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  • Writer's pictureJamie

GOOD PROSE: Focus on Fiction

' Tis with our judgments as our watches, none

Go just alike, yet each believes his own.

In poets as true genius is but rare,

True taste as seldom is the critic's share;

Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,

These born to judge, as well as those to write.

Let such teach others who themselves excel,

And censure freely who have written well.

Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,

But are not critics to their judgment too?

-- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)

It is fashionable to dismiss critiques of modern fiction as mere matters of taste alone. In this way, those who critique are assumed to praise works they personally enjoy and condemn those not to their liking. This is an understandable assumption, as the vast majority of readers are apt to dismiss a book they do not like, no matter how well written. But the critic's calling is higher. One elevated to the post of critic is assumed to cast a specialist's eye on works of fiction, recognizing the craft or creativity of a given writer, even if they are displeased by his chosen subject matter. But I find this to be increasingly rare.

This trend has accelerated as changes to publishing accumulate. The past decades have seen the entire enterprise of publishing folded into the entertainment industry. In this way, works of modern fiction are adjudged as no different from the novelization of a film or television show. And so the aspirations of writers have suffered. Why should one commit to the high, hard task of studying great works and learning the craft of writing when books are perceived as mere entertainments, one being no different from another? When an author's labor of a decade is set on a bookstore shelf alongside the biography of a rock musician or a sophomoric "novel" by some Hollywood celebrity, producing good fiction becomes secondary to the impulse for celebrity and visibility. As a result, the culture's fiction suffers.

Further complicating the art of critiquing fiction is the politicization of the art world. Works are increasingly judged by their authors' political allegiance - liberal or conservative, socialist or democratic, woke or unwoke. Similarly, books themselves can be branded as agenda-driven, even when they are not. Much as rock musicians began weaving politics into their subject matter in the Sixties, some modern writers have followed suit, producing political fiction. That, of course, has its place in the canon of western literature. But politics alone cannot be the sole criterion of judgment, any more than personal taste.

And so the task of discovering what constitutes good prose fiction has become increasingly difficult. For the purpose of this series of blogs, I offer the following criteria:

Execution: Good fiction is executed with technical skill, demonstrating clarity, pacing and economy of craft.

Originality: Good fiction offers an original story, or an original take on a classic story format (as in the case of genre). Good fiction must always offer the reader something new.

Readability: Good fiction must be compulsively readable. Although no book can gallop forward at a constant breakneck pace without allowing pauses for exposition or flourishes of color, a good novel or story keeps its readers hooked and turning pages until the very end.

Relevance: Good fiction must offer some touchpoint with or insight into the conditions of its time. (Note: This is why we study literature. Books offer insight into their respective ages.)

Heart: Good fiction must speak to the humanity of the reader. Clever but heartless fiction may be original, compelling and well executed. But unless it speaks to our common humanity, it is little more than a finger exercise (or, as Truman Capote once said: "That's not writing, that's typing.")

In this Good Prose series of blog posts, it is my intention to review books which I believe fulfill each of the above-captioned criteria. It is hoped that my musings may prove useful to interested readers.

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