What You Write
Part one: Literary Fiction
So, you want to write fiction,
eh? And just how are you gonna feed yourself while you…oh, wait…this isn’t the Fiction Writers Starve
lecture. That was last week from your mother. This is about what kind of fiction you’re writing while you’re
Did you realize what you
write is just as critical as how well you write? (It is, especially if you want to make a buck at it.) You have two
major choices, mainstream or literary fiction, and a third option you probably never considered.
We’ll get to that third
choice eventually; for now, let’s look at literary fiction.
According to that (seemingly)
omniscient Oz of the Internet, Wikipedia, “Literary fiction is a term that has come into common
usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction …. In broad terms, literary
fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner)
focuses more on narrative and plot.”
Let’s break that down,
shall we? Several characteristics of literary fiction help explain things further. For one, literary fiction uses complex
themes or ideas; many times these are universal and deal with life’s truths or human nature. Themes give literary fiction meat—take it beyond mere story with a subtle message that unifies the
writing. That may sound snooty, but it’s not. Literary works invite reflection and create an emotional charge for the
reader—positive or negative—that broadens his take on the human experience. If I were going to compare this type
of writing to music or dance, I’d pick the waltz—slow, measured, sweeping, and smooth.
Literary fiction is also more
about form than plot. Sure, it always has a plot, but it takes a back seat to exploring the characters and their personal
failings or triumphs. Are the good guys entirely virtuous and above reproach? Rarely. Are the bad guys truly bad, superficially
warped by society, or just woefully misunderstood? Often, the reader must decide. Literary fiction represents an intricate
view of life, fluid and sometimes indistinct, where black comes in shades from jet to cloud gray, and white is frequently
tainted with baby poop yellow. The writing is what I’d call gorgeous, rich with descriptions—metaphors are a must.
(As are probing monologues by pensive characters immersed in internal—and often moral—conflicts.) Both protagonists
and antagonists battle anxieties and shortcomings, baring their souls and second-guessing nearly everything. Even story endings
may have an ambivalent quality, making readers fill in the blanks about whether the protagonist ends up rosy-cheeked or suicidal.
Familiar names from the early
20th century exemplify the literary style, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald among them. In The Grapes of Wrath,
Steinbeck masterfully paints a picture of the downtrodden Dust Bowl farmers during the Great Depression, examining their mistakes,
misfortunes, desires, and triumphs. The work is character-centric. Everyone’s got a major flaw, and they’re not
afraid to flaunt them for the reader.
These days, many consider literary
writing a difficult challenge, and still others consider reading it to be one too. When we look at 19th-century works and
much early 20th, the style can seem dated and heavy. It’s more verbose, tends to stray from the plot for long stretches
(often to indulge the characters), and incorporates the author’s commentary on larger issues—society, environment,
politics, etc. The language, however, tends to be rich, artful, and vivid, drawing you into time and place and emotion.
Fortunately, contemporary literary works are less extreme in these regards and can be characterized as more modern-reader
friendly. John Updike is sometimes considered a literary author, and he achieved exceptional literary and commercial acclaim
in his lifetime. His prose style has been called inimitable and his rich descriptions and language compared to the work of
Proust and Nabokov. At the same time, his “common man” characters reach out to many, reinforcing the assertion
that it’s possible to write extraordinarily about the ordinary.
If you’ve enjoyed this
waltz with literary fiction, I hope you’ll pop back in next month for our disco with mainstream (or genre) fiction.
Put on your white suit or halter dress and I’ll meet you under the spinning lights in the November issue!
Janet, Defining Artless Fiction: 24 Basic Differences Between Literary & Mainstream/Genre Writing. AbsoluteWrite.com
Rosenfeld, Jordan E., Confessions
of a Plot Junkie. Writer’s Digest, July/August 2009, page 12.
Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org, entries for Literary fiction and Genre fiction and John Updike.