How Beautiful Should Your Sentences Be?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mickey Spillane

“Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

So said one of the all-time bestselling writers, Mickey Spillane. He was always getting bad-mouthed by literary writers (most famously Hemingway) for succeeding in the sweatshop of mass market paperback fiction. Many “big-shot writers” who wrote beautiful sentences did not take it well that this hardboiled typist was outselling them ten thousand to one.

I thought about that quote recently as I listened to an agent and editor on a panel discussing “up-market fiction.” That seems to be what “everyone is looking for” in the traditional publishing world. But what the heck is it?

A few years ago, Chuck Sambuchino, of Writer’s Digest, defined “up-market” this way:

Simply put, it’s fiction that blends the line between commercial and literary. To further examine this, let’s break down those two terms. Commercial fiction, essentially, refers to novels that fall into a typical genre (thriller, let’s say). Commercial fiction can sell very well because it usually has a tight premise/logline (“Someone is trying to kill the president!”) and people like reading a category like thrillers because it’s exciting. Literary fiction refers to novels that don’t fit into any standard genre classification – romance, mystery, sci-fi, for example. Literary fiction requires the highest command of the language. Not pretentious, over-the-top purple prose – just simply excellent writing. Literary fiction has a harder time selling because it’s not easily defined, and sometimes the premise is not easily explained (or just isn’t that exciting).

So that brings us to “upmarket.” EVERYONE is looking for this genre. “But why, Chuck?” Well, think about it. It’s literary fiction, so it’s pretty damn good writing, but it has commercial potential. It has the ability to infiltrate lots of book clubs and start discussions and take off as a product. It’s a win-win for everyone. I’ve heard a lot of agents say that they are looking for “literary fiction with a commercial appeal,” or something like that. Well, one word that does the job of those six is “upmarket,” and that’s why you hear it so much.

 

The article went on to quote agent Kristin Nelson, who said, “Really, editors are looking for literary writers who can tackle the more commercial themes in a way that’s fresh and well constructed.”

The agent on the panel said that literary fiction is “all about the sentences” and commercial fiction is “all about the plot.” Up-market fiction occupies “the space in between.” It has “more beautiful sentences” than raw commercial fiction.

I guess I understand. But let me say, first of all, I don’t believe a collection of “beautiful sentences” necessarily adds up to a quality literary novel. If you’d like to find out why, read the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) essay called A Reader’s Manifesto.

On the other hand, lovely prose in service to story can indeed elevate the fictive dream. I give you, e.g., White Oleander by Janet Fitch.

It’s an interesting balance to consider. My approach is to start with plot and then consider my sentences, rather than start with style and root around for a plot. Therefore I counsel: Don’t write to impress your readers; write to distress your characters.

When I write a sentence I don’t want it to pull the reader out of the story by being either a) clunky; or b) purple. If there’s to be some “poetry” in the prose, I want it to be, as John D. MacDonald put it, “unobtrusive.”

To bring things back to Mr. Spillane, his writing was favorably contrasted to Thomas Wolfe’s in an essay by, of all people, Ayn Rand. And it seems to me she was right. Wolfe’s sentences often get in my way (I wrote about that here). But Spillane’s pull me into the story world. Read the opening of One Lonely Night sometime.

So just to be clear, I really do love a bit of caviar now and then. But I’ll take a bag of salted peanuts anytime—and will likely finish the whole darn thing.

So what repast do you prefer—caviar or peanuts? Do you think about writing “up market”?

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36 thoughts on “How Beautiful Should Your Sentences Be?

  1. Almonds.
    And I like your advice, “Don’t write to impress your readers; write to distress your characters.” My characters wouldn’t talk in beautiful sentences. They’re “ordinary” people. My preference is to read books where the words don’t get in the way of the story. I’m exposed to “literary” fiction with many of my book club’s selections. Right now it’s Rules of Civility. Not only are the characters boring, but the author (and editor) felt no need to use quotation marks. Dashes for opening quotes, and that’s it. It’s driving me nuts.

    • Ack. I’ve seen that no-quotations-marks move in a couple other literary novels. All it does for me is call attention to the writer.

      And if there is one ironclad “rule” for fiction, doesn’t it have to be, Don’t bore the reader? If the style overtakes the characters and the plot, that’s what can happen, and quickly, too.

  2. Knowing my love for westerns, my sister-in-law tried to get me to read Blood Meridian, one of the books prominent in her dissertation. I read 32 pages. I don’t remember seeing a single comma. The prose was wonderful, but the lack of punctuation sent me back re-reading sentences to catch intent so often that I finally have up. Give me salted peanuts any day.

    • UGH! Thanks for the warning. I was reading a book on Arizona history which mentioned this novel, so I’m waiting for my digital library loan to come in. I had the sense that I once tried to read it years ago but didn’t, & I have a feeling your explanation is why.

      But then I shouldn’t be surprised. The writer of the Arizona history book felt no compunction to carefully document his sources at the back of the book either.

      • BK, Blood Meridian is one of those books I turn to again and again. The prose becomes very fluid. To me it’s definitely worth hanging with it. I love peanuts and caviar!!!

    • Of said book and author, I agree. I’ve often thought that a page of this kind of writing can operate in the same way as a fine prose poem (a la Whitman). But poetry comes in collections, and you don’t usually read them cover to cover. And they certainly don’t create what we’d call a novel.

  3. I hate the term “upmarket”. It sounds very arrogant & snobbish and even worse, boring! It sounds like a PTSD trigger, making me think about the boring types of books they tried to force me to read back in school. UGH!

    Trying to make this distinction also sounds like it has the same problem so many fields of endeavor do–it’s one thing to learn and grow in your profession & advance your field, but it’s another to overthink/over-dissect it. Why would anyone write anything where they give priority to sentences over plot (and therefore character?).

    My requirements for reading a good book are very simple. Don’t bore me. I don’t care how much or how little the writer agonizes over each sentence. I just want them to NOT bore me.

    • That golden rule again, BK. No boredom!

      One of the standard knocks on MFA programs is the emphasis on sentences over everything else. It’s almost as if plot is a four-letter word!

  4. I like my mysteries well-written and fast-paced, with well-drawn characters and realistic dialogue. Is that “literary”? I don’t know. It seems to me that that “literary” fiction is something that’s more discussed on panels than actually read.

    • Ha, that’s no doubt true, Elaine. An editor once wryly told me that the definition of literary fiction is “fiction that doesn’t sell.” To a large extent, that’s true. While an Oprah book can break out, most nominees for the National Book Award sell under 5k copies.

  5. I’ll take the salted peanuts…but sometimes I like them dipped in chocolate.

    Thanks for this discussion today. I’ll mention two books that I’ve found helpful. Donald Maas’ book, “Writing 21st Century Fiction,” points to what is important in the story telling and bringing the literary and genre approach together. And Rebecca McClanahan’s “Word Painting” (a book you recommended to me) was very helpful with description.

    If the cardinal rule is “Don’t bore the reader,” then the corollary should be “make the reading as interesting as possible.” Fresh descriptions, interesting metaphors, new perspectives – all without gilding the lily – make the reading experience more enjoyable, and can even be part of that elusive “voice.”

    Please pass the chocolate-covered peanuts.

    Thanks, Jim, for a great post.

    • Oh yeah, Steve. I’ll down a box of Goobers in ten minutes.

      Don Maass’s book does indeed speak to that middle ground called “up market.” The best treatment of it, in fact, that I know of.

  6. I agree with Elaine, “well written and fast-paced.” I don’t mind the upmarket term because it helps me finally understand why one of my favorite thriller writers, Stephen White, is sometimes found in the literary section. His sentences are well crafted but not distracting; he also has more metaphors than most and deep character development. (I’ve added the semi-colon, assuming this conversation is upmarket?)

    • Nancy, your semi-colon is acceptable; I use them myself in comments and non-fiction. But if I see one in a novel it’s like one of those off-color rotten peanuts you occasionally get when you crack the shell.

  7. I, too, am a literary omnivore — give me peanuts or caviar, and if they’re done right, I’m happy. Both have to be prepared just so, and there are many ways to ruin both.

    • “…many ways to ruin both.”

      One of the main ways I go about teaching the craft, Mike. A writer can learn what to do, but also (and just as important) what to avoid.

  8. (As I sit here barefoot with cutoff jeans.) I prefer caviar. And oh how I wish I could write up market, but I’m still learning the craft, learning how to distinguish purple from pretty and just trying to produce a coherent story. I admire both types of authors, not thinking one is better than the other. I reckon a reader’s preference has to do more with the mood he or she is in and not whether one style of writing is superior to another.

  9. Hi Mr. Bell,
    I have been away for two weeks and the first chance I got I turned on the computer and checked out ‘killzoneblog’. I have been undecided between commercial or literary fiction for my book, but after reading your article I will go with commercial fiction. I am confused about the genre, tho. Any suggestions? Also I noticed you used a pen name for ‘Pay Me In Flesh.’ Why do authors do that?
    Thank you, Mary

    • Mary, commercial fiction isn’t a genre per se, but is any genre that has a discernible market. “Up market” tries to take literary, which doesn’t sell as well, and give it a commercial “kick.”

      I used a pen name back then because it was a traditional book contract and different enough from my other work that it would confuse bookstore shelvers. Since getting the rights back, I’m now republishing them under my own name. The world of publishing has changed sufficiently to do that.

  10. A while back I stood in a museum in Tacoma, Washington looking at a painting by Joan Miro. It was painted in 1940 and called “Figure at Night Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails”. It was attractive but I never understood it. I barely remember what it looked like.
    In 1941, Ansel Adams made the photograph, “Moon Rise, Hernandez, New Mexico”. I saw an original print at a museum in Phoenix. It has stayed with me. What I took away from these experiences is that good art doesn’t have to be pretentious, it needs to be memorable.
    I think it is the same in stories. How is this for a memorable sentence:
    “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers”
    -The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler.

  11. To say literary fiction is only about language is simplistic. The simplest comparison between literary fiction and popular/genre fiction is that literary fiction is about the telling of the story, popular fiction is about the story itself.

    In literary fiction, the author is always evident through the flashy style and the use of complex structure. Plot isn’t important. A common technique found in literary fiction is the frame story where someone in the present is looking into the past, or the end of the novel is revealed at the beginning. In other words, time in most stories isn’t linear, and the reader doesn’t read primarily to know what happens next and how it turns out in the end. This technique emphasizes character over plot.

    In genre fiction, the writer should be invisible, and the reader should be part of the story and not really aware of the writer and the way he’s putting the story together. Anything that breaks this “dream state” is a failure on the writer’s part.

    In literary fiction, the opposite is true. The language draws attention to itself, and the reader pauses to think, “My, what an excellent use of metaphor and language! I think I’ll reread that again.” This is what the literary writer aims for.

    In recent years, since the big publishers now demand decent sales from literary writers, authors have been using genre techniques in literary fiction or vice versa in order to widen their audiences. Here are some of these mixed literary/genre that I’ve read.

    THE ART OF DISAPPEARING, Ivy Pochoda, Literary contemporary fantasy.

    THE VANISHERS, Heidi Julavits. Literary fiction with paranormal elements.

    THE NIGHT CIRCUS, Erin Morgenstern. Literary fantasy.

    THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC, Emily Croy Barker. Literary portal fantasy.

    A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, Deborah Harkness. Literary contemporary fantasy.

    THE HAWLEY BOOK OF THE DEAD, Chrysler Szarlan. Paranormal mystery written in literary style.

    JACKABY, William Ritter. Paranormal historical mystery.

    GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, Amy Stewart. Historical literary novel.

    SLEEPY HOLLOW: RISE HEADLESS AND RIDE, Richard Gleaves. “Jason Crane” Book 1. Literary paranormal suspense.

    • Thanks for the added perspective, Marilynn, though I think there’s a contradiction between “To say literary fiction is only about language is simplistic” and “The language draws attention to itself.”

      I think we agree about the attention thing, and the complexity bit. Which does appeal to a small slice of the reading public.

  12. Peanut butter. regular nuts are too dry for me. I’ll only eat caviar if it shows up on a great piece of sushi.

    I have nothing much to add to the conversation except that I have found, after rereading many times, some horrid sentences in my favorite novels. And I distinctly reading a book a few years back and thinking, wow, this writing isn’t too great, but I need to know what happens next.

    • Well, AZ, that’s a pretty good goal for the writer, IMO. Make the reader want to know what happens next. Unless the sentences—be they pretty or utilitarian—have that content, I’m simply not going to read on.

  13. Aargh. Jimmy no like “I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I have found you. You are my sympathy–my better self–my good angel–I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”

    Jimmy like, “I slid the clip in, tromboned the slide, felt the round snk into place rather than heard it, and waited a moment for the fire right over my head to lift so I could shoot. I mean, how many bullets can a bad guy’s AK-47 hold, anyway.”

  14. I’m a fan of good writing, whatever the story may be. I have zero patience for reading self-conscious, in-love-with-itself prose. Also for sloppy writing. Story is my favorite. Full stop.

    Way back in 2007 my books were tagged by my first publisher as “upmarket thrillers.” It’s been both a blessing and a curse this decade+ later. My books have been marketed under many categories: thriller, light literary, horror, upmarket, mystery, suspense, gothic, and women’s fiction. For me, the story dictates the category–which can be confusing for both readers and editors. Oh, and marketing. departments.There are two things that I hope all my work represents: 1) my personal voice/style and 2) the best writing I know how to do.

    It can be tough to be neither fish nor fowl because turducken with oyster stuffing isn’t for everyone. (So maybe mollusk or fowl?)

    Marilyn’s comment: “In recent years, since the big publishers now demand decent sales from literary writers, authors have been using genre techniques in literary fiction or vice versa in order to widen their audiences.” Yes. But the best writers have been doing this forever.

    Deeply literary writers who refuse to loosen up end up at university presses (which is fine, but only a small market values their work). The ones who do can have damn good careers–thinking of Jen Egan, Ben Percy and Justin Cronin off the top of my head.

    There are a few writers who do multiple genres very well. Here’s an excellent list
    https://www.bustle.com/p/13-bestselling-authors-who-write-in-more-than-one-genre-including-jk-rowling-stephen-king-neil-gaiman-2969009. (So many to add–Toni Morrison, Elizabeth George, Ian McEwan…) Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Stephen King have been lifelong author role models for me. They tell fabulous stories, and use sophisticated imagery–but they can do it with long, stunning sentences, or delightfully short and declarative ones.

    I’m a mid-list author, not a bestseller. My advances are pocket change to the above writers. Money aside, I’m often frustrated because my reviews tend to be 50/50 at best. A few people think my books are too slow and don’t appreciate my most careful sentences and paragraphs. Some think they’re too “plotted.” (Dear God, save me from reading to a room full of disapproving professors and MFA students.) Others love everything I write. (These may all be true for every writer, but my reader reviews are fairly polarized.) I’ve learned to think this perhaps isn’t a bad thing. I have a faithful readership that follows me wherever I wander (blunder, lol?) and I gain some more with every book. It’s one of the joys of my life to be appreciated by them.

    I’ve been a student of writing for nearly three decades now. I train and retrain and try to teach myself new things with every book. Would I like to have the income of a mystery or thriller writer with a wildly successful series that’s lasted decades? Or have legions of fans breathlessly waiting to see what genre I decide to take on next, like, say, Neil Gaiman. Hell yeah!

    Anyway, I have lots of thoughts on the subject because I have many, many friends all along the genre spectrum (if such a thing exists). Plus, my own experience. Thanks for reading!

    • Thanks, Laura, for that run down of your own experience. Quite valuable to this discussion. To have a faithful and growing readership is proof that you’re doing something right, i.e. “the best writing I know how to do.” That’s what any real writer strives for.

      And now, suddenly, I find myself wanting to try turducken with oyster stuffing.

  15. I’ve heard the term “upmarket” fiction many times, but never looked up what classifies a novel as such. Thank you for the explanation. As for your question, beautiful prose won’t fix a less-than-adequate plot. Therefore, I look for solid storytelling. If the writing is poetic AND it fits the character (and doesn’t pull me from the story), then great. I’ll digest caviar. Otherwise, slide me the bowl of peanuts please. 🙂

    • A good summation, Sue. I’m thinking right now of an author who has been trying to break through with upmarket for several books. The concepts are there, but too often the writing slows things down by being too “showy.”

  16. Literarians are the Jocks of the fiction world, the high school clique that despises everyone. They have defined “cool” as “just like me,” and they only have as much power in your thoughts as you give them.
    “Upmarket” seems to me to sell short the power of well-crafted genre fiction.

  17. Like Sue, I’ve heard the term “upmarket” fiction but wasn’t quite sure what it was. Thank you for explaining it.

    When I just let go and allow the words to flow, it usually turns out to be my best writing. I don’t consider myself a literary writer and never will. I have nothing against literary fiction, it’s just not my style of writing. I love peanuts.

    Here are two quotes I keep on my desk that keeps things in perspective for me when I write.
    “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damn story.” – Tom Clancy
    “The one talent that’s indispensable to a writer is persistence.”-Tom Clancy

    Thank you for another great post.

  18. I prefer the “salted-peanuts” approach (but I do actually prefer to eat caviar!) Cain, Thomspon, and Block are my favs but I love to read Stephen King Ray Bradbury and I wouldn’t compare the prose of either with “salted-peanuts.” So I guess a bit of both in my reading though I’m tending to write more in the “salted-peanuts” fashion lately.

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