief reasons is because many literary critics and taste-makers are over-exposed. A bit like somebody who is a judge at an apple pie baking contest. Assuming you have to take a slice out of a hundred or more apple pies, how long until they all taste the same? How long until you’re sick of apple pie? Versus the youngster who may be biting into an apple pie for the very first time, thus the experience is a fantastically new, and altogether delightful experience — even if that specific pie is one of the worst examples in the lot? Or, to use another comparison, it’s like a sex addict who has to experiment with ever-more-bizarre fetishes, in order to try to achieve the same satisfaction (s)he once enjoyed with merely “mundane” physical love.
So, don’t think you have to tailor your output for the over-exposed, who may be falling all over themselves regarding the latest literary trend or fad, completely oblivious to how interesting, accessible, and enjoyable a work might be — for the common audience member. Your job is to write with the green oval in mind: people who’ve got some expectations in terms of overall sophistication, but who’ve never mistaken fetishism, nor deliberately self-conscious style, nor obsessive thematic masturbation, for actual storytelling.
This is nothing new, of course. Ever since the first human tribe gathered at the camp fire — to tell each other stories in the moonlight — we’ve experienced the gravitational pull of the two “sides” at work: pulp, versus literary. The gut, versus the head.
I think if you’re hitting the green zone, you’re actually getting your reader in the heart. And if you can do that consistently throughout a book, or across a series of stories or books, you will earn and keep an audience. Because you will be satisfying both desires, on the part of your readers: their natural want to experience a journey, and their natural want for that journey to have some form of personal meaning when it’s complete. Each of us longs for these things in the “stories” of our actual lives. We expect them when we’re given a chance to vicariously experience the fictitious lives of others.