“‘It’s me,’ someone says. It takes a moment to realize the words came from me.”

Charles Dickens, who would love Wattpad except for the part where he doesn't get paid

Charles Dickens, who would love Wattpad except for the part where he doesn’t get paid

The heading of this post is a quote from After 3, an online novel by Anna Todd serialized on Wattpad. I apologize for my poor scholarship, but I can’t tell if After 3 is the third part of one long novel titled “After” or the second sequel to the original. I’m new to this whole Wattpad thing, which I discovered via this article in the New York Times. It likens Wattpad to the serial fiction that dominated 19th-century literature, particularly in England. Like “The Old Curiosity Shop,” Wattpad novels progress in installments, reaching their readers not long after being written. Unlike “The Old Curiosity Shop,” no one gets paid for writing them. But readers can comment, so net improvement.

Also, there may be some differences in the quality of the prose. Todd, for example, leans heavily on profanity to establish character voice and takes a nonstandard approach to punctuating speaker tags. I urge you to read Chapter 200 of After 3, so you can understand what one of the most popular authors on the site sounds like.

The works that appear on Wattpad are not edited. Sometimes, they aren’t even read. “I barely ever reread the chapter before posting,” Todd told the Times, “because I overthink things and I feel like overediting or trying to use too many words can ruin the story.”

You can see this method at work in the prose. Besides howlers like the one in the headline, sentences in After 3 often call characters to the stage with no action to guide them, as when Harry “looks like he’s going to explode, not necessarily out of anger but he just looks like he has no clue what to say or do.” Annie Dillard it ain’t. Still, there is something undeniably charming about the Wattpad model, particularly if you’ve experienced the workshop model.

Anyone with an MFA in fiction—an alarming percentage of the readership of this blog—knows how heavily a writer’s workshop emphasizes well-made stories. Frank Conroy’s book about “craft and the writing life” from the Iowa workshop is tellingly titled The Eleventh Draft. As a paradoxically lazy and ambitious MFA candidate, I regularly wrote that many drafts of a story, sometimes in pursuit of perfection and sometimes because it was easier than composing something new. After weeks (read: months) of this process, I would have the narrative equivalent of a bonsai tree.

It’s an unfalsifiable hypothesis, but I would say that the same model dominates contemporary literary fiction. What Michael Chabon called the “quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” is the story educated writers are trained to produce, to which educated readers are trained to respond. Probably that is a logistical consequence of the workshop, since you can’t meet for three hours to talk about two students’ novels every week.

The short story is the logical unit of instruction, and so minute focus on tone, image and short narrative lines becomes the method instructed. But is that what readers care about? It seems possible that today’s literary fiction, which takes place in a world seemingly without humor and definitely without vampires, is a species of mannerism.

Clearly, Wattpage is not the alternative. It’s awesome that Todd wrote a trilogy hundreds of thousands of people enjoy reading, but I personally am not into it. I think most readers of conventionally published fiction would agree with me. But I think many of those readers would also agree that contemporary literary fiction is bloodless, vaguely uniform and—worst of all—boring.

In a society whose narrative medium is sitting around a fire, man tries to fix porch, fails, and remembers something about his father is not a story. That society prefers king befriends savage, kills monster, which is equally unsatisfying to us. Somewhere in the middle is a spectrum that runs from Clear and Present Danger to Carpenter’s Gothic. I submit that the literary end of this spectrum is in trouble, even as it is codified in MFA programs and English departments around the country.

The prose on Wattpage appears to suck, but readers respond to more than fine prose. Perhaps the internet age is particularly suited to serial fiction, and perhaps serial fiction is particularly suited to correcting the problems of contemporary literature. “Don’t make it good,” I used to tell creative writing students. “Make it interesting.” When you’re banging it out for the internet, you pretty much have to choose one.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit

Leave a Comment.