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.”
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.”
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 simplest 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.