I've just gotten back from a public interview at Hamline University with Richard Bausch, acclaimed short story writer and novelist, whose newest collection is titled Something Is Out There.
It was a great interview session, with Q & A afterwords, and has left my mind bubbling and a bit foggy. I think you can tell you've just seen something interesting when your first instinct is to go home and do the dishes (or some other meditative task). I usually have trouble focusing on lectures or any other kind of public forum (which I blame on having to go to boring church services growing up and watching Lethal Weapon 2 about five hundred times around the age of twelve, which undoubtedly killed what little attention span brain cells I possessed) but I was able to stay tuned in for most of Bausch's session.
One thing Bausch talked about that sticks out to me now is that so-called "entertainment fiction" and so-called "serious fiction" can be differentiated by the idea that something, in the end, can be resolved by an action (the space men finally kill the evil alien-my example) or not (Rambo's mother dies. Who does he shoot?-his example). An elegant differential, is it not? Think of Alice Munro or Ray Carver stories-something happens at the end, usually, but nothing can ever truly be solved, or resolved, because that's not what life is like.
So you have "entertainment stories", which play to the audience and our love of seeing things resolved, one way or another, because such resolution is rarely found in our own lives. A major part of us, that little kid part of us, really, really digs the idea of happily ever after and doesn't want to think about our heroes growing old, and sick, and cheating on their great loves, and finally dying. That sort of darkness, which is much less absolute than an evil villain and actually more gray-ish (again, more like our own lives) is the arena that "serious" or literary fiction plays in.
Thus, if you'll allow me to take this a step further, one can argue that your average fiction reader can be found somewhere along this fictional taste spectrum, with those who only read for escape and fireworks as one end of the spectrum and those who read to have a credible fictional world reflected back at them-something they can use as a sounding board and emotional reflecting pond-as the other end. If this is true, then I would see my first two novels as not only straddling genres, but as straddling the fictional taste spectrum. With The Suicide Collectors I leaned towards entertaining, with a dark reflective undercurrent, and with Wormwood, Nevada I leaned the opposite way, allowing a sharp kind of realism to seep into the characters and events of a strange, escapist kind of environment. And, while neither path led to best seller status, they satisfied the urge I felt to cover all the bases-why step up to the plate if you're not going to swing as hard as you can?
Note: Bausch also noted that both "entertainment" and "serious" fiction need to be entertaining, a very important addendum, if you ask me.