When I taught first grade, a family of refugees straight from the jungles of Laos came to our town and our school. We teachers who would have a student from this family were given a crash course in south-east Asian culture so we’d be better able to deal with any every-day situations that might arise. Thus I learned that in south-east Asia, the worst insult one person can give another is to touch them on the top of the head. It’s like giving someone the finger in the US. Or throwing a shoe at them in the Middle East.
After this crash course, we met the family. The father was the only one who could speak English. He said he was watching American TV and reading American literature as a way to learn our culture. As he said this, a memory popped into my mind of a literary story I’d read recently.
An abbreviated version of the story is this: A young boy spends the summer with his grandparents. He and his grandfather don’t get along except when fishing in the creek that runs through the grandparents’ property, trying for the legendary trout that lives there. At the end of the summer, as the boy’s parents come to pick him up, the boy hooks the trout, puts up a heroic battle that seems to last forever… and loses it. As the grandfather and the boy pack up their gear and head to the house, the grandfather removes the boy’s cap and pats him on his head. And that’s the end of the story.
I know what the author intended the reader to understand. I know the point he was trying to make with the story. That the grandfather loved the boy unconditionally whether he caught the trout or not. But if that father from south-east Asia read that story, given the meaning his culture gives to a pat on the head, I’m not so sure he got the writer’s meaning. In fact, he might well have gotten the exact opposite message.
So the fact that literary fiction does not tell a story directly may be why it doesn’t pay as well as commercial fiction. Because the readership is limited to those readers who share the same culture as the writer. Who understand the writer’s innuendos, segues, descriptions and other devices he uses to tell a story indirectly. Unfortunately, that’s a much smaller pool of potential readers than commercial fiction requires to be financially successful.
Though, with the advent of e-publishing, there are enough potential readers of similar backgrounds out there for any literary writer to publish electronically and see what happens. It just might work!