Quiet Literature

Over a year and a half ago, I went to my first writers conference. I had a pretty good second-ish draft of my novel in hand, though I’d recently decided to self-publish. (It will now be published by She Writes Press in 2014.) Still, I wanted to learn more about the industry and get some agent feedback on my first pages.

The two agents assigned to my group of ten writers were young, probably ten years younger than I was. I don’t tell you their age–about mid-20s–to be condescending. But I think it might help explain their know-it-all attitude. I didn’t fully recognize the attitude at the time; though I’d been writing for many years, I was new to the publishing industry and had a lot to learn. They did know it all, as far as I was concerned.

But now I’ve had time to digest my conference experience, learn more about publishing, and reflect on my own trajectory from thinking I know everything (oh, say, ten years ago) to realizing how little I know. As age increases, so does the ability to admit ignorance.

One of the agents in particular looked very young, though she masked it with dark red lipstick and a sweeping up-do. After the first two pages of my manuscript were read aloud, she turned to me and said, “This has the risk of being too quiet. You don’t want to be too quiet.”

“Oh,” I think I said, though I had no idea what she meant. I could guess, but it was the first I’d ever heard the word used to describe literature.

“It’s also a bit…M.F.A.,” she continued.

“Oh,” I said again. Then, sheepishly: “I have an M.F.A.”

Photo: Dorothea Lange

Photos: Dorothea Lange

She nodded with pursed lips, as though I’d just provided her all the information she needed. I already knew that some people thought earning a Master of Fine Arts was a waste of time and often produced people who could write beautiful sentences but couldn’t put together a compelling story. I’d just never had someone say it to my face.

I tell you all this because, since then, I’ve had time to think about “quiet.” That sheepish attitude I had? Oh, it’s all gone.

To the detractors of this type of literature, quiet is boring. It means there are no steamy love scenes, no vampires, no plot lines screaming in your face, telling you, the reader, all you need to know. To the agent, quiet meant, “No Sale.”

Photo: Dorothea Lange

And it’s true, quiet is harder to sell. A lot of people read books to escape into un-reality. There is an important role in that type of literature.

But I am in love with quiet. Quiet literature assumes the reader is intelligent and thoughtful, able to read between the lines, between the gestures, and peek into the spaces between the words—to understand the words that aren’t there, and why. The quiet reader doesn’t need to be told everything.

Quiet literature reflects humankind without much fanfare. It tells the everyday stories of everyday people, seeking the profound in the mundane. Quiet literature finds glory—I find glory—in the moments that make up real life. There is meaning in the way a child eats a green apple with her front teeth or that a shopkeeper wraps a piece of thread around his finger until it hurts.

My favorite part about writing quiet literature is figuring out how to get a point across—through a scene or a phrase or a piece of dialogue that is, or isn’t, there—in the imgressimplest way. What wince, what glance at the door, what touch of the wrist, will be the bit the reader needs to understand?

To me, quiet literature is the Dorothea Lange photography of the book world. It reflects reality, the living–us.

These days, if you Google “quiet literature,” you’ll find articles on Alice Munro. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week.

Why, I haven’t read her since my M.F.A. days.

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34 thoughts on “Quiet Literature

  1. I have read just a bit of your quiet writing. And I always walk away trying to describe what it is of your writing that I find so compelling. Now I know.

  2. I agree quiet literature “tells everyday stories of everyday people,” slice of life, and that’s what makes them so fascinating to read. Now I’m really looking forward to reading your book — because I know I’ll read a compelling story but mostly because I love the passion you use to describe your feelings about writing. Can’t wait!

  3. As a quiet writer myself, I find this heartbreaking in the most beautiful sense. There is no greater gift than the moments when we choose to follow our own sense of story because it resonates on levels that go beyond defense or explanation.

    • I think that agent did me a great service. She made me step back and really think about my writing, my voice. And embrace it even more.

      I’ve had others tell me that quiet will be hard to sell, but they’ve done so nicely. If there’s any harshness to my remarks, it comes more from my disappointment that a few (just a few) of the agents I’ve met or read online have taken the opportunity to use their power meanly, when all writers are really trying to do is achieve a goal or dream.

  4. Quarantining one’s description of a novel to its decibel level is a little embarrassing and I don’t know how it came to this. Don’t worry. This limited form of description will be replaced with another moronic one next year. In time for your book’s release!

    • I think quiet might make a comeback–in literature and in life in general. Just like more people are taking stock of their priorities and living quieter lives, they’ll seek quieter literature. (One hopes.)

  5. I generally find that quiet writing is more acceptable in some markets than others–and by “acceptable,” I mean the prevailing attitude among the people selecting works of fiction for publication these days, whether that be agents, editors, or publishers. Take YA for example–you not only cannot get away with “quiet” fiction, but you must have such a big hook that the story borders on preposterous. YA is fiction on steroids. I love reading it, but it’s very challenging to write.That’s why I tend to prefer middle grade, where I feel I can explore deep issues within those small moments of life and make them meaningful through the eyes of a young protagonist. There’s a similar opportunity for quiet exploration in women’s fiction. But overall, the market does tend to clamor for big hooks and firework endings these days–the thing is, some of the people in publishing have forgotten that emotions pack as big of a punch as fists. I believe that a story which resonates emotionally can still find its place among traditional pubs, but every ounce of connection and nuance must be amplified by the author. After all, we are trying to connect, just not always with a fantastically loud premise.

    • Yes, right. Emotion, connection, are key. The market has swung one way, mostly, and just like everything, won’t it swing back? Indie films are becoming more popular, for example. We’ll see, I suppose. I’m looking forward to reading your work…

  6. I remember that conference and that “quiet” comment, and the backhanded slight to the MFA. The pursed lips, the upswept hair, and the dark lipstick.
    I also remember hearing of a writer named Harper Lee, who wrote a quiet little book called, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which, if I remember hearing ir correctly, went on to win a Pulitzer. I think of her often. I WISH I could be such a quiet writer, instead of such a loud, often angry scribe.
    I’m so happy for you, Jessica. I’m glad your style won’t be changing for the likes of loud and in-your-face prose.

    • You’re so sweet, thank you. And, funny, I’ve honestly read some of your “rants” and thought, “I wish I could be so open and bare.” Sometimes, I think I’m a little too guarded.

  7. Quiet literature is alive and well in France, as is translated fiction, novella’s and the Bande Dessiné (graphic novel – it’s been around since Asterisk).

    I imagine that younger agents are looking for younger talent (or talent writing for a young audience) to meet that very demanding market for youth and they must compete against all forms of entertainment, not just books. The agent tells us the kind of thing they can sell, and that’s good because just like dating, we get an understanding of whether a good match is being made or not. I have even had an agent say while they enjoyed my writing they didn’t fall in love with in the way that would be required in order to take it on. If that’s not dating….!

    I feel then it is more a matter of being matched with the right agent, publisher and market and that as writer’s it’s a personal choice to write what we ourselves appreciate, whether it is popular or not.

  8. I love to write thrillers and suspense stories, but I really enjoy reading quiet literature. Life can be exciting enough without a book involving vampires and explosive plots, and there are times when I just want to escape into quiet writing versus loud writing.

    I look forward to reading your book! 🙂

  9. This world of creative perspective is a funny place, and what one person cherishes in your writing another person will criticize. We all love different genres and even the act of reading is a very intimate experience–one very much colored by our own set of experiences. I do love the quiet slow pace of a literary work. What I love most is that quiet contrasted against extraordinary circumstances (exp. The Snow Child)–talk about a tight niche, but it’s what I love.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  10. Oooh…. yummmy. I love this article. I am in love with quiet, too – and quite frankly, “quiet” is a hell of a lot harder to write than “loud.” I’m reading THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahari now, and it is quiet at its loveliest. The “show-don’t-tell” of it is fabulous. But mixed in with that are gorgeous metaphors and similes and a “quiet” but BIG story. So yeah, give me quiet ANY time.

    And I had to chuckle at the “know everything in your 20s” attitude (and the “this is too MFA comment” ha!). Sadly, I was the same way and remember, as the 27-year-old director of a college PR office, arguing with my boss about why I was right, and he calmly said, “You will learn to be less defensive and take criticism when you’re older.” But back then, I just KNEW I was right. Ha ha. How true that time changes our minds and makes us more humble in many ways.

    • Oh, I was the same. One good thing about getting older is getting wiser. And I suppose I’m wise enough to know I shouldn’t respond to condescension with condescension, but I couldn’t help myself!

  11. I love so many things about this post, Jessica. It’s just what I needed to read as I’m chipping away at my novel-in-progress, struggling to find the right “volume” for the book (and after having recently picked up a handful of loud books that are selling well, but that didn’t move me one bit). Your post reminded me of a few books I’ve loved reading in recent years — The Invisible Mountain, The Snow Child, The Orchardist. All quiet in their own ways. All books my mind goes back to often. Give me quiet any day. It’s like the old saying, speak softly and carry a big stick. That’s what quiet literature does.

    • Yes — yes. Quiet moments can pack a wallop. I think part of the strength comes from simply (finding and) reflecting truth. A storyline can be BIG and still be told quietly. A reader knows what’s true and that’s what they remember. At least, that’s how I like to see it.
      This is actually making me think of my kids–when I raise my voice, they don’t listen. When I’m calm and quiet, they know I’m serious.

  12. I couldn’t love this more. As someone who loves quiet literature (and who’s also gotten the “it sounds quiet” comment) I agree that we need this kind of writing. It helps us see things in our own life (that we may have missed) in an entirely new light, “seeking the profound in the mundane” as you so eloquently stated. Isn’t life really all about the small moments anyways? I’m often blown away, in both life and literature, by the huge revelations in the subtle things. Thanks so much for sharing this, Jessica.

  13. I absolutely adore this. (And big thanks to Natalia for tweeting about it.) To be honest, I have grown increasingly wary of “MFA writing” over the years — in part because I myself was headed in that direction myself, without anyone showing me the pitfalls — but you’re right: there IS a point to quiet fiction, when it’s done well. This line in particular encapsulates it perfectly:

    “Quiet literature reflects humankind without much fanfare. It tells the everyday stories of everyday people, seeking the profound in the mundane.”

    That. That is the greatest. The truest. The most.

  14. This is so beautiful, Jess. Thank you for writing about that quiet comment as we sat around that small table as writers being critiqued. As I’m back on the query process, I’ve thought often about that discussion — the condescension. It is interesting, too, that you also felt the younger to older difference there. Yes. A strange feeling, a strange situation, and not quite the encouragement writers hope to hear.

    I love your writing, and cannot wait to hold your novel in my hands this spring. It is a triumph, for all that is quiet and true and important. Thank you for sticking to your vision for your writing. You continually inspire me to stick to mine. Thank you!

  15. Loved this, Jessica. Personally, as a reader, I like vary what I read. Something quiet, then maybe fast paced, then maybe something thought-provoking in the nonfiction arena, then something funny like David Sedaris. I’m an eclectic reader!

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