In Defense of Caste Fiction

A WRITING CRAFT REVIEW

I apologize to those of you who resent my categorization of All the Pretty Horses as an especially well crafted novel in the caste fiction genre rather than referring to this and other similar novels as “literary” fiction.

My own investigation of writing craft has, however, forced me to disregard traditional classifications and look for patterns in the crafting of many, many different novels in order to formalize those patterns. One result of this inquiry was my realization that there are a cluster of novels that describe, almost exclusively, how characters navigate within a social grouping or attempt to migrate into another grouping. To designate this collection I co-opted the word caste from the Asian Indian system of hereditary social divisions even though that system is hierarchical and mine at least attempts to be ecumenical.

One distinctive element of the caste genre is that because social structure is the organizing principle the writers prioritize the development of  socially engaged characters over plot developments. They define this emphasis as realism though it is a realism of a very specific and bounded sort which relieves them of the traditional restraints of plot development.

Many writers and readers of the caste genre are often English majors and graduates of university creative writing programs that also place a very high value upon prose craft–the choice and order of individual words. Since prose craft shifts to accommodate linguistic fashion changes, particularly for English speaking populations, I do not find it a reliable measure for determining the basic divisions within fiction in general. It is, however, an important element of writing craft, though by no means the only or even the dominate element.

Because caste novels emphasize character it is not unusual for these works to be open-ended “slices of life”. The natural resultant ambiguities of everyday reality leave caste novels vulnerable to social critics and academic writers who, in service of their own agendas, impose meanings upon novels that the texts themselves only vaguely suggest. This empowerment of the critic rather than the reader to determine the meaning of texts has resulted in a dimishment of the ability of the genre’s readers to determine the value of the texts for themselves. Thus the resultant rise in the prominence of the university trained critics who populate the publishing industry in order to explain what the writers are doing. 

There are fervent fans of every genre who cling to the inherent superiority of their particular genre. They mock the others genres, disparage their writing style, and discourage anyone from wasting good coin on their products. As a student of writing craft I’ve read many books in every genre and have come to understand that there are actually about the same small percentage of very excellent writing crafters in each category. These exceptional novelists not only satisfy the conventions of their genre but they also challenge the limitations of those conventions. They maintain an even balance between both plot and character development. They adapt their prose style to match the content of the story in order to reinforce rather than reduce the ability of the reader to experience the emotions generated by these characters caught up in this plot. Caste novelists have not shown themselves any more or less likely to accomplish these simple goals than writers of other genres.

Disliking the intentions of another genre is not grounds for disparaging a writer’s skill at fulfilling those intentions any more than imagining that intentions of your favorite genre are inherently superior to those of any other genre. It is a matter of taste, of environment, and conditioning.  It is personal not universal.

My own experience with caste fictions writing craft is that many of the genre’s novelists fail to generate  better than average general fiction because they  are plagued by the ambition to write a novel that will be included in the university canon of “great” novels. It is an irony of literature departments that they are primarily value innovation over competence.  What they actually teach is the history of the development of storytelling and in doing so focus primarily upon those texts that changed the course of that development or at least in how they are appreciated by the critics. This is something quite different from the nuts and bolts of good writing craft which is itself something much more complex than simply good grammar.

I’m interested in sociology and grammer but I’m not passionate about these ideas because they are permeable, change over time. The deep elements of telling a good story well have changed very little since long before the construction of Beowulf and the IliadThey are so ingrained in our psyches that they are almost invisible but I believe they can be learned, can be taught, can be, if you will, be loved. Remember however, as you read my small essays hat I too am also using every novel I write about in the service my own ideas and am also attempting to impose upon you my own peculiar view of things. Keeping that responsibility in my own mind I will try to stay as close to the texts as possible and restrict my comments to those that pertain to the writing craft but I am human and I will often fail.

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