Wednesday, 13 April 2011

L is for Literary Literature

What is Literary Fiction, other than what's left after you take away all the other genres? I think it is generally accepted that literary fiction is more in-depth, takes on more serious subject matter, and deals with the inner life and what makes us human — although that could mean just about anything. As Justice Potter of the US Supreme court said about how to identify pornography: I know it when i see it. 

I think most of the books that are considered within this group were not written with the label Literary Fiction in mind, they were just written as stories. Ultimately when you look at a novel of whatever genre the main thing it needs to achieve is to tell a story and to tell it in an interesting way and I think that applies to all genres equally.

The problem with the literary genre is that when you try to critique it, because it doesn't have fixed parameters, it is very easy for the writer to squirm out of answering those criticisms head-on. A slower pace, a lack of purpose, a denser use of language are all things associated with this type of writing. But a story is either interesting or isn't and even though tastes differ, I think most people. like Justice Potter,  can spot a dull tale when they see it.

Of course, there are going to be some people who are interested in the uninteresting. For example, if I was to write a story about a train driver and spent pages and pages describing his locomotive engine and nothing much else happened, there would be a group of steam train enthusiasts who would eat it up. Bestseller, no doubt. Sequels, imitators, movies. There are many subjects and genres for which that is true and if you're writing fits that mould, fair enough. 

Another group that is amenable to uninteresting writing are those writers who write in a similar fashion. It is a way of validating one's own shortcomings to identify others with similar faults and to praise them. It's easier to lower everyone else's standards then it is to raise your own. But I don't want to make it seem like I am not a fan of literary fiction, because I am. Big time.

You can see from my own bookshelf here that I'm very fond of a more considered approach to the novel. Not every story needs to have a character with a highly specified goal and huge stakes forcing them forward at the fastest pace possible. Sometimes a character's journey through life and their growth through experiences is enough, even more than enough, to hold my interest. But that doesn't mean just any journey is going to be of interest. We all have an interior life and genrally speaking no one cares about yours but you. The people whose secrets we’re most eager to know aren’t always the ones most eager to tell.

Just because something is true or realistic doesn't mean it's story-worthy. We all live lives full of events and circumstances and very few of them are worth hearing about. If you are writing a story about a person doing everyday things you have to be careful it doesn't end up as B.O.S.H (bunch of stuff happens). In fact the less plot-driven a story is, the better a writer you need to be. It is perfectly possible to create a story where nothing much happens that hasn't happened to a million other people throughout history, but what the reader gains from the story will need to be that much more amazing than a simple thriller.

The real difference between a genre fiction and literary fiction isn't in the ability of the reader to understand what's going on, it's always very obvious when a story doesn't work and when events within the story aren't very interesting. What's much more difficult is how to fix it since the obvious rules and guidelines don't really apply. It's also much harder to learn from successful books that you would like to emulate because their form and structure isn't as apparent as their genre cousins.

You should always remember what you're doing is telling a story. You're not painting a picture or conveying an emotion, although those things may occur as a byproduct. If the reader isn't engaged by that story on more than a trainspotter level then the story is being told well enough. When people say they weren't engaged, they lost interest, they got confused, pay attention. Don't pass it off as them not getting it. They got it, they just didn't think it was very good. Once you've identified the bit that doesn't work, then you're on your own.

So, if you want to write a story about a woman whose husband dies and she has to face life on her own, and there's no ticking time bomb, no handsome stranger to fall in love with, no magical apparition that appears at midnight, just a realisation that existence is a strange old thing, you had better put on your thinking cap and come up with some amazing insights into the meaning of life. Either that or make sure the husband left behind the most amazing model railway in the attic and described the hell out of it every three chapters.


Josh Hoyt said...

Great post. It is so nice to read about how to make my story better. Thank you for the great information. I agree that we can tell a good story when we read it. It is so important to listen to our readers and realize when they tell us something we need to listen.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Yeah, I can imagine critiquing Literary Fiction would be very difficult.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That will make people think!
I hold no delusions that I write literary fiction.

The Writing Goddess said...

Choo-choo! Yes, there are the enthusiasts, aren't there? I like lit'rature, too, and bah humbug to those who insist that boring is a synonym for literature. No, boring = boring.

mooderino said...

@Josh - cheers, of course then we have to try and work out how to fix it.

@Jennifer - it can be, expecially if you say you didn't understand something and you're told you weren't meant to.

@Alex - I bet you have your moments.

@Writing Goddess - I want to make it clear I have nothing against trains.

Thanks very much for all the comments.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...


Paula Martin said...

Intersting post although personally I'm not a huge fan of literary ficture (albeit with a few exceptions).

mooderino said...

@Fi - thanks, you're not so bad yourself.

@Paula - it's very much down to personal taste, which is why it's so hard to offer any advice to the writer if it isn't quite gelling (especially if they're not keen to decontruct it).

Laura Pauling said...

Personally, I love a mix of commercial/literary. It's my favorite to read.

the writing pad said...

I reckon 'literary' still has to be compelling, and not mere self-indulgence on the part of the author. As you say, the reading public knows when something is right :-)
Great post and all points well made, as ever.
All best, Karla

Ella said...

Well Done~ I love the quote, tis true!

Margo Berendsen said...

I've been playing with idea lately that commerical fiction utilizes macro tension (which described really well) while literary fiction utilizes micro tension. I'm still exploring this idea though. I like to read both.

TL Conway said...

Interesting post. I hate that I feel intimidated by literary fiction, just like I feel intimidated by The New Yorker. They seem so "high brow" and upper class. That being said, I haven't ready any literary fiction, so clearly I'm in no place to comment. :)

mooderino said...

@Laura - usually it becomes commercial after it starts selling well!

@Karla - I agree, and thanks.

@Ella - Cheers.

@Margo - that sounds very interesting (well, to me anyway) you should do a post about it, I'd be happy to chime in (whether you wanted me to or not).

@TL - like I'm qualified to write about any of this stuff... I'm even more intimidated by McSweeney's. Not hip enough to even buy it (so I don't).

E.J. Wesley said...

I enjoyed your take on lit-fic, especially the comments about authors squirming out of criticism. :-)


Anonymous said...

I've been thinking on this topic too!

Literary fiction is a genre that isn't bound to any one genre and yet is not without convention specific to the genre(s) it mines.

It's genre on crack. Transcendent without destroying the container it expands - what we all thought would make the container break.

People find the genre arduous because it employs some specific muscle group that requires heavy lifting. So when the reader mounts the L.F. ride, they notice it's not your average vehicle and the concept behind the design is part of the story. Like some inhuman character effecting the inhabitants of the book from the outside.

Takes three minutes to start, can only go three miles an hour or has eight wheels.

I like how you admit that a thing like that is hard to judge and its author is prone to make excuses for the monstrosity, hide behind the crutch.

mooderino said...

@EJ - thanks.

@Anon - cheers for the great comment, mysterious stranger. It's not that hard to judge, it's just hard to know how to improve it if it isn't clear what they're aiming for (especially if it isn't even clear to them).

RaShelle said...

Thanks for the post. I don't write lit fiction, don't read much of it either (only because I try to stick to my genre), but I can imagine it'd be tough to critique.

Elena Solodow said...

I remember one of my writing classes, the teacher was a mystery writer. I'm a YA fantasy writer, for the most part. We both marveled over "literary" authors - how you can make the mundane so fascinating. It's a challenge I'd love to tackle some day.

Kris Kaumeyer said...

I can't make it through books with BOSH, yet some of the literary greats have plenty. I can only think of a few that balanced it well.

That's quite a collection on your shelf you have there.

mooderino said...

@RaShelle - thanks for the comment.

@Elena - I think they have a knack for bringing people onto their wavelength so it goes beyond mundane to a shared reality. I may be talking out of the top of my hat though.

@Kris - I think people often read a literary book without understanding what the writer meant, but still enjoying it. So when they try to write in a similar fashion they think not getting what the writer meant is part of the genre.

BTW That shelf is a particularly odd selection, although for most of my out there fiction I use the library. Someone might be impressed I have Gravity's Rainbow on my shelf, but then they might ask me what it's about.

jbchicoine said...

I love to read other writer's opinions on what constitutes Literary. For me, I did not 'write with the label Literary Fiction in mind, I just wrote a story. It wasn't until after I sent it out to betas and asked their opinion about its genre that I kept hearing Literary.

When I pitched it to agents, I found out that anything that doesn't fall under Genre Fiction is considered Literary, by enough of them to cloudy up the definition.

I still scratch my head over the label. You make lots of great points in this post. At least I haven't heard 'I'm lost' or 'I just don't get this.'

Anonymous said...

Literary Fiction is a hard one to capture. I personally like my stories to breeze right along when I'm reading, but there are some stories I've loved that were a bit slower paced. What is most interesting is how much personal interest can play into pacing. IE--I've read a book that I loved and thought was really well paced. Along comes someone who thinks the pace is slow as snails. As a critiquer, I think it's easy to think the writer should take our advice and that means they will be upping their game. But sometimes it really is a matter of taste. What is harder to do, IMO, is to find the right critiquers for each story. The people who will tell you straight up where you f'd up--but whose comments make you think: spot on! Otherwise, if you blindly listen to anyone who critiques your book, you end up killing your voice and your story and alienating your true target audience. This was one of the first things my first pro-editor told me I needed to work on. She told me to stop taking EVERYONE'S advice. Pick a few people for a story who I think really capture my target audience--this doesn't just mean if I write a litfic book that I find people who read litfic, because even litfic can range is style and taste. Find my *exact* audience--those are who I want to critique. And who to listen to.

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