What’s literary fiction? Some authors – and publishers also – feel ‘literary’ is a label that puts readers off. (Not me!)
What are their misgivings about literary fiction? Are they justified? Can we reclaim it?
I was discussing this with Imogen Clark, who describes her novels as ‘contemporary fiction about families and secrets’, but her publisher, Lake Union, calls her literary, which she says she’s never found comfortable. We got chatting.
Roz First, let’s define literary. Here’s how I see it, in the broadest way. Literary as a definition of two parts. The first is a definition by exclusion. By this I mean a literary work doesn’t conform to a genre.
An example. If your book contains a murder and you write in a genre, you must follow certain traditions to satisfy readers. This doesn’t mean you have to be predictable, but you have to hit certain marks. So the murder might have to be explained or solved. Perhaps the killer will be brought to justice.
But in a literary novel, a murder might not follow those protocols at all. An example is Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, where a teenage girl goes missing, which has repercussions for decades, but the story does not solve the mystery or provide answers. Jon McGregor uses the event in a non-genre way, to explore rhythms of life, the ebb and flow of the seasons. He is interested in another kind of mystery – the mystery of life.
Imogen The first thing that people ask me when I say that I’m an author is what kind of books I write. That’s hard to explain when there isn’t an obvious genre like crime or romance to pin to them. So, when I heard you say on a podcast that one definition of a literary fiction book is that it can go where it pleases without having to hit any expected tropes I was delighted because this idea seems to fit with what I write more closely than any specific genre.
My books are all standalones with each exploring a different issue, but because I don’t have any limitations placed on me by reader expectations, I have the freedom to take the story in whichever direction feels most natural for the characters. Labelling my books as literary fiction avoids me having to say that they are a bit like this and a bit like that.
Roz The freedom to follow your own thread…. Exactly!
Here’s the second part of my definition. A literary work is a richer experience than ‘just a story’. In fact, some people would say literary fiction is plotless full stop, and I have to disagree. Some literary writers are very interested in plot – and very good at it. Some aren’t. But plot and pace aren’t the defining feature. The defining feature is this – literary fiction will offer an additional artistic dimension, perhaps through its themes or metaphorical shapes.
Imogen My books definitely have a plot and are quite pacey. They are very character driven too, unlike some genre fiction which can be more about the twists and turns of the story than the people who tell it. As well as the story, I try to explore an underlying theme which might not always be immediately apparent. For example, the plot might concern the uncovering of a family fortune, but the book may actually be about integrity and honesty which I would examine through the way that each character responds to the windfall.
Roz I also like to write fast-paced stories with a strong plot ethic – and just as you say, I create this from character. I love complex people who behave in ways that arise from their unique inner struggles, so we experience something unfathomable about the human condition. (Quick aside: if you’re struggling with plot, my plot book understands.)
Let’s talk about language. Finely honed prose is regarded as a key aspect of literary fiction. But literary writers don’t have a monopoly on language. Many genre writers are fantastic wordsmiths – their prose is sleek, spare, vivid, perfectly judged for the job. I’ve heard writers say they think they’re ‘being literary’ if they write lush, lyrical descriptions. But that’s not, by itself, literary. I think it’s looking at the wrong thing.
Indeed, actual poems can be written with simple language. Look at this piece, ‘Before You Cut Loose’, by Simon Armitage. He uses ordinary words. The power comes from the thought and heart in the work, an emotional structure and order, a sensibility and sensitivity.
Imogen I think this is the biggest resistance I have to describing my books as literary. I make no great claims for my writing. It is rarely lyrical or lush and I worry that readers who are looking for beautiful and unusual imagery would be disappointed. I do use complex sentence structures and try to make my writing arresting and thought provoking, but I don’t write prize-worthy prose, which is what I think a reader would expect from a book calling itself literary.
I also worry that the term literary fiction has too many elitist connotations – and they don’t sit well with my work. I am a commercial author who writes books that I hope will sell rather than for the sheer beauty of the language. I think my typical readers might be put off buying a book described as literary because they might expect it to be ‘hard’ to read or have no plot when what they want is a novel that doesn’t challenge them too much in terms of its writing style but which does make them think.
Roz I fully agree that literary doesn’t have to be hard. It might be, but that’s not a requirement. To look at the Simon Armitage poem again, it is a simple scenario, but also a metaphor for something bigger – an exploration of loyalty. It could be many other things too.
And here’s where its power lies. It’s a rich experience. The recognition of the metaphor creeps up on you. And almost anyone could understand it at a deep level. There’s nothing elitist or difficult about a poem like this. It’s people and dogs. The poetry is in the situation, and the way it is finely and precisely tuned, to create an experience that deepens a mystery. Difficult to write, but easy to read, easy to understand.
I think literary authors probably fall into many subdivisions. For some it’s about creating challenges for the reader – perhaps with the form, or resonance with other existing works, or intellectual games. But a work can be rich in literary terms without being a hard read.
That’s what I’m aiming for when I write. I’m not writing tricksy, difficult books. I want my books to be rich on many levels. I love story, so the story has to be gripping and surprising. But I also want to explore the situation in an unusual and fresh way, because that’s where the magic lies for me.
For some reason, I’m thinking of parallels in music. Artists like David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Kate Bush could write tracks with striking hooks, high drama and great distinctiveness, but also musically and lyrically sophisticated. If you want depth, they give you depth. If you want a memorable iconic song, they give you those too. Popular and accessible doesn’t have to mean superficial or trashy. That’s how I see literary fiction – it can be full-blooded enough to please both.
Imogen I couldn’t agree more. I would love to see the stigma that has grown up around the term literary fiction being broken down. If a reader is looking for a book that explores a complex issue in a way that is accessible, but which also has a page-turning plot and some well-drawn characters then I hope they might read one of mine and not be disappointed.
(And we are not difficult, purple or plotless.)
Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.