On inward- and outward-facing literature

by look i have opinions

“Fiction writing involves a confluence of the writer revealing their subconscious to themselves and the writer revealing a story to the reader. Let’s call the former the ‘inward-facing’ approach and the latter the ‘outward-facing.’ Distinction between the two explains the underpinnings of the divide between genre and non-genre (‘literary’) fiction as defined by the literary establishment. That divide has nothing to do with genre elements like space travel or magic or detectives or cowboys. Literary fiction is deemed inward-facing because anything outward-facing is considered pandering. This is true both for work criticized as ‘commercial hack’—pandering to the market or the un-literary tastes of the unwashed masses—and for work criticized as ‘political’—pandering to ‘special interests.’ Back when I was in an MFA program, I saw this as a bankrupt value system, because the social enforcement of literary rules in academia forces conformity onto writers, stifling creativity. But the real fallacy is much juicier than that.

“First, consider that the inherent purpose of writing is communication: to make entirely inward-facing writing would be to ignore the actual purpose of words. […]

“Second, words don’t merely convey facts. Fiction […] creates emotional states. Emotional states are tricky things, though, because humans have such varied experiences and varied reactions. The attitude that only inward-facing work has value makes sense only within a sphere of highly privileged groups or individuals, where similar life experiences (default: educated white heterosexual middle class) are assumed. If you know that audience, then you know what the expectations are, what the rules of the game are, which words are likely to shock, and which are likely to pass unnoticed.

“The true fallacy of the ‘inward-facing’ artiste—who has zero regard for his audience because he’s been taught that would be pandering—is that actually he’s much more outward-facing than he realizes: it’s merely that he’s facing a mirror in which the literary critics, awards juries, reviewers, and even expected readers are so much like him that he cannot see what he’s actually doing is pandering to a narrowly-defined status quo of what ‘literature’ is supposed to be. In other words, literary fiction is the genre which panders to those who claim to hate genres because genres pander. (Aside: God, I miss David Foster Wallace. And yes, I’m using ‘he’ on purpose.)”

an essay by Cecilia Tan, published in Strange Horizons on October 26th, 2015