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Criticism, Fiction, My Novel, The Writer's Life

Here Came the Judge: Subjectivity and Commercial Fiction

Writers know all about subjectivity in judging and critiquing. For me, the impact of that quality hit hard yesterday.

Recently I served as a semifinal judge for a first novel contest run by my MFA program’s alumni association. Our job was to cull the semifinal group down to ten finalists and send them off to the final judge, a much-honored writer of commercial fiction.

My fellow semifinalist judges and I, admittedly all from the same MFA program, all had our favorites to win. So when we got the final judge’s selections yesterday for the top three winners, there was some surprise, as none of our personal faves made it to the top.

More surprising to me was the final judge’s criteria, which were thoughtfully included with the selections. To be completely honest, I was taken aback by some of the judge’s requirements. For example: “too little straightforward explanation of who the character is and what they need or want. Yes, ‘show, don’t tell,’ BUT a little more telling of who these people are, under their skins, would invest the reader more quickly in the story.”

Essentially, the judge is saying readers prefer/need the didactic techniques that my classmates and I were advised to avoid (and which I personally abhor in fiction). The judge implies that readers don’t want to be challenged, they want to be coddled. I cannot argue with this judge’s commercial and critical success. I cannot argue with the logic.

I’ve been reading some commercial fiction lately, mostly to see what makes it successful. Again I was surprised to see how often popular authors got away with tired and clichéd writing techniques that would earn we MFA-ers withering critiques from our peers: mountains of misplaced backstory; long, lecturing paragraphs of explanation that have nothing to do with the plot; lazy, adverb-filled descriptions; and so much more. So this is what the public wants.

So be it. But since I can’t/won’t write like that (at least not yet), where does it leave moi? Well, for starters, that, and the tsunami of agent rejections I’ve received since I started querying my novel tell me it’s time to stop barking up that tree. I’ll concentrate on the independent market, miniscule as it is, for now. More later…


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


27 thoughts on “Here Came the Judge: Subjectivity and Commercial Fiction

  1. Shocking. Readers of stories just want to be told a story? Whoever would have thought?
    But that’s how it is: Tell me a story.Use beautiful words and lovely construction and clever plotting, but tell me a story.
    If a writer is obscure for the sake of obscurity or pretty for the sake of prettiness, they are just being arrogant and elitist.
    We writers can sit in our groups of five or six and bitch about the inferiority of popular fiction and the death of our “art” but were’re wrong. We may turn our noses up at Stephen King and other mega-writers, but if we do we’re missing something.
    See, I think the reader brings much more to the page than we give them credit for. They know when to skim an info dump. They fill in blanks, correct faults and develop characters better than any writer. And they know when they’re being bull shitted.

    Posted by Jon Zech | June 30, 2012, 2:22 PM
    • Listen closely. Do you hear the outraged cries of “Elitist! Elitist!” from behind the walls? Do you hear the murmurs? “How dare they write creatively?” Listen to the gathering of wood; the lighting of the flame. “We will burn them…” (Hope this is not too obscure.)

      Yes, there are writers who are obscure or pretty by design, but I don’t know any of those who have been published. And of the published writers I know or admire, I don’t know of any who deliberately seek obscurity in their writing. What they do, however, is push their writing to and beyond the limits of their intelligence. They write to discover new interpretations of what it means to be human, to tell the story of being human. Not everyone understands or appreciates. Sometimes I don’t either. Sometimes I have to — OMG — think about it for a while. But I give those writers credit for trying, for experimenting with new forms.

      This is the essence of creativity — to not be satisfied with following popular techniques. Writing what is popular, what has been proven to sell, is, by definition, not creative, since it’s been done before. Trust me, those who choose a more creative path want people to like what they write. But when people don’t, or say they don’t understand, they do not go running to the shelter of accepted writing formulas. They keeping writing what they believe in and accept the criticism.

      I find most that commercially popular fiction I read does not challenge the reader. It requires no effort to understand. It pacifies. I would prefer not to…

      Posted by jpon | June 30, 2012, 4:26 PM
  2. Yup thanks for this. Differences flourish and the right writing so much depends on the context of the reader.
    Let’s generously encourage ambitious readers, adventuress readers, bold readers.

    Posted by Patricia L Morris | June 30, 2012, 2:23 PM
    • I agree, although it may not sound like it sometimes. But I’ve never said commercial fiction should be abolished, or even that it is bad. I will say it is lazy, however, since it rarely seeks to imagine its way out of the confines of popularity. Thanks for your comment.

      Posted by jpon | June 30, 2012, 4:29 PM
  3. Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about this issue for the past couple of weeks. Personally, I want to get lost not just in a story but in the language of the story. I want to be impressed by how a story is told. Recently, however, I picked up novel that was extremely popular last year, and the writing just didn’t do anything for me. I was actually reminded of the advice my publisher gave me when I used to be the editor of a local entertainment magazine: write for sixth-grade audience. Of course, the magazine was free and designed to be read and thrown out in time to read the next issue. Is this the state of fiction today? Easily digested, disposed of, then forgotten? Fast-food for the mind? From a business perspective, it makes sense, at least in the short term, to write for the largest audience possible, but from an artistic perspective, the books that stay with us — the books that haunt us — are usually open to multiple readings and interpretations, stories rife with ambiguity, narratives that border on poetry.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | June 30, 2012, 2:43 PM
    • Thanks Marc. You remind me of when I owned a small graphic design business. We dealt in the oxymoronic world of “commercial art.” Everything we designed was intended not to inspire appreciation, but promote sales. When we did dare to become creative and challenging, to invite the viewer to think, the clients never liked it.

      What’s that line that Denzell Washington used when he played a lawyer in the movie “Philadelphia?” “Explain it to me, like I’m a four-year-old.”

      Posted by jpon | June 30, 2012, 4:40 PM
  4. As I read, I wrote a mental list of questions: Don’t they teach commercial fiction in MFA programs? Why not? Don’t we all want to sell our writing? And why did the MFA program choose a commercial rather than a literary writer as judge of its contest? Why are people still amazed that commercial fiction is what most people want? Are you implying (again, again) that all writers who don’t have an MFA write hackneyed junk, that nothing commercial is creative? How many MFAs does it take to screw in a lightbulb? (I don’t know, but they’ll probably do it creatively– and for free.)

    Posted by girl in the hat | June 30, 2012, 3:00 PM
    • I’ll answer the last question first: An infinite number, since they will never agree on how to do it.

      A few explanations: For the record, the MFA program did not choose the judge. The Alumni Association is a totally independent organization dedicating to raising money to help the MFA program. We chose the judge for several reasons, not the least of which was name recognition–we knew it would help entice entrants. (We may not know how to win a writing audience, but we’re not complete fools.)

      As for teaching commercial fiction in an MFA program, at the risk of sounding flippant, MFA does stand for Master of Fine Arts, not Commercial Arts. I have yet to see any MCAs offered. Yes, we’d all love to sell our creative rambles, but the purpose of the programs are to encourage the development of craft, and that includes exploration into both commercially successful, and more unusual, critically-admired forms. What the individual writer chooses to do with that teaching is up to him/her. And we received plenty of “real-world” teaching on how to market our work–it just hasn’t worked for me (yet).

      Now, as for the “hackneyed junk” aspect. I have a good deal of respect for anyone who gets a book published, whatever the genre. But I also have my standards, as lofty/elitist/smug as they may seem, and I believe those standards have a place in the literary debate. I feel bad when people take my comments as snobbish put-downs. As the writers in my local area know, I spent tons of hours teaching and advising writers of all skill levels (sometimes for pay, sometimes free), and my goal is always to encourage the writer in the direction s/he wants to go. All that being said, however, if I believe a writer could have done better, could have revised the text one or two more times, could have set his/her sights higher, then yes, the effort is not complete. If the writer’s purpose was to “be popular” or “sell a bunch of books and make lots of money,” I can spot it a mile away. Essentially it goes back to Jon’s comment (above). Who’s leading the parade? Should the writer write and the reader follow, or should the readers set the standards and (via sales) force writers to comply with their (by definition) laymen’s tastes? It seems there’s quite a division on the issue.

      Posted by jpon | June 30, 2012, 5:16 PM
      • Aha! You and I just don’t see eye-to-eye on this topic, but I do enjoy the debate. Yes, I do know what the FA stands for, but still think the us vs. them attitude that I hear from “true artists” is rather silly. I don’t think art and commerce have to be mutually exclusive. I don’t think all the commercial stuff is completely lacking in quality, and clearly the really good literary fiction is also commercial. I think that sometimes, when “artistic” writers aren’t published, they can pat themselves on the back and say they’re better than all that. Of course if the writer wants to be followed/read, she must do something to please the masses. That’s the way it works. And I have nothing but respect for all the people who write, whether or not they are published, because it takes a lot of gumption to keep at, all alone, unpaid, unread, even when others think you’re wasting your time.

        Posted by girl in the hat | July 1, 2012, 1:13 AM
      • I’m glad you see it that way. I grew up in a family where we argued over just about everything, so it’s pretty normal for me to debate like this. You’re right about “artists”–there’s a fine line between continuing to pursue one’s art it despite lack of acceptance, and believing it to be beyond criticism.

        Posted by jpon | July 1, 2012, 10:46 AM
  5. After going through extensive revision of a novel draft I was sent back one final time to tweak the ending–an ending in which I allowed the reader the opportunity, and I thought, satisfaction, of adding up all the obvious hints I’d placed in the book that solved a mystery. “Readers just aren’t very clever,” I was told. I wanted to laugh and cry. Why should we abandon the art of our craft to create entertainment?

    Posted by Karen | June 30, 2012, 5:04 PM
    • We shouldn’t. But agents and publishers and movie producers and TV execs are convinced the public is too stupid to handle anything more complex than a sitcom. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe it’s the agents and publishers and movie producers and TV execs who are…

      Posted by jpon | June 30, 2012, 5:57 PM
    • Why? Because in the end, we want to be read. Art is communication, and if “they” don’t want to listen to “us,” there is none.

      Posted by Jon Zech | July 1, 2012, 5:03 AM
  6. I’ve been auditing a course on “Human-Computer Interaction”, and it’s giving me lots of thought time on the difference between fiction writing as personal, artistic expression, and fiction writing as a design process. Prototyping multiple concepts in parallel, testing on naive consumers, etc. sounds more like what Pixar does than the average would-be novelist. Even our critique buddies are fellow writing geeks, so their demands for a story are quite different than the average consumer.

    Posted by arichaley | June 30, 2012, 9:06 PM
    • I seem to recall some computer somewhere being programmed to write music. A primate or even an elephant can be taught to “paint” (sort of). I’ve never heard of anything except a human being, flawed as we are, capable of writing prose or poetry. Hmmm. I might have an idea for some science fiction there.

      Posted by jpon | July 1, 2012, 10:52 AM
      • Oh gosh, hope I haven’t implied that computers could produce stories that would be interesting to humans. “Human-Computer Interaction” is a $60,000 phrase for what I prefer to call interface design. I was more interested in the differences in the design process between how we approach making a computer program that engages people and meets their needs, and how we approach making a story.

        Posted by arichaley | July 2, 2012, 3:52 PM
      • Ah, probably a left brain / right brain thing. But now that you mention it, there is a function that produces a very rudimentary type of narrative in a Mac program called Quark XPress. The utility is called Jabberwocky, and it basically inserts random nouns, verbs and adjectives in a sentence-like structure. For example: Five putrid cats gossips, although silly lampstands ran away, and umpteen mats marries schizophrenic subways, yet the mostly angst-ridden elephant partly drunkenly towed umpteen quixotic pawnbrokers.

        Jabberwocky can create “text” in prose or verse, in English, Latin, Klingon (yes, Klingon) and the dreaded Esperanto. This is how geek designers have fun.

        Posted by jpon | July 2, 2012, 4:11 PM
  7. It’ll be good to have you back, Joe. See you Thursday. There may be blood.

    Posted by Jon Zech | July 1, 2012, 5:07 AM
  8. Unless the writer is developing an experimental form, then s/he has an obligation to entertain. Nothing prevents a writer from abiding by the “rules of good writing” and still be able to connect with readers. Take this story posted on the New Yorker by a master, Jennifer Egan. Kudos for the fact that it is a hybrid between prose and prose poetry, yet I found it affected and incomprehensible, not to mention tedious. Doubtless, this sort of work has a place, but I can’t blame people for not wanting to read it. Even Shakespeare wrote for the masses, and he was a damn good writer.


    Check it out.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | July 2, 2012, 1:05 AM
    • Well, I appreciate your not liking it, and I didn’t think I would at first, but I did. This reached straight into my memories of 1950s-60s movies and developed the character of the illicit “girlfriend” of the rich or powerful man (think “Mad Men”). Such a woman was rarely explored in those movies. Egan took that stereotype and set it against our modern perceptions to create great sympathy, then, through the thoughts and actions of this character, allowed us to understand her motivations. And this, to me, was a perfect example of the author challenging the reader–giving only enough information so that the reader had to fill in the blanks from her own experience. No physical descriptions, no backstory. How did they get together, the average reader asks. Doesn’t matter, says the author, they are together–if you must know that, make it up yourself. I find this so much more interesting than the technique of commercial fiction, which is essentially to open with a brief scene and then dive head-first into didactic, ancient character history, something like this:

      …Don stood over the man and watched him die, the smoking gun still in his hand. He never thought he’d have to do something like that. Don was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1973, the son of a conventional set of parents, who thought it best to send him to private school to keep him from children they considered “bad characters.”

      What the heck does Don’s background have to do with the situation at hand? This is just lazy, sloppy planning, writing that panders to the dullest reader out there. (I just read a very, very popular book which does exactly this, I swear. Every reader question answered immediately. No room for imagination.)


      Posted by jpon | July 2, 2012, 10:23 AM
  9. Funny you should mention this. In the workshop I just attended, we were told (more than once) to do at least a little “telling.” The first time I’ve heard this.

    Posted by Teri | July 2, 2012, 1:26 PM
    • Kind of like “it’s okay to smoke a cigarette once in a while.” It probably won’t kill you, but it could be habit forming.

      Posted by jpon | July 2, 2012, 1:36 PM
      • Oh, I disagree. I love a bit of telling in a story. Sometimes you need to cover ground, and to do that through showing every time can really slow down the pace. For me, the best writers combine show/tell so seamlessly that it’s almost impossible to differentiate between the two. Unless you’re looking for it, I suppose.

        Posted by Averil Dean | July 5, 2012, 4:48 PM
      • That’s certainly true–you can’t show every time. Exposition is important to move the story forward. And a seamless blend is the best way to accomplish that. But the impression I got from the judge’s comments was to dispense with showing, especially early on, and just tell the reader what motivates the character, because the reader won’t wait around or try to figure it out. Where’s the challenge for the reader or the writer in that?

        Posted by jpon | July 5, 2012, 5:35 PM
  10. I’m really enjoying this debate. Some great points are being made. I only want to add that in my mind, commercial fiction is, by definition, successful only by a certain standard: it generates sales. It’s probably not the writing that generates the sales, but the marketing glitz that builds up the book launch. Or, at the very least, publishers buy the manuscript because they *think* it will generate sales. But there are other standards of success: authenticity, fiction that adds to the literary conversation, that makes people think, that has its niche in the universe. Then too, some define success as gaining readers. We try to get our work published because we want it to be read by others. I think of it like the movie business. How frustrating must that be? Studios buy screenplays for sometimes a million dollars, and never make the movie. Worse, a huge percentage of movies are eye-candy fluff starring big name actors. Meanwhile, indie films languish in obscurity. Alas. At least you’re pushing the envelope, Joe. I applaud you for it.

    Posted by Claire Gebben | July 4, 2012, 3:35 PM
  11. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Claire. I think you’ve nailed it on the definition of “commercial” fiction, since the root word is “commerce.” Yes, writers and publishers of independent fiction also want to sell, but not at the cost of their artistic statement. And I think the sales numbers of most lit book show those publishers and writers are willing to live with the low sales if they get to speak their truth. Before someone asks, am I inferring that writers of commercial fiction sell out? That’s a good question, and perhaps a whole other issue to blog about. Off the top of my head I’d say it depends on the individual writer and when s/he feels enough edits and changes demanded by the publisher have forced him/her to cross that line.

    Interesting note about the movies. At least in that industry, producers admit most of the movies are targeted at 14-year-old boys. I’d be interested to see the secret documents of the big six, and who they consider to be their biggest target in terms of age groups, lifestyle, education, etc.

    Posted by jpon | July 4, 2012, 3:50 PM

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