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One downside of the competitive market we're in is that writers are always looking for new tricks to hold readers' attention, which means we end up weaponizing things like fanciful fiction because it sells. Art evolves just like science and technology: usually faster than the ethics can evolve to tell us whether we're heading in the right direction. In some ways, the struggle to write good, healthy fiction is the same as the struggle to not build an AI that destroys the world.

Part of me wonders if people won't accept serious fiction until their lives become more serious. The Lord of the Rings films (which are some of the most serious that exist in the fantasy genre) became popular partly because Fellowship released just a few months after 9/11. People needed something that mirrored their depth of fear and emotion. Whereas fanciful fiction tends to have very little to say about death and loss and the hard questions of life. What we seem to get when fanciful fiction attempts to take on serious subject matter is a gruesome pantomime, a la Game of Thrones, with plenty of shock value but very few answers.

I wish we could educate and inspire people into wanting serious fiction, but I'm not sure if we can. My current approach is to meet them halfway: write a book that has some of both, and hope that over time they grow attached to the stories I write and decide to follow even if I start delving into something more serious than they would've normally grabbed from the bookshelf. In other words, we have to be tricksy. That's part of the evolution of art.

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Jul 11, 2022Liked by G. M. (Mark) Baker

"Fiction that finds the truth of the human condition in stories of action, adventure, romance, and even magic and expresses them in a popular style using accessible prose."

I have been looking for this everywhere, and thus far have only found it in hundred-year-old books!!!! Where are the modern novels that use the fiction form to speak to a greater human truth? If they do exist, they are all decidedly dystopian 🥺

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I think it can be found in works a little more recent than 100 years. I have a few candidates I plan to talk about in future posts. But yes, it has been a while. I'm not sure the dystopian stuff is actually serious. (I'd have to read it to find out for sure and I have no immediate plans to do that.) But we do need to get away from this prevalent equation of seriousness with grimness and despair. Let's get serious about joy for a change.

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I'm with you!

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My headphones must have dropped out when you mentioned Joyce, Mark. I’ll just assume you lauded his greatness and recommended all your readers to reflect upon the utter brilliance of his serious short story, The Dead. 😉

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I don't know. "He liked music but the piece she was playing had no melody for him." That about sums up Joyce for me. It strikes me as an exercise in portraiture rather than storytelling, and however well done that may be, it is only half the art. Of course, there is a fascination for some in the individual elements of the art. One could argue that there are many popular works that are all action without the portraiture. But I want the whole of the art.

Mind you, if you believe, as I do, that art is objective, I must also accept that, because of limits of my experience and taste, I may be blind to the virtues of some aspects of art. I am, for instance, completely blind to dance. I watch dance (my wife is a fan) and all I see are calisthenics in fancy dress. On the other hand, if you believe, as I do, that art is objective, you also have to be willing to say, on occasion, that the emperor has no clothes. I'll say that about Hemingway without demure. With Joyce I am willing to say that I may simply be blind to his virtues, and will probably remain blind to them, as he simply does not interest me enough to investigate further.

On the other hand, I thank we can probably agree that if Joyce is serious, or even great, he is not, and he made no attempt to be, popular.

I will also say that if one wants to see an example of portraiture written brilliantly in the popular style, one need look no further than Steinbeck's The Red Pony.

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well said. i find i gravitate toward this kind of fiction the most. so much so, that i wrote some myself! i'd like to think that my historical novel (serialized here) qualifies as serious popular fiction. written in an accessible style, it has some action, adventure, and romance, yet tackles some dark themes and challenging questions about choice, accountability, and sacrifice. i can't promise it finds the truth of the human condition, but it makes an honest effort...

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I'd like to think the same things about mine. Making an honest effort is all we can do.

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read of yours so far, though I admit I’ve slacked off a bit and have a lot of catching up to do! I look forward to reading more!

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That’s fair enough. Each to their own. Though ‘popularity’ is rather tricksy. I think Joyce is a brilliant storyteller but he foregrounds language as a parallel journey in itself. The whole art’s there but is deliberately subverted. Agree this is not a popularity play. Then again, he wrote to change the popular vision of what a novel can be, and hoped for an appreciative and sizeable enough readership to live as a writer. I suspect we’re all somewhere on this hamster wheel.

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This may depend on what we mean by story -- a legitimate question, but one for another time. And I get what you say about changing the popular vision of what a novel can be. I'm trying to do the same thing in my petty rebellion against modern POV doctrine. (More on that later too.) And my place on the hamster wheel is certainly very far from making a living so far. Attempting to write in a popular style and actually achieving popularity are, alas, very different things.

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Hearin ya. Look forward to further reflections.

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May 2, 2023Liked by G. M. (Mark) Baker

Looking forward to this talk at the Catholic Writers Guild Conference

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Apr 29Liked by G. M. (Mark) Baker

This article is my spirit animal.

It can be very discouraging when it feels like writers of our genre can't catch a break. There is an audience for us, it just takes us longer and harder efforts to get to them. It feels important to keep trying.

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