1. somemorningrain

    somemorningrain Member

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    Being a story-teller vs. a literary writer

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by somemorningrain, Jan 15, 2021.

    I remember reading about Twilight author Stephenie Meyer saying that she identifies herself as a story-teller, as opposed to a more literary writer (although I forget the contrasted term she used).

    Does anyone else make this distinction?

    Obviously there needs to be some cross-over between a love of words/ language, and telling a story, but do you think that difference in emphasis - telling a story vs. *how* you tell it or write it being more important - is valid?

    When I think of literary writers, I think of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes etc. You open one of their books and you immediately think, "Hmm, high-brow. This person is a helluva writer". but I'm probably not being discerning enough about these categories (story-teller vs, literary writer).

    Can anyone shed more light on this contrast, if it exists? Or do you view yourself as more one than the other?
     
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2021
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  2. TheEndOfMrsY

    TheEndOfMrsY Active Member

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    I think there's definetly a distinction.

    I think it comes down to how it's written vs what's written.

    I would consider a literary work to be something that makes you think and feel long after you're finished with the piece.
    For example: The Catcher in the Rye.

    There isn't really a lot of action through the novel but it's more about how it has been written to make you feel a certain way.
    I much prefer reading literally works than a story. I would say a story is much like the example you've used: Twilight. You could also assume Harry Potter is a story rather than a work on themes.

    So basically, I would class anything that used themes and feelings to explain something, "show not tell", as a literary piece and anything where the main point is giving the reader a good event as a story piece.

    I don't know if any of that made any sense haha!
     
  3. Lifeline

    Lifeline North of South. Staff Contributor

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    If you equate 'storyteller' with genre-writer: Honestly, I'm not sure there should be a distinction. I mean okay, genre stories are generally faster paced than literary works, who are generally more character driven and generally use more advanced stylistic choices, but... I've used 'generally' way too often here for my liking.

    I don't see why you can't have both: a fast-paced plot that's character driven, and also appropriate usage of language depending on the viewpoint character. If one of them is a creative writing MBA or an English major, a philosopher or an introvert, you'll have the opportunity to write 'literary' in a genre piece :D
     
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  4. somemorningrain

    somemorningrain Member

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    Oooh I like the examples you've used. Thanks for validating and sharpening my thinking about these two categories.

    Catcher in the Rye is a perfect example of literary writing: 'how it's been written' rather than 'what happens'. I wonder if the Adrian Mole books fit this category too? I'd say 'The Great Gatsby' is definitely 'how it's written' rather than 'what's written'.

    I do think though that some stories can be powerful enough to 'makes you think and feel long after you're finished with the piece' e.g., some of Stephen King's tales like 'The Green Mile', 'The Shining'. Some have such a novel concept that they are unforgettable. For some people it's Twilight (vampires and werewolves walking among us). Other examples might be 'Rosemary's Baby' and 'American Psycho' (evil hiding in plain sight, as ordinary people), Bladerunner (replicants indistinguishable from humans) ... but now I'm crossing over from stories in books to stories in films. (I haven't read the books of any of these 3 but enjoyed the films).

    If anyone else knows of books/author that can be divided into these two categories, or if your own writing fits into one of these two categories, it would be good to know!
     
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  5. somemorningrain

    somemorningrain Member

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    :)

    Generally using 'generally' covers all bases!

    That's interesting - genre-writers are story-tellers. And PACE is a good distinguishing characteristic. This is not to say story-driven books can be poorly written, but maybe there's less self-consciousness about the language used to convey them. Although even that's not quite correct because literary writing would probably not be literary if even a hint of self-consciousness about which word to use was conveyed!
     
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  6. TheEndOfMrsY

    TheEndOfMrsY Active Member

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    Well, I'm trying to train myself to write in the literary sense. (I don't think my skills are much up to it but it's the type of thing I like to read so I suppose it would be how I would want to write.)

    I think some of Stephen Kings booked are dismissed as just stories (as you said, The Green Mile is a great example)

    I think even with story telling books, they can make you think and feel when they are written well. I'm probably biased because I'm not a fan but I would consider that Stephanie Mayor is no where near as good a story teller as Stephen King is. (That's just my personal opinion though)
     
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  7. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    All of King's absolute gold is hidden in his short stories. Green Mile and Shawshank of course, but there are many many others. Most especially The Mist, Dolan's Cadillac, and The Reach.

    But in an attempt to answer the OP, I think you could define them somewhat separately. Literary fiction authors have a tendency to let the reader participate more actively in telling the story with them. By this, i mean that theres a lot hidden in ambiguity that is up for interpretation, much of what is dependent on the tone and pervasiveness of theme. This is also why ive come to love literary fiction a bit more than most other types of reading. Unlike story-telling, where you are more or less along for the ride, literary fiction if done well allows you to delve into how you look at the work and what it means to you. The author takes a step back from description, only giving gentle nudges until pivotal moments.

    The difference therefore lies primarily in purpose. A story-teller mostly aims to draw the reader along the various twists, turns, and general adversity of the story. A more literary fiction author attempts to focus on specific themes and messages that are derived from closer study of the work. They tend to be more difficult, which can suck the fun out of the read for many, but understanding them is quite rewarding. Take Thomas Pynchon for example. In The Crying of Lot 49" Pynchons ultimate goal is to play the readers expectations by developing narrative entropy. Like actual entropy with heat generation, he creates it through explosive tension that ultimately never resolves. It plays your expectations to show you your own tendencies and focuses as a reader. And it taunts you with clues that are difficult to decipher all the way there.

    Literary fiction is very dense though, so the audience is often quite limited. I would never recommend Pynchon unless someone really wanted to get into studying narratives that dont follow standard climactic plots. Story-tellers are more on the face-value enjoyment of the work. You will likely enjoy a story-tellers story long before you like the literary fiction piece. But for me, the literary fiction piece is awesome in the long run.

    I do think theyre built different.
     
  8. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Prince of Typos Contributor

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    Yes, now more so than ever. I've always "felt" a difference between writing and storytelling, but it wasn't until I started leaving book reviews that the distinction between the two solidified for me.

    Edit: I should clarify that I dilineate the concepts of writing and storytelling, as opposed to literary and storytelling.
     
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2021
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  9. somemorningrain

    somemorningrain Member

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    These are good distinctions - literary works having "a lot hidden in ambiguity that is up for interpretation". 'Mrs Dalloway' by Virginia Woolf comes to mind. Books that could almost be prose poems, so concentrated are they on ambiguating the language or the images conveyed.

    It seems that story-driven fiction has wide appeal, like most mammals having an affinity for chocolate, while literary fiction is more of an acquired taste, like olives and wine and other things not readily liked by children till they get older. (Which is not to say story-telling is child's play or appeals only to a child's palate - I and many adults I know are chocolate-lovers after all). To summarise:

    LITERARY FICTION
    - 'how it's been written' is more important than 'what happens'.
    - character-driven
    - a lot hidden in ambiguity that is up for interpretation
    - denser (very dense though, so the audience is often quite limited)
    - isn't really a lot of action
    - uses themes and feelings to explain something, "show not tell",
    - uses more advanced stylistic choices
    - lets the reader participate more actively in telling the story with them
    - allows you to delve into how you look at the work and what it means to you.
    - author takes a step back from description, only giving gentle nudges until pivotal moments.
    - taunts you with clues that are difficult to decipher all the way there.
    - focus on specific themes and messages that are derived from closer study of the work
    - tends to be more difficult
    - narratives that dont follow standard climactic plots
    - author is a creative writing MBA or an English major, a philosopher or an introvert :)
    - can be powerful enough to 'makes you think and feel long after you're finished with the piece'

    STORY-DRIVEN FICTION
    - 'what happens' is more important than 'how it's been written'
    - genre-writers
    - faster-paced
    - you are more or less along for the ride
    - aims to draw the reader along the various twists, turns, and general adversity of the story
    - standard climactic plots
    - face-value enjoyment of the work
    - giving the reader a good event as a story piece.
    - can be powerful enough to 'makes you think and feel long after you're finished with the piece'

    BOTH?
    - a fast-paced plot that's character driven, and also appropriate usage of language depending on the viewpoint character.

    There's no question about it, story-driven fiction should never be poorly written - a case spectacularly proved by Clive James's 'A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses' which is a masterpiece of witty writing in itself: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v02/n11/clive-james/a-blizzard-of-tiny-kisses

    However, can literary fiction also be a ripping good story? e.g., Ian McEwan's 'Atonement'? Any other examples?
     
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  10. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I just finished the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, and I'm having a hard time categorizing it. In fact in a PM I described it as being in ways very literary, but also unapologetically genre. They're both there, and inseparable, much as they often are in King. But I don't think it would fit as pure genre. It's pretty deep thoughtful stuff to go beside the whiz-bang space opera category. Even the genre elements of it are used to get across profound ideas about the limitations of language and how it shapes our worldview, as well as many other fascinating reveries you won't find in blockbuster movies.

    Without having checked, my guess is that general, generic, and genre are all from the same root word.
     
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  11. TheEndOfMrsY

    TheEndOfMrsY Active Member

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    Wuthering heights!
     
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  12. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I just connected it up with something said by Gene Wolfe, who also writes extremely literary but also genre at the same time. His New Sun series is in the Dying Earth genre, but deals with some of the deepest ideas in all of human thought, and does so profoundly. He said something to the effect that if you're going to include the full realm of human thought, then you can't contain it in a social drama or such a limited category as 'realistic', and that some ideas can best be expressed through things you find in Homer, Shakespeare etc who definitely went to the outer limits of concept but addressed the innermost depths of the human condition.

    So you don't need to completely separate the categories, there's a lot of gray zone in between where they can overlap.

    He also talks about the fact that much sci-fi and fantasy is simplified, as an escape from the problems of human existence, but he certainly doesn't approach it that way! He uses them because they also allow you to delve even deeper into humanity than straightforward literary fiction does.

    Well, I guess at this point I'd be best off just posting a link to the interview where he says this so much better than I do: On Encompassing the Entire Universe: An Interview with Gene Wolfe
     
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  13. marshipan

    marshipan Contributor Contributor

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    Both skills aren't mutually exclusive in a story but I do see some stories/writers sometimes concentrate on one more than the other. Then, there are certain genres where being more "literary" will actually turn readers off. I used to be in a literary setting and when I decided to self publish romance I felt like I had to relearn to write. The emphasis on what's important felt entirely different. Although good description and language will always be appreciated in any book unless it ruins the pace or distracts from the topics.
     
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  14. Selbbin

    Selbbin The Moderating Cat Staff Contributor

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    I disagree with many of the posts here separating the two and categorising their characteristics. I don't see it as story vs literary. Literary still needs a story. Often a very deep one. Most of the literary classics are so because their stories are timeless and engaging. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Old man and the Sea, Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye, and the list goes on. The key with those are the deep, complex characters within a rich setting, compelling story and deeper themes. It's NOT style over story.

    Personally, I consider it more 'easy entertainment' versus 'meaningful art'. One is light, easy to consume and satisfying, while the other is deep, engaging, often difficult.... but satisfying. Both serve a purpose and need. Both have their challenges to write. And both are about story.
     
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  15. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Completely agree.

    I think what people are trying to say is genre writing vs literary.

    Storytelling goes to the very heart of what it is we all do, whether literary or genre. Genre writing (generic, general, in other words for the general public I think) fits neatly into certain categories so people know what to expect. It's the kind of writing that comforts the reader—comfort food I suppose. It isn't very challenging (usually, there will always be exceptions, and of course there's a spectrum between the extreme end of genre and the extreme end of literary).

    Literary writing still has a story, though it can often be minimized to the point of almost disappearing. Maybe occasionally there isn't even a story, if the writer is skillful enough to pull that off through sheer fascination. But in general (hah!) literary writing is writing that's so well done it doesn't need to fit into a simple comfortable category. It can soar out into the heights and depths of imagination and observation, present ideas almost divorced from story, or loosely attached to it.

    But of course there are stories and authors who lie somewhere between the extremes—literary genre or genre that tends toward the literary. I suppose there's also literature that tends toward certain genres.
     
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  16. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Prince of Typos Contributor

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    Maybe it's just me, but this reads a bit contradictory.
     
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  17. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I see why you say that. I do think a lot of literature moves somewhat away from story. I don't personally know of any that completely abandon it, but it's conceptually possible I suppose.

    Maybe to be totally honest I changed my focus somewhat from that 1st sentence to the last. :D

    I would still say the vast majority of literature involves story, but some might veer away from it to varying degrees.
     
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  18. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Prince of Typos Contributor

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    @Xoic Gotcha. Honestly, I'm in no position to question any reply in this thread, as I completely misunderstood what the original poster was driving at when I left my first comment. :oops:
     
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  19. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

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    I would say "plot" instead of "story." I know they kind of mean the same thing when we just toss them out there, but they're slightly different. I'll make this distinction: lit-fic tends to have plots that are subdued, while genre plots are more unreserved. Both forms have stories.

    I always use the greater definition of story, where the story is the entire world of possibilities within your fictional universe. When Tolkien is coming up with Elvish phrases, even if they're not used in the book, he's expanding the story. Same thing with histories of families/characters/nations. Even when those details aren't plotted in the book, they change how the actors in the book behave. Sometimes it's just a matter of the author understanding the world they've created and getting the best plot on paper.

    The plot is the character's path through story. It's chosen by the author for the maximum emotional response. It can be the path that's the funniest or the most terrifying or the sexiest, or whatever works for the audience. I suppose it could even be simply informative too, like a travelogue with the author as the MC, but for the most part, it's aimed at emotion. Think of the plot as the path a worm takes burrowing through an apple that is story, wiggling about to eat the best bits. (The worm is the MC.) In lit-fic, that path/plot is often (not always, but often) very simple with almost no convolutions. In genre, it likes to twist and turn. The lit-fic author takes a very mundane plot and shows the reader the depth of the human response, and that's how his story has meaning. The genre author takes a more entertaining plot that jumps about with surprises, and the character deals with the changes. Maybe they cope or maybe they're destroyed. The point is to entertain and fulfill the genre (action, romance, mystery, etc.).

    And it's wonderful when you can find an author who can do both.
     
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2021
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  20. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    [​IMG]

    As usual, Seven Crowns says it excellently.
     
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2021
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  21. Damage718

    Damage718 Active Member

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    I think this is spot-on, and about what I was thinking before I read this post.

    Twilight, Frankenstein, Shoeless Joe, The Hobbit...these are stories. Whereas deeper, human condition/thematic works like Catcher in the Rye in this example, can be considered more literary in the elevated sense.

    Somewhat off-topic, but discussions like this tend to remind me of the irony in the word "storytelling," or "to tell a story," or any derivative, because in fiction we are told that "telling" is bad :D
     
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  22. Selbbin

    Selbbin The Moderating Cat Staff Contributor

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    I'd wager you've read a lot more books than I have, as I'm not an avid reader, but I do tend to read a good balance of lit fic and pulp, and I really don't think the above is true. While there are some that have simple reserved plots, I'd consider them the outliers. I find that with lit fic and entertainment the plots have been equally just as 'unreserved'.

    For example, Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice is considered Literary Fiction (according to Penguin and other sites), but the plot is vast, complex and fun.

    For me, the key difference in regards to plot, is that entertainment pieces are only plot, while lit fic is more than plot. And that's not about lengthy exposition or slow and boring nothingness, it happens within the characters following the plot. It's just crafted in such a way that lit fic really is more than the sum of it's parts, while entertainment is generally mostly surface and easy to consume. People can read lit fic, miss most of the subtleties, and still enjoy it. But it's hard to read much depth in entertainment. The plots themselves are usually just as ranging and unreserved. I've seen no meaningful difference. At least in my experience.

    But then again, I lean more towards lit in my writing so could be biased.
     
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  23. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Get off my Balzac... Staff Contributor

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    The whole literary vs story thing can be hashed so many ways, but for me it always comes down to what I think and feel about the story once I've finished. Does the story stick to me more than the themes? Do I question life and humanity when I'm done or think about the cool monster? Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison definitely make me rethink my humanity. Stephen King and Arthur Clark definitely don't. And while the former certainly has strong story elements and the latter might raise some interesting existential questions, that's not what I take away from the experience. Or provide the template by which I would recommend the book to others.

    Somebody might ask, "Hey, what's The Road like?" To which, I'd answer, "You're going to want a teddy bear and some comfort food."

    And then they'll ask, "Hey, what's The Scar [Chine Mieville] like?" To which, I'll answer, "There's a race of creatures which sphincter's for mouths who communicate by farting!"
     
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  24. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I've definitely met a few of them.
     
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  25. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

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    Sounds like my old landlady.
     
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