Issue 68: On literary labels: genre, style, and reading experience
7 min read

Issue 68: On literary labels: genre, style, and reading experience

I’ve been working on a new short story that’s experimental in its form. When I workshopped it at Tin House, I was concerned not just about the solidity of the ideas I was trying to explore, but also whether people would even be able to follow its many unnamed characters over such a long timeframe. My instructor emphasized the importance of trusting the reader. He explained how, as he grew more confident in his writing, he no longer tried so hard to connect the dots from A to B to C. Now, he trusts readers to connect the dots from A to C themselves.

This reminded me of a diagram my instructor at Aspen Words, Lan Samantha Chang, shared last summer about how we can think of stories in terms of the energy they ask us to expend. On the left is the writer’s energy toward the text, arcing to the right. On the opposite side is the reader’s energy toward the text, arcing to the left.

A diagram with two arrows arcing in opposite directions to denote how we can think of stories in terms of the energy they ask us to expend. On the left is the writer’s energy toward the text, arcing to the right. On the opposite side is the reader’s energy toward the text, arcing to the left.
A chart illustrating the writer's energy vs. reader's energy toward the text

In some cases, an author makes everything super clear (Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series). Other times, the reader is reaching more than the author gives (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land). The idea is that writing happens all along this spectrum, and different works will require different degrees of energy from the author or reader.

Chang subsequently asked us to think about what types of clarity our manuscripts required. Short stories have a large variety, and because they can generally be read in one sitting, they’re more flexible for readers. Nothing necessarily needs to be resolved in a short story compared to a novel.

This past week, there was some Twitter chatter around a Wired profile of Brandon Sanderson, a prolific and popular fantasy author. The journalist focused intensely on Sanderson’s bad prose, which kicked off conversations around the concept of “invisible prose.” This is the idea that sentences should get out of the way of the story. Lincoln Michel interprets this to mean the prose is “skimmable.” The work “isn’t asking you to slow down and think, nor is it honing a specific aesthetic.” By contrast, “visible prose” is inherently hard to skim. It’s not necessarily about density or complexity of meaning; rather, it relies on intentionality—specific arrangements or choices. “Metaphors are clear and sentences build upon each other to create specific effects,” Michel elaborates. “You have to really read them to experience them.”

In a subsequent essay, he presents “prose-forward” as another type of distinction. This means the prose itself is an integral part of the work. I agree that this is one of the more concrete ways of defining the ever-elusive “literary” genre.

In response to the Sanderson profile, Molly Templeton discusses “fluidity” in storytelling. Some stories remain fluid, whereas others can harden as you go because they drive to a point of inevitability. This isn’t a bad thing! This is what makes a mystery delicious as the detective closes in on the culprit or a romance tantalizing as the couple reaches their happily ever after. Fluidity merely means elusiveness, “an unwillingness to be pinned down.” Max Gladstone highlights a parallel tension between “texture and aerodynamics” in one’s writing style—texture slows the reader down to consider the work’s edges and details, whereas aerodynamics keeps things moving smoothly.

Yanyi once wrote a response to a reader’s letter that posed the question, ‘Does My Poetry Have to Be Difficult to Be Real?’ The word “difficult” can be leveled at poems that may be inaccessible in a variety of ways, but he doesn’t consider inaccessibility to be something negative. “Difficulty, for example, may just refer to difference,” he writes. It depends on context and where the reader is coming from. For example, understanding Chinese in a multilingual poem depends on one's background or lived experiences. (Another way of thinking about readers’ energy!) I also appreciated how he pointed out that even so-called “accessible” poetry still presents its own challenges. The work facing writers is “in holding difference not in competition with each other but together, at once, without diminishing their distinctions.”

Longtime readers know I love Kate McKean’s newsletter, Agents and Books. Her dispatch this week had the title, ‘Think of the Reader.’ She presents concrete questions for authors to consider that are almost identical to the ones Chang asked us to keep in mind. How is your reader reading your book? How distracted is your reader? What is drawing them into the story? What do they want to learn about? How attentive do they need to be to get your book?

McKean also reminds us that we won’t be there to explain things to the reader:

Everything your reader knows about your story has to come straight from the page. If they’re not getting it then you most likely haven’t done your job. No, you don’t have to spoon-feed the reader everything, but being obtuse on purpose doesn’t make your book any more artful.

Whether we call writing skimmable, accessible, difficult, fluid, or any other descriptor outlined in this essay, we come up with new terms because definitions matter. They influence how books are received, which readers find those books, how writers are classified, what writing gets elevated, and how we define “good” writing.

Templeton and Michel rightfully call out the weird binaries that have been set up: genre vs. literary fiction, visible vs. invisible prose, plot vs. character. In reality, different stories call for different elements. Michel puts it this way: “These aren’t better or worse concerns. Just different. And they don’t always overlap. [...] But the great thing about literature is we don’t have to choose. We can always read both.”

It’s why I find Chang’s diagram an interesting companion to this ongoing discussion. It does not focus on one axis along which every person reads. Rather, it understands the subjective experiences of the writer and reader respectively, and all the things that might influence the way a work is constructed or received.

Templeton reminds us that “boundaries are porous things.” Chang encourages us to always feel a little lost with regards to form because it helps make the work feel original. While it’s helpful to expand our definitions and classifications of writing, it’s also our task to direct our energy into the work and look for new possibilities. Take risks and blend genres and styles. Read widely. Trust your readers and yourself. That’s where the most interesting and exciting work will be.

A screenshot of a tweet that read: "my best writing advice is to have a secret project that no one knows about and that you also never work on."
via @allegra_hyde

Creative resources

Recent reads & other media

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book in two sittings, but Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind was so gripping that I spent the weekend reading until 2am. In an interview with Alam from 2020, he explains how a private Twitter account helped him start drafting the novel: “I started writing this book as tweets instead of writing it sentence by sentence, trying to establish the sound of the language and who the characters were and how the book might literally begin in the first few sentences.” It’s interesting to read this in the Twitter dumpster fire of 2023, but I think the ethos of the exercise still holds.

I’ve been watching the new season of Shadow and Bone while starting Siege and Storm, the second in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series. Shadow and Bone is one of the more interesting TV adaptations of books because it adapts two different series. I love how the show has been taking risks with entirely new storylines while remaining faithful to the characters. (When will my babies Nina and Matthias be happy?? Sadly he remains in literal horny jail.)

Speaking of horny jail, I went to a live podcast taping for Fated Mates, Sarah MacLean and Jen Prokop’s romance podcast! I’ve been a fan of Sarah MacLean’s books and have recently started listening to Fated Mates—I’d highly recommend it if you're a romance reader or writer. They have great guests, dive into specific books, cover every topic under the sun, and discuss craft questions like “technology in romance” or “romance novel beginnings.”

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Bombastic side eye. This dog requires vinegar on dumplings. I dream of this pork eraser!! POV: you asked the Whole Foods bakery to write “Ramadan Mubarak.”  The transformative power of cargo pants. Cursed TikTok: corndurger recipe set to Creed.

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