What did she just say?

“How exactly what happened to Tim next happened, he was not able in retrospect, quite to determine.”

from Nuns and Soldiers
by Iris Murdoch

Would an editor allow such a sentence to pass anymore? Certainly not in commercial fiction, but honestly, I don’t mind having to work to understand a writer’s meaning, especially if there is meaning behind the words. (Poor Tim is befuddled at this point in the novel. Such language supports that view of his character.)

I realize that most readers don’t want to put much effort into their enjoyment of fiction, which is fine. And I realize that most genres have their norms and conventions. But I certainly don’t want to find myself talking down to my readers, to dumbing down my writing for them. Certainly, I don’t want to write like Faulkner, but I would love to write like Melville.

The genre I know a little something about, mystery fiction, is a busy place. Lots of new novels come out each year, and most are devoured by the faithful as quickly as possible. The problem I see with this is the ephemeral nature of the writing. Novels in this genre are said to have a shelf life measured in mere weeks. They are easily forgotten and easily replaced by the next batch of convention-matching writing. A writer must have something new quickly before the reader or be forgotten.

But look at the writers who have sustained their places in the genre. They are the ones who innovated or set the bar higher. Poe and Doyle and Christie wholly invented the standards played out today. Sayers is said to approach true literature in her fiction. They stepped outside of the box of convention; they created from new cloth.

I’ve long said that conventional genre writing does a disservice to the reader. It assumes them to be the lowest common denominator, to being the kind who can only accept the same product over and over, only packaged slightly differently. Certainly that may be true about many and even most genre readers, but I think there is nonetheless a vast, underserved market of readers who don’t mind putting a little effort into their reading.

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