In a “Well” blog of the New York Times Health section (October 3, 2013), Pam Belluck writes about a study, published in Science, no less, which concludes that "after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence."
What is literary fiction? Its definition is usually in contrast to the definition of commercial, or popular, fiction. Literary fiction is usually described as "serious," concerned with excellent writing and style, and often, though perhaps not always, portraying life as it really is. Popular fiction is more concerned with plot and entertainment--a mode of escape from real life. Literary endings may offer a resolution of sorts but tend not to wrap things up in a definitive manner. Popular fiction usually provides a definite resolution--e.g., a happy ending, good triumphing over evil, a mystery solved.
Some cynics might add that commercial fiction, as the name implies, is more likely to earn money for its authors, although sometimes a work of literary fiction can become a best seller. Cold Mountain is an example of literary novel achieving commercial success.
My first reaction to the above-mentioned study was "Yay." I generally tend to like literary fiction, especially short stories.
In a workshop I attended not long ago, one of the presenters made the statement that "literary fiction is boring." I looked at her and mouthed "No." (She is a writer of light mysteries and probably earns more money than I'll ever make as a writer.) The generalization that all literary fiction is boring was unfair and untrue. My hackles were raised.
Lately though, I find myself having my own criticism of literary fiction--at least, short stories that are classified as literary fiction. In reading some anthologies of modern short stories, I noticed that many of the stories are so dreary that they could, indeed, be called boring. Some, I've found unreadable.
Is it possible to be serious without being dreary? I certainly think it is. "Serious" and "dreary" are, of course, subjective, so what I find serious and admirable, other people might find dreary. What I find dreary, other people may find admirable, because the stories are found in some annual anthologies whose editors chose them as "the best."
I once taught a literature class about the short story. In the beginning of the class, we discussed the difference between popular and literary writing. The first story students read was "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell. It is a classic of popular writing, with a plot so well structured that it's been emulated in one form or another over the years. It is suspenseful, enjoyable, and totally unrealistic.
As we made our way through the course, we read a number of classic stories--most of which would probably be considered more "literary." Usually somewhere in the middle and again at the end of the course, I asked the students to do short writing exercises answering the question: Which of the stories you've read so far is your favorite? And why? They had to explain their choice by using literary terms such as plot, characterization, suspense, etc. in their answers. I also asked them to explain why they considered the story to fall more in the popular or the literary category. Inevitably, "The Most Dangerous Game" would get more favorite votes than any other story.
Still, I would like to think that most of the students learned to appreciate stories that had popular elements but involved more complex themes and subtle character development. Some of the stories that elicited good responses were: "How I Met My Husband" by Alice Munro; "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri; "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker; and "Where are you going? Where have you been?" by Joyce Carol Oates. (There are excellent films of the latter two stories which definitely added to the enjoyment and understanding of the stories.)
The stories just mentioned are also some of my favorites. They have serious, thought-provoking themes, round characters, and believable plots--a balance of these elements that I consider ideal. I don't consider any of them dreary.
I'd be curious to hear other people's thoughts on dreariness, or lack thereof, in the modern short story. Drop me a line at email@example.com.