The “Horseshoe” theory of literary everything

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.

32 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART, WRITING: CRAFT

32 responses to “The “Horseshoe” theory of literary everything

  1. sanfordbegley

    So, Michael Bay versus dungheap Chopra?

  2. (chortle) I guess that’s accurate. I’ve not been a huge fan of Bay movies, but I can’t claim to understand Chopra’s cult-of-personality either.

    • sanfordbegley

      I understand Bay, I know too many fans of his stuff not to. I simply don’t like it. Same with Dungheap, I understand him, I simply don’t have time for idiots

  3. I don’t really have anything to say on the topic. I just posted here so I could find out if the moronic idiots are following Brad around like they did last week.
    If they are, I have a special message for them: HEY, YOU! BITE ME!

    • We know the denizens of File 770’s comments section like to lurk here. I am sure Glyer will snatch this up, re-blog part of it, and then we’ll get five pages of winners like Aaron Pound decrying how bad my breath is, why my feet stink, and how I am not only the world’s worst writer ever, I have destroyed all things beautiful and true in the universe. (chuckle)

      • That sounds like a pretty decent plot for a literary work . . .

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        I can tell your breath and feet stink, because they do not smell like Roses, which is the only smell that doesn’t stink. I know the smell of Roses, because my $&1# smells like Roses.

        Grins, ducks and runs away, begging your pardon for the crudity and the censorship.

  4. B. Durbin

    Hmm. For a GOOD example of the blue end, let me submit Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. It’s very literary, which makes it a difficult read for many people, including some who went on to like it very well, and it also draws in the folk who don’t generally read genre fiction. For green, perhaps we get someone like Lois McMaster Bujold, who slips in beautiful passages of description so artfully that you don’t even realize the lucidity of her phrasing until you stumble across someone else’s workmanlike prose. Red… well, there’s plenty of red out there. Supply your own. 😉

  5. Christopher M. Chupik

    Dan Simmons can do blue with the intensity of red. Of course, he’s on the outs with the literary types these days because he noticed that Islamic fundamentalists exist.

  6. Alan

    Partly depends on what your customer’s in the mood for, doesn’t it? Today I want a slice of creme pie, all fluffy, sweet, and of little nutrition; tomorrow I may want a cordon bleu dish that begs to be tasted, analyzed on the palate, and enjoyed over time, So also my reading desires, and probably yours, for life need not be monotone.

    • Both Fluffy Sweet and Haut Cuisine can come as straight action or as sermons. It’s finding the Fluffy or the Deep that’s both an enjoyable story _and_ leaves you thinking after that’s a delight. I generally, when I’m looking _specifically for deep_, I head for non-fiction. Philosophy, science, and history. Often, trying to make the ideas palatable with a story just gets in the way of cool ideas.

  7. Hmmm…posts by morons seem light at this point.
    They are all probably………(fill in the blank with yer favorite epithet).

    • Hugo voting is closed. No purpose in doing it now. They’re probably saving up for the 22nd. Personally I’d recommend all Puppies just take a Social Media break for a few days after. Enjoy the quiet, be kind to your blood pressure, gloat . . .

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      What about me? I’ve got one: ESR and MGC are on the same blogroll. ESR is a homophobe. Therefore, MGC is homophobic.

      I’ve quotes in mind to take out of context, to distort, and everything.

      For example, paraphrasing: ‘He said we want to murder them. This is not a lie (because he probably really holds this incorrect opinion).’

  8. I take to the spiral theory of history. It neither repeats itself or progresses in a straight line, but does something of both. Compare, for instance, the introduction of farm tractors to the early days of the PC.

    I’m not sure I buy that literature is constantly improving, because some of the “improvement” is nothing more than a familiar language. In some ways it is. Compare The Skylark of Space to G.K. Chesterton, both roughly contemporaries, then compare The Skylark of Space to your favorite modern SF writer. But is the improvement “literary” or simply better writing?

    I have a low opinion of “literary” fiction, seeing it as nothing more than pretentious drivel, and think the condescension toward what they consider “lesser” fiction is not based on enjoyment, but status. Like someone going to the opera not because he enjoys it, but because “intellectuals” are supposed to.

    I wish I could remember the title of an SF story that neatly skewered “literature.” It had a robot designed for a dangerous mission, but refused to go because it was enamored with “literature” and didn’t see the point. The solution was to translate pulp into “literaturese,” and after it read a few it was raring to go.

    • Eric H

      I forget the title of the story Mister Cheek mentions myself, but it was written by Poul Anderson as his own ‘Take That’ at affectated “intellectual” literary fiction. It’s in a collection at a local library unless they gave it away.

      And with the argument over ‘literary’ versus ‘pulp’, kind of reminds me of the introduction to a collection of Planet Stories tales where the Queen of Outer Space herself, Leigh Brackett, told about all the times she’d been lectured by the latest flash in the SF pan on how ‘your kind of puerile adolescent drivel will vanish from Science Fiction to be replaced by Real Art about Deep and Meaningful Things’, and just how many times she saw them vanish in a year or so, never to be heard from again.

    • Spiral theory . . . well if it is, it’s the tangled up, badly sprung, Slinky kind of history spiral. And literature, ditto. But to them it’s just definitions. Jules Verne is Literature, not weird adventures that are so well written they’re still in print a century and a half later. It’s easy, if no one ever challenges your definition of Literature, or how much super glue you need to make it stick.

  9. Laura M

    Heinlein’s juveniles seem to hit the sweet spot. His bio said he was channeling Horatio Alger messages in his adventures. The messages weren’t always so invisible in his later works, but he really hit the right note in a lot of his juvies.

  10. Laura M

    Another popular saga that employed the family dynamic meme was Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles.

  11. Great post!

    I like the very red hot work of Leigh Brackett. It’s like A. Merritt… but filtered through Raymond Chandler. I really don’t think that style of writing can go out of style. It’s as timeless as Howard, Lovecraft, and Tolkien.

  12. I like your Apple Pie tasting metaphor. Personally, I use cigars.

    Back when I was smoking cigars regularly I tried a few different Cubans to see what all the fuss was about. I must say, they were enjoyable to smoke. On a scale of 0-100 I rated them all in the 85-98 range. Problem was, for the price of one Cuban I could order a bundle of Dominican or Honduran cigars in the 80-90 range and have smokes for months, even handing them out to friends. In the end, it was more enjoyable sitting around and sharing a bunch of really excellent cigars all summer with my friends rather than just getting one superior cigar all to myself.

    For authors I think the first question to ask themselves is who they are writing for. Do you want to be a professional writer and sell enough books to support your family, without having to work another job or two? If so, make sure your characters are doing enough that the masses will pick it up, then recommend it to their friends who will also go out and buy it and the subsequent works as well. Are you writing to impress your friends, colleagues and critics? Make sure you’ve got a day job lined up to pay the bills, because the thinking man’s novel tends to sell slowly. Are you writing for yourself? Then it doesn’t matter if the critics love it, nor if the masses do. If you’re lucky and skillful at your craft you can do all three, but there’s few who truly can do it all. The good ones get two consistently. The ones who get all three we think of as the greats centuries later.

  13. TRX

    The Spillane phenomenon is shrouded by time now, but he was HUGE in the 1950s. Academics and reviewers went on SJW-style psychotic rants about how Spillane was personally wrecking, not just literature, but practically all of Western civilization. I have one of S.I. Hayakawa’s books on linguistics; he made room for an anti-Spillane rant.

    For a small success, you have to write what an acquisitions editor will buy. For a big success, you have to write what people want to read.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      It might not have just been in the style of the modern SJW. I hear he wrote stuff hostile to communists.

      • sanfordbegley

        You might say that he wrote stuff hostile to the communists. You could equally say the McCarthy was slightly concerned about the problems of communist infiltration

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          In one of the Mike Hammer novels, Hammer guns down a whole warehouse full of commie agents.

  14. Administrative note: all the little File 770 trolls have visited, and are busily out-snobbing each other over on that particular blog. If I were Glyer, I’m not sure I’d be proud to host that crowd. Especially not when it’s obvious that a minor post on lit theory — using a visual metaphor — can generate post after post of sneering invective. Well, for what it’s worth, I am glad to give so many charming souls a case of rhetorical indigestion. I would label them small, petty people — but then that would be stating the obvious. (grin)

    • *in best faux grand dame tone, while tapping ash off end of jade cigarette holder and sipping Champaign* Pity; they must be compensating for something . . .

  15. I tend to think of genre (and I do consider “literary” fiction a genre) as a toolbox.

    In a technician’s physical toolbox you’re going to find different tools depending on the specialization. Some of them are pretty common–just about everyone is going to have a good multi-tip screwdriver–and some more specialized. An electrician and an HVAC tech are both likely to have a multi-meter, although the former’s will be used more than the latter’s. On the other hand, refrigerant gauges are found almost exclusively in the kits of HVAC techs.

    In the same way there are specific literary techniques that are usually associated with different types of genre writers. Some are common–for example both horror and romance writers tend to be adept at “touch intensive” descriptive prose, where the sensation of touch predominates over sight in the narrative.

    Other techniques are more specialized. There is what I call the “third person obscured” narrative style, in which a person’s actions are described in detail, but in a way that eliminates any information that would let the reader know who is preforming the actions. It’s a technique that is common in mysteries, but seldom seen outside of that genre.

    Writers, like technicians, assemble their toolboxes over time, picking up new tools and tossing out others to make room. Stephen King, for example, uses a lot of “literary fiction” tools like character internal monologue and rapidly shifting POV in his work.

    So I see the most advanced work to be that which takes place in what the “horseshoe” diagram shows as empty space. Instead of growing farther apart and more distinct, I see the arms (and far more than two of them) branching out and growing wider until it’s no longer possible to draw any clear line between one branch and the next.

    A master technician uses the tool that works for a particular job. Yes, you can poke a hole through drywall with an old screwdriver in order to run wire, and I certainly won’t say that I’ve never done it. But a master electrician is going to have a drywall knife and know how to use it, when the occasion calls for it.

    “Specialization is for insects.”