All writers have had “show, don’t tell” hammered into their thick skulls since they first picked up a pen or tapped a computer key. Cardinal Sin number one, we’ve been taught, is telling the story to the reader instead of showing the story to the reader. And yet, as I work my way through the National Book Award finalists and lists of the ten best books of 2022 (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), I find that these award-winning novelists break the rule by narrating their stories as though they were sitting beside me at a campfire. In lyrical prose that would make any high school English teacher blush with pride, they share the story as if it belongs to them and not to the characters. Few lines of dialog or bursts of evocative action intrude upon their look-at-me style. And yet, they are praised for their work.
This year’s National Book Award winner is a good example. The author knows how to wow the arbiters of taste with poetic sentences and linguistic acrobatics. I marveled at a long scene in which a young mother confronts her conflicting fears and joys at having a newborn to care for. That new mothers face such trepidation and depth of emotion is enlightening, moving, and affecting. The passage would earn an A+ and a gold star in any writing class, but the conflicting emotions take place wholly in the mother’s mind. The sparse action—baby cries, baby nurses, baby falls asleep, mother places baby in crib—is routine and does not establish the conflict the mother feels. The passage is meant to be an evocation of the human condition, an emotional expression of what is true universally, but the author chose to tell us what the mother was thinking rather than show us her anguish through action and dialog.
A second rule we’ve been taught is that our characters—at the least our protagonist—must be likeable and relatable and therefore, they must be vulnerable and flawed. In reading these “best” books, I find that “flawed” has evolved to become “damaged.” Severely damaged. The characters in these “best” books suffer gender discrimination; systemic racism; religious bias; police brutality; legal injustice; gender identity crises; sexual identity crises; abandonment; poverty; physical, mental, and sexual abuse; physical and mental disabilities; and assorted addictions. These clickbait topics pander to our voyeuristic fascination with abhorrent behavior and soul-crushing trauma.
However, today’s praise-worthy novels seem less concerned with how damaged characters triumph over their plight than they are with how the characters came to be damaged in the first place. Who’s to blame and what’s to blame are the questions that seduce the reader to turn the pages. However, “best” book authors often ignore the rule that all stories should conclude with a climax and conflict resolution. Many of the “best” books sputter to a soggy, inconclusive terminus as though the author simply ran out of words and energy. A plot is optional.
Have the earth’s axes finally traded positions? You may have guessed by now that the “best” books often fall into the category known as “literary fiction.” The obverse of literary fiction is genre fiction—romance, mystery, thriller, horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. The common distinction between the two categories is that literary fiction is character-driven while genre fiction is plot-driven. This is an oversimplification, and perhaps, an anachronism, given contemporary literary fiction’s exploitation of human misery.
Generally, genre fiction follows the rules—the author shows a story (rather than telling a story) through action scenes and dialog, leading to a momentous climax and a satisfying denouement. Flawed yet sympathetic characters find themselves entangled in extraordinary circumstances in which they face moral or cultural dilemmas but achieve uplifting redemption.
Genre fiction is not limited to catching a bad guy, obtaining revenge, or preventing global destruction. The best genre fiction exposes universal truths, illuminates the human condition, and conveys thought-provoking thematic messages, just as literary fiction does. Thus an argument can be made that while literary fiction is often missing critical pieces—plot, climax, denouement—genre fiction delivers a complete experience. A thrilling climax, a surprising plot twist, a cheer-worthy redemption, or a happily-ever-after ending will stay with you forever, whereas reading literary fiction is like admiring a thousand year-old vase in a museum—the sensation fades when you leave the building.
A final distinction between the categories is how the story is presented to the reader. Reading genre fiction feels like watching a movie. The characters “own” the story and tell their story through action and dialog that the reader can “see” in their mind. The narrator is a camera, showing us character descriptions, nuanced reactions, location descriptions, etc. Call it cinematic storytelling. The author doesn’t get in the way of the story; the author is merely the conduit through which the characters’ story reaches the physical page.
If a reader is influenced by best books lists, they will more likely buy literary fiction, but there’s a chicken-and-egg question: Are critics, agents, and major publishers responding to readers’ tastes, or are they dictating what readers should like? If you write genre fiction, you may never appear on a best books list, but you may entertain a lot of readers. Although genre fiction is considered artistically inferior to literary fiction, the combined genre categories far outsell the literary fiction category signifying a mentally healthy inclination to read for pleasure.