Literary Fiction – What is it?

Last week I was having coffee with a friend and the subject of literary fiction came up. What exactly is it? And what makes it different from mainstream fiction? We verbally explored the possibility that it might be related to the quality of the writing or that the stories were character-driven rather than plot oriented. But nothing we could come up with firmly established the genre if that’s what it is.

One of the definitions for literature is “writing of value.” Another, “writing that lasts.” Time tested in other words. But who is it that defines “value?” Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were the popular novelists of their day. Are we supposed to wait 50 or 100 years to see which of the best selling writers of today are still being read?

What if we ask a different question. Why are mainstream novels widely read (substitute best sellers) and literary novels regulated to the intelligentsia, so to speak? I think to some extent, the answer lies in story. The most popular writers, the ones who show up over and over on the best seller lists, are great storytellers. And readers love stories.

The craft of writing, for me, breaks down into three major areas of focus (and there is plenty of room for debate here). The first is just basic English, the stuff you learned in high school: nouns, verbs, punctuation, syntax etc… Every writer has to know these language forms and there are a zillion textbooks that teach it. When I was programming, there was a simple adage we used sometimes: form frees, which basically meant that you could break the rules if you knew the form because that implicit form was still there. Frank Lloyd Wright could never have designed Fallingwater without knowing the rules of cantilevered structures. Cormac McCarthy writes without a lot of punctuation. But he’s consistent with his misuse. Read a few chapters, and you’re on board.

The second area of writing I consider is imagination. To me this includes whatever it is in written expression and thought that make a writer unique. It’s something that can’t be taught though every writer has influences that push them in a certain direction. When I read someone like Ursula K. LeGuin, I’m struck (like a lightning bolt) by the ideas and imagination behind the writing. The world looks different though her eyes. I think you can still be a fine writer if you lack this quality. Writers are, above all else, observers and someone who can define a character with detail can go a long way. Outside of fiction and advertising, this is what most writing is about. Just getting it down.

The third is what I think of as “tricks of the trade.” These include techniques like ending chapters with an unanswered question or an unresolved situation. I would define these techniques as anything that creates tension in the reader. Put a gun on the mantle in the first chapter and the reader waits and waits for it to be used. Again, plenty of books documenting these techniques though I find reading the best way to discover them. I recently read Echoes from the Dead by the Swedish author Johan Theorin. In the prolog a small boy slips over the stone wall surrounding his cottage and out into the Swedish moor where, in the fog, he encounters a man who we discover is a serial killer. The boy disappears. Theorin writes the story in two threads: in one the boy’s mother and grandfather search for answers surrounding the disappearance, and in the other, Theorin shows us the life of the serial killer. As a reader you spend the entire novel waiting for these two threads to connect. A marvelous device.

So let’s get back to literary fiction. My supposition is that mainstream writers concentrate their efforts on basic writing and tricks of the trade to tell their stories, while literary writers focus on imagination and language. As a reader I ask myself, what is it I’d rather read (if I’m forced to choose): a good story or fine writing? I can’t tell you how many books I’ve put down after reading the first chapter because the writing just isn’t good enough to continue. On the other hand, I’m tremendously disappointed when I read a piece of fine writing where the author has made no effort to consider story structure or keep the reader guessing, depending solely on the quality of the prose to hold the reader. If some of these literary writers paid more attention to the techniques that raise storytelling to another level, I think they would find far more of their work on the best seller lists.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

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