Saturday, August 6, 2011

Original and Clever or Direct and Wise: Can the Two Literary Styles Live Together?

By Divina Infusino

Lately, I have attended a lot of literary events consisting of young, published fiction writers reading from their latest works.  One after another, they get up and demonstrate what appears to be one of the dominant, or at least one of the more trendy, forms of current fiction writing. I can only describe it as breathless, with long strings of vivid description.

Although it is punctuated with periods, commas and dashes, the prose gallops, almost without stop.  It surveys its subject –whether that is a person, a scene, an object, or an event-- and captures its every nuance with intoxicating detail. I admire the work, envy it even. 

And yet, while I objectively know that the writing is strong and creative, while I realize that the writer wrote and rewrote and evaluated or reevaluated every verb, image and twist of phrase, the prose rushes through my consciousness and leaves it just as quickly.  The writing seems full of adrenaline, jammed with observation and empty of insight. I walk away wondering what I heard, what I learned, or even if I felt anything beyond the sheer visceral exhilaration of words beautifully, but preciously, put together.

I go home and unearth from the beneath the piles of papers on my desk Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. It is one of the least self-conscious pieces of literature I have read in recent years.

I open the book to any page, read it, and breathe a sigh of relief. Compared to the clutter of cleverness and the overreach for originality that I have just experienced, the writing style in Olive Kitteridge is simple and direct until it injects a metaphor that literally leaves me gasping in its poignancy. Of course, the book’s literary style suits its subject.  It is a collection of short stories around the very unglamorous life of an abrasive, retired junior high school teacher in Maine.

Yet, every time, the beauty of the text stuns me.  This is prose powered by thoughtfulness, empathy and a combination of intimacy and perceptiveness with and of its subject. It knows what to tell and what to leave out and in the process says so much more than twice the verbiage could convey.  

As a writer and reader, just as a person, I like living in both worlds at different times. I like the hip and ingenious as well as the discerning and intuitive. But the current literary style seems to operate under the assumption that if you describe the outward appearance of something in enough detail, with enough invention and imagination, its inner truth will emerge. Most often, the opposite is true. Honesty and depth are usually concise and ruthless, like Olive Kitteridge.

However, if you know of recent books that combine both, I’d love to hear about them. Any suggestions?

Divina Infusino is the author of Day Trips From Orange County, an often personalized account of Southern California’s iconic and idiosyncratic locales, natural and cultural sites, hotels, day spas, shopping areas and restaurants. She is also a co-author of The Love Response and Rock Gods.  Divina has worked as a staff entertainment writer for The Milwaukee Journal and The San Diego Union. She was a cultural commentator for KPBS Radio and has been published in Rolling Stone, The Economist, TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Reuters, The New York Times Syndicate, Harper’s Bazaar,, and  She can be reached at



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