Is your prose stained glass or plain glass? Does it show only the crafted, opaque glass with nothing of the world beyond, or does it disappear entirely as the portal to that other world?
Literary fiction is stained glass. Genre fiction is a plain window pane.
One is beauty for the sake of it, where you admire the craft as much as the image in the glass. Often you can’t see through the glass at all.
The other is a plain, transparent glass that allows you to see into the world of the story, without any distraction or obfuscation. You see right through the words without noticing. Plain glass makes for easy reading, mass-marketable fiction. Stained glass exists on a different level of craft, where the medium is the message as much as the story it purports to tell.
Which do you aspire to? And how far short do you fall?
Strike up the violins…
Several decades ago, I gained a Bachelor’s degree in English. Through my school education, college and degree education I read so many classic and prize-winning novels. This was English Literature with capital letters. I studied Literary Criticism (also capital letters), from F.R. Leavis to Ezra Pound; from Northrop Frye to T.S. Eliot. I took in Roland Barthes, E.M. Forster, and William Empson. By the time the linguistics module finished with Saussure’s Structuralism and Semiotics and Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, I couldn’t just ‘read’ any more. I didn’t read any fiction for about ten years.
Every time I picked up a book I found myself looking for the stained glass. Even though I’d had more than enough stained glass, thank you. The plain glass was artless and obvious, amateurish and lacking insight.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
I couldn’t write.
I tried. Often. I failed. Every time.
Even as I collected rejection letters from agents and publishers, I knew full well my prose wasn’t just plain glass, it was cracked and falling out of the frame.
I aspired to stained glass. Instead I broke every window.
So I wrote only non-fiction for twenty years. About five thousand articles, six non-fiction books, and a stack of training manuals. The occasional outburst of funny produced a radio sit-com and a series of comedy sketches for a podcast.
Okay, stop the violins. We’re done with that.
The Art of Fiction
Some time during the pandemic, I took up fiction again.
I stopped caring about stained glass. My ego doesn’t crave compliments on how clever I am. I don’t need to sculpt intricate metaphors in pages of PhD.-level prose. Life is too short. There are more stories I than I have time to tell.
Occasionally I’ll write some short fiction with philosophical musings and literary allusions.
But that’s not what I aim to write.
I’m happy to be that genre author whose prose disappears, revealing the world beyond.
Plain glass suits me fine.