Sunday, November 7, 2010

Of literature... and men!

Probably not as easy at is sounds, innit?
Purpose: In the following I shall expose elements of a process that could help predict whether a given work of fictional prose could eventually appeal to an audience of potential buyers. I assume that the vast majority of authors who professionally create written works do that with the prime intent to earn a living. It is then of great interest to authors for their works to be accepted by the Publishing houses in the first place, and ultimately by their readers' audience.

Definitions: A general search for the definition of literature gives no conclusive or satisfactory answer to the question What is Literature. One experiences similar difficulty as in seeking an answer to the question, What is Art? Most experts describe literature as written works having some degree of excellence in their form, expression, ideas exposed and the widespread and lasting interest they create. Toloudi-Sidiropoulou (Literature expert and short stories writer, Greece) suggested an indirect definition: A written work is genuine literature when the reader is almost obsessively attracted by and attached to it until the reading is completed.  This is indeed a simple indirect way to define good literature that seems to hold valid in the vast majority of works in literature.

Fiction Prose: Constituent elements of a work in fiction prose (short story, novel, tales) can be grouped in two categories, a) the actual story and its characters (the ‘what’), and b) the way (plot) the story is deployed through out the written work (the ‘how’). In the latter, we can further distinguish two more elements, one of structure of the plot along a number of well-defined and traditional structural elements (exposition, complication, technical climax, resolution, conclusion), and a second that refers to an author’s individual writing style. Raymond Queneau (French author of Exercises in style) published a seminal work about writing styles that had a major impact on writing stylism.

Purpose of a work of fiction prose. Other than in poetry, most prose has basically one focused purpose: to tell a story and convey a general theme, such as a broad idea, message or moral of the story. To be good literature the story must be told in compelling ways, via a) its plot structure, and b) the selected writing style, aiming to obsessively attract the reader until completion of the book (Toloudi). Ultimately, the writing style and plot structure are the means to an end, not the end itself of prose.

Selection of the target audience. It is important that an author decides early on which should be the defining elements of the target audience for his/her planned work. Age demographics, educational background, particular genre (romance, detective, SciFi, etc…), social status, etc. The selection of a target audience should be compatible with the plot structure and the writing style to be adopted. For instance, if a novel targets a youth audience, then the narrative should be developed rather straightforward and the writing style should be characterized by easily comprehensible words and short sentences.

Understanding written text. How does the human brain work? The left-brain hemisphere is responsible for the interpretation of speech and the human language, and it will therefore deal with comprehension of blocks of text in a book. Individual words in a sentence are ‘read’ by the brain, where they subsequently trigger memory (stored) perceptions and images that form a person’s understanding of the words. Word perceptions are then linked together and form the context of the sentence itself; perceptions and context must be compatible for the conveyed idea to make sense to a sane person. This is the moment of human ‘understanding’ of the ideas conveyed in sentences... ‘Understanding’ may subsequently yield emotions (positive or negative). The left hemisphere handles positive emotions (joy, laughter), whereas the right hemisphere handles the negative (sorrow, sadness).

In order for the brain to efficiently process the contents of any given written text it is therefore necessary that:
  • Ideas are expressed in sentences with the necessary amount of words to avoid ambiguity in comprehension.
  • The words used should be easily understood by the gross average of the target audience.
Efficiency of a writing style should be then defined as the easiness of comprehension of text contents by a target audience.  There exist certain indices to ‘calculate’ the complexity of a given text in terms of a ‘fog’ index, offered as standard service by popular word-processing packages. Texts are then stamped as easily comprehensible by low-level education holders, whereas other are only comprehensible by higher education degree holders. There is something similar available on internet as well, whereby bloggers embed the free service in their home page to define and display the minimum required education level to comprehend their blog contents.

Selection of an inappropriate writing style can severely inhibit the ultimate purpose of storytelling. If a reader’s left-brain struggles to comprehend concepts in a sentence expressed by rare synonyms (word building) in long and ambiguous sentences, the author risks to ‘lose’ the reader. If the reader needs to repeatedly read same sentence to arrive at a reasonable understanding, the reader gets tired and will probably switch off after a few pages. Excessive use of adjectives, superlatives and qualifying words may introduce noise into the system and the storytelling will eventually suffer.

Fluency: An element of style that makes many storytellers popular is fluency. How fluently could a certain text be read and is there a certain rhythm in it? Rhythm in prose is similar to rhythm in poetry. Fluent prose sentences, read aloud, will often imitate the fluency of spoken word. Authors often violate the rules of good conduct in the syntax of their sentences in the interest of rhythm. Text fluency and rhythm boost speedy comprehension of contents and make the prose in question easily (fluently) readable. This, together with an interesting story that is explained in a compelling plot structure can yield the type of obsessive reader affection to his/her book. Emotions are also triggered far more easily as the brain processes ideas in the minimum possible time. Certain authors use short sentences to this end, and they even intentionally omit verbs in sentences altogether. Verb omission may engage reader audience even further as readers are forced to ‘invent’ their own choice of best-fit verbs to complete sentence understanding. This technique is more often used in lyrics poetry than in prose (Hapsiadis). Punctuation is also extremely important to fluency and rhythm.

Setting: To define the fiction element of ‘setting’ in prose, that is the location, environment and general context of the story, authors need to paint with words mental pictures surrounding character action. Detailed descriptions of environmental elements define the context in which these characters will act. Again here, in the description of the ‘setting’, many good authors are capable of painting extremely detailed mental pictures with a minimum in words used. Names of things and qualifying adjectives are dominant whereas verbs may again be scarce, for maximum effect. Good lyrics writers are very skilled in getting the minimum in effective words together to achieve rhythm, emotion, and pictorial detail. Painting ‘setting’ visualizations with words achieves further reader engagement. Readers perceive with their mind’s eye easily and without ambiguity the pictures described by the author.

Another element that I haven't touched upon is that often fiction writers do extended research before putting a word on paper. Brown for instance stayed for more than a year in Paris to learn every detail necessary about the Paris geography and then describe the action in his Da Vinci Code 'setting' properly. The more research, the more real and non-fiction, and therefore convincing the story sounds. Modern readers tend to look for reality books like they are looking for reality TV. Bestsellers often become movies and the story needs to sound and look plausible. The age of dreamer and romantic audiences who read books like in Victorian England, waiting for white horse riding Princes simply vanished. Commercial literature takes simply over...

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