Posts Tagged what is literary fiction
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.
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What’s literary fiction? Today I’m on Mark Dawson and James Blatch’s Self-Publishing Show, wrangling this question.
We talk about definitions, of course. Where literary and genre overlap. What literary isn’t. We also talk about marketing strategies for literary, and about my work as an editor, ghostwriter and writing coach.
Find it here.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, 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.
It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.
The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought. There’s something in that story.
When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.
So what do you do?
I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.
This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.
And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.
My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.
Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now available. And it looks like this.
You could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)
This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.
And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica: ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’
Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.
Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.
I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .
A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.
Or that’s my theory. What say you?