Against Fat Literature

in Fact & Opinion

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Obesity has become a pandemic of worldwide proportions. Apart from a limited percentage of congenital propensity, bad eating habits, lack of physical exercise and a general want of self-discipline seem to be the main causes, while medical warnings are paid little heed. Similarly few seem to be concerned by the parallel pandemic of excessive fat in contemporary literary fiction. Shelves at bookshops are on the verge of collapsing under the weight of huge volumes, each containing thousands of pages, many of them part of series composed of equally ponderous bricks of print. It could be argued that these displays of written thickness are nothing new. In the 19th century, three-deckers were usual in Victorian Britain, and they were avidly read, not only bought to sit pretty on shelves as current best-sellers often are. But the three-deckers of yore tended to be leaner than the hefty best-sellers of today, as their considerable body was composed of muscle rather than fat. They offered a highly diverse and controlled prose combining detailed, atmospheric descriptions, relevant reflections, a slow but fully functional narrative and, above all, meaningful dialogue. What do we find in best-sellers today, for example, in Stephen King’s brick-like books, as well as in most commercial speculative fiction? Mountains of literary fat around a thin narrative backbone hardly able to sustain all that heavy weight.

Readers are forced to swallow page after page of banal conversations adding virtually nothing to the plot or to the sense of the story, narrative utterances enlightening us about actions devoid of any interest, cushioned in lengthy and plain functional novelistic prose entirely lacking the rhetorical devices that have graced literary texts from the dawn of written history. It often seems that computers have eased the physical task of writing so much that these creators of pot-bellied fiction feel that writing is just endlessly putting one word after another in order to outdo each other regarding textual length, without considering that the most useful key on a computer is the ‘delete’ one. Even short stories published in magazines, be it off- or online, suffer from this disease of literary obesity, since the utter banality of best-seller writing has spread to every corner of conventional narrative fiction. One may even come across one-page ‘flash’ stories composed in the gossipy vernacular of discussions by the water-cooler, as if authors were unwilling to appreciate that the art of fiction, as a branch of literature, requires the weighing of each word in such a way that readers intuitively realise that not a single virgula could be altered without changing the meaning and the effect of the whole. One can try this exercise on Ursula K. Le Guin’s or Ted Chiang’s best short stories. The truly literary nature of their language will then become obvious. If we submit George R. R. Martin’s notorious ongoing fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire to the same treatment, we might find that perhaps hundreds of pages of text could be replaced with no stylistic loss; directly suppressing them could constitute a sort of slimming cure that readers keen on the wordsmith’s craft would probably appreciate.

            Who is to blame for this literary pandemic? Publishers would point the finger at readers (or rather, buyers of books). Many of the latter seem, indeed, to acquire books for their weight. They do not see them as works of art, but as merchandises to be valued by the quantity-price ratio, as if they were apples or steaks. Still, relatively short novels were much into fashion from the Edwardian age through the 1950s; for example, the thin early scientific romances by H.G. Wells certainly increased his (and his publisher’s) bank account balance. Popular taste in literature can be changed if big publishing corporations with the power to define the book market decide to do so. Literary magazines, online or otherwise, can also shape the taste of readers by proposing valuable texts created free from undue financial considerations. As television shows such as the refreshingly lean A Game of Thrones (based on the above-mention door-stopper) demonstrate, there is a large public able to appreciate high art in fiction when they are offered it. Why then do so few writers, at least in supposedly commercial genres such as science fiction and fantasy, go ahead and try it? I am afraid that many of them produce fat literature because they choose the path of conventional bliss over the rigour required to build literary muscle: authors who attend workshops on writing formulaic best-sellers, who do not read any other language than their own and are thus unable to understand how their own mother tongue works by comparison, who begin producing works without any direct knowledge of literary classics, including in the particular genre they try their hands on, and above all, who want to write for a living, instead of having the freedom to write only when they feel the inner need to do so. They force themselves onto a perfunctory and mercenary trajectory to pay for their bills, following publishers’ directions instead of their own heart and literary conscience. It is not to be denied that some professional writers, especially in the past, were able to produce apt literary works on command. However, reading anthologies for which authors have been asked to write on a particular topic indicates that it is rarely the case nowadays. The same applies to texts where each word is paid for: it is all too human to fill up the page with as many as possible, even if unnecessary, in order to receive a few more cents. Under these conditions, literary fat is unavoidable.

            Describing an evil is always easier than devising ways to fight it. Textual obesity is so pervasive today that it is hard to escape it. Nevertheless, some familiarity with literary history can yield hints for possible solutions. Firstly: greater length does not necessarily imply greater literary value, and sometimes brevity achieves the best impact. A couple of examples might suffice. Augusto Monterroso’s “The dinosaur” is a masterpiece of fantastic/speculative fiction thanks to its generating, through just one line of text, several distinct imaginary worlds, depending on the perspective and the context to be imagined by the reader: “Upon awakening, the dinosaur was still there” (my translation). In its mere seven surviving lines of verse, the Old Armenian song of Vahagn can boast of a literary intensity rarely seen in longer epic/mythological poems from anywhere in the world. Certainly, shortness is not a guarantee of value either, but at least less of the readers’ time is wasted.

            Another radical measure would be to submit fiction writing to a discursive discipline akin to the one to be found in non-fictional reports by transposing to fiction the diverse rhetoric of non-fictional genres, from prescriptive texts such as Mark Twain’s “Etiquette for the Afterlife: Advice to Paine” to fictional documents written using the style of natural (e.g. Isaac Asimov’s “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline”) or formal sciences (e.g. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics”), as well as of social sciences such as historiography (e.g. Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age”), mythography (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Ainulindalë”), philology (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The History of the Necronomicon”) or anthropology (e.g. Horace Mitchell Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”). Being highly formalised, the ‘factual’ writing of fiction imposes a linguistic discipline preventing the risk of imprecision and arbitrariness all too common in current novelistic writing. Particularly in science fiction, what can convey the idea of science better than ‘scientific writing’? Through the fusion of scientific discourse and fictional contents, this is to say, science and fiction, fictionalising science can be used to expand both our minds and our literary sensibilities. Thus we may grow to appreciate the literary potential of a variety of written discourses, without the inherent limitations of the incorrect, but nowadays commonly held belief that ‘fiction equals novel’, especially the fat kind. It is high time to let readers find tastier fiction off the well-trodden paths, just as they can find tastier food if they make the effort to look beyond the hamburger, pizza and soda diet with which multinationals are fattening us to premature death. Fat literature does not kill our body, but it threatens our taste and spirit. Literary obesity is an affliction worth combatting, and Sci Phi Journal is pleased to re-join the fight.

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