Grumpy Old Bookman sums up his impatience with Serious Fiction and those who promote it:
The attitude in question takes the form of an assumption that this stuff is far superior, in every way, to books which just tell a story. It is held to be self-evident that a novel which concerns itself with Big Issues is, by definition, more worthy of attention, shelf space, and sales than is a book which contents itself with telling a story.
Later in the same post, he elaborates:
Finally, I want to return to my point that the novel which eschews all attempt at Deeper Significance, and just tells a story, is at least as valuable (actually rather more so) than one which seeks to weave in some message or other. . .A story, in my opinion, doesn't have to mean anything. But it does have to have an effect; otherwise both writer and reader are lost. And the story also has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I agree with GOB that novels treating "Big Issues" are usually not worth reading and that critics who laud works of fiction for raising such issues are usually less interested in fiction than in advocating their own favored "ideas." But the alternative for the writer who doesn't pretend to dispense great Wisdom is not necessarily to produce "books which just tell a story."
GOB appears to reduce novels to only their narrative details. A coherent plot--"a beginning, a middle, and an end"--is not just necessay so that all parties concerned don't get "lost," but seems to be entirely sufficient. Simply "telling a story" discharges the author's duties, exhausts the possibilities of fiction as a literary medium. But this view of what is involved in writing fiction doesn't actually cede much room for "writing" itself. It doesn't seem to make any difference to GOB that fiction is made of words and that words can be made to perform many interesting tasks in addition to, or rather than, telling stories. Story is all. But to demand that writers confine themselves to storytelling of a sort that might be done just as well and just as readily in another medium seems arbitrary and short-sighted indeed.
What of the stylistic pleasures a work of fiction might provide? The pleasure of witnessing language used in novel and challenging ways (or even just moderately interesting ways), of experiencing the transformative power of written language (the power to transform perception as well as our understanding of what language itself can express) when it is wielded by a particularly venturesome imagination? Or the potential capacity of form to sustain the reader's interest, either by altering narrative convention in some dramatically compelling way, or by substituting its own kind of dramatic effect for narrative convention altogether. The way "story" is disclosed to the reader--not to mention the way point of view affects our response to narrated events--is surely just as important as the story itself, since story is really just a secondary quality that we habitually abstract from the immediacy of the work as a dynamic organization of words. Would GOB really say that a writer's attention to the formal and stylistic possibilities of fiction count for nothing compared to his/her obligation to "tell a story"?
GOB maintains that he doesn't so much begrudge writers with literary ambitions as "resent" readers and critics who use "Serious Fiction" for their own purposes: "it's the attitude of those who sell, review, and -- above all -- use the damn things as teaching material." He wants fiction to be allowed its "emotional" impact and literary critics to otherwise leave well enough alone. This is an entirely defensible position, except that he clearly does take out his frustrations on the overly ambitious writer--in this case Dara Horn and her novel The World to Come. He goes out of his way to point out flaws in the novel that, in his opinion, serve to diminish its emotional impact (all the while insisting he did like the book, sort of) and interprets any deviation from traditional narrative form as an example of putting on airs. I maintain, on the other hand, that truly serious writers deviate from the tried and true in order to enhance the reading experience, not to subvert it. "Emotion" is a feature of this experience, but not the only one. It is futile to demand that readers refrain from reflection on the nature of the reading experience, especially when we believe that what we've read has been paricularly rewarding. It's something we do. At its best, this is called criticism, and it doesn't have to go on a quest for "Deeper Significance" in order to be useful.