Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If genre fiction is Die Hard, The Notebook, and The Hangover – stuff you watch to relax and eat popcorn to – literary fiction is the opposite. It’s the Citizen Kane, The Pianist, the There Will Be Blood of the literary world – books you wouldn’t necessarily call a ‘good time’ but that are artistic, intelligent, and affecting on some deep level. To be lazy and reductive: literary fiction is a ‘genre’ characterized by diving deep into the human condition. Or, as the late rock star of literary fiction David Foster Wallace put it, ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a f**king human being.’
With this being the case, there’s a certain level of snobbishness surrounding literary fiction and, on the other side, a level of anti-intellectualism cultivated in response by defenders of genre fiction. Literary types turn up their noses at the formulaic conventions and stock characters of genre fiction, while genre folk roll their eyes at the florid prose and pretentious faux-philosophy of literary fiction. Can’t we all just get along?Literary fiction is characterized by diving deep into the human condition.Click To Tweet
Of course we can! Many excellent writers have helped end the conflict by straddling the gap between literary and genre fiction: Hilary Mantel, for instance, writes critically acclaimed and award-winning historical fiction, while Mark Z. Danielewski blew readers’ minds with his experimental and literary-theory-laden haunted house story, House of Leaves.
So why do you need to know about literary fiction? Well, the best writers of literary fiction are perhaps the best writers period, and they can teach you plenty about the craft. It may also be the case that ‘literary fiction’, less familiar to many writers than genres like sci-fi or fantasy, is what you’re already writing, and embracing that fact could unlock your work’s potential. And, yes, it may just be that there’s something you can steal from the literary fiction playbook. Whatever the reason, let’s get stuck in.
Character or story?
Genre fiction, whether its fantasy, sci-fi, horror, mystery, or romance, tends to be story-focused. The Lord of the Rings is about Frodo getting the ring to Mordor, not about Frodo’s crushing existential angst; Fifty Shades of Gray is about a woman learning to enjoy being spanked, not (unfortunately) about the morally questionable and darkly economic foundations of her relationships and, by extension, her selfhood. If the action stops for too long in genre fiction – if A Game of Thrones went for more than a couple of chapters without someone getting stabbed, for instance – the story begins to slip out of focus, and readers begin dropping like flies.
I don’t mean to denigrate genre fiction here; a focus on story is a great thing that has led to the creation of some of fiction’s deepest, most complex, most vivid worlds. Genre fiction tends to celebrate story for the sake of story, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Harry Potter wouldn’t work if it was seven books of Harry ruminating, Raskolnikov-style, about his own failures and about the cold, empty world. Of course, the characters still have inner life, but the story is front and center.In broad strokes, genre fiction foregrounds story, literary fiction foregrounds character.Click To Tweet
Literary fiction, in contrast, tends to be less concerned with telling a story than with examining people and the dynamics between them. It seeks to hold up a magnifying glass to human beings, producing narratives that focus more on internal rather than external drama.
Again, it’s not as if literary fiction doesn’t have story, but those stories tend to be about examining the characters, while in genre fiction, characters are there to keep the story ticking.
Think, for example, of Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous Lolita, which, in terms of external plot, is ‘pedophile follows pubescent girl around America’ – not sure this would work so well as a work of genre fiction. As a work of literary fiction however, Humbert Humbert’s narration and penchant for twisted logical gymnastics make Lolita one of the most startling, uncomfortable, and beautifully written character studies ever put to print.
A quick clarification for those writers (or soon-to-be writers) of literary fiction: this doesn’t mean you can ignore plot! Your characters need context to exist in and events to respond to. ‘Man considers the universe from his room for three hundred pages’ just isn’t going to cut it.
Thinking fast and slow
A perhaps unflattering way to differentiate literary fiction from genre fiction is to suggest that genre fiction’s primary goal is to entertain and, as a side effect of that, to sell. It’s written to appeal to a broad audience, often has to tick a certain number of boxes in order to appease publishers, and is typically not challenging to read. It’s perfect for self-publishing, as the easy categorization allows readers to understand what they’re getting into even if the writer hasn’t extensively marketed their book.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, is far less worried about being entertaining and, as such, it doesn’t have to rely on tried-and-true conventions, hooks, or narrative patterns in the way that genre fiction tends to. As a consequence, literary fiction tends to sell pretty modestly to a niche audience – unless a given book starts picking up awards. Then, boom, you’ll be seeing that book front and center in every bookshop you visit. Because of its limited readership and the difficulty of categorizing it, literary fiction is difficult to self-publish, and even good books can easily fall below the fickle Amazon radar.
Given that literary fiction isn’t worried about entertaining its readers with sword fights, explosions, vampires, and steamy love affairs, it tends to be, well, a little slow. With literature’s tendency to care about deep characters more than it does about exciting battle scenes or mind-bending mysteries, you can easily end up with works like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which is 10% Raskolnikov planning and committing murder and 90% Raskolnikov panicking about said robbery, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which is 100% ‘butler tries not to feel bad about his wasted life.’
That’s not to say these aren’t great books – they are – but writers and readers of genre fiction looking to dip their toes into the literary world might find the sudden slowing of pace rather jarring. You have been warned!Literary fiction tends to embrace a different pace to genre writing.Click To Tweet
Breaking the law
One of the great benefits of writing literary fiction is how freeing it is. All the tropes, conventions, and props of genre fiction go out the window (or are at least reshuffled and subverted, as in Paul Auster’s superb The New York Trilogy), and all those golden rules of writing we editors have been shouting about for years are tossed contemptuously aside. Finally: you can do whatever you want!
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should. After all, readers expect literary fiction to be well written – the workhorse prose of a typical thriller isn’t going to cut it here, so it’s good to at least be aware of those hastily discarded writing rules I mentioned earlier.
With that said, the freedom is real. Sick of three- or five-act structures? Forget ’em – it’s time to get structurally experimental. To use one ridiculous extreme as an example: David Foster Wallace modelled his hyper-literary Infinite Jest after a Sierpinski gasket, a mathematical fractal in the shape of an equilateral triangle. Don’t ask me how, but it can (apparently) be done.
For all its apparent freedom, an assumption commonly made about literary fiction is that it has to be ‘serious’; that its characters all have to be people engaged in pretty humdrum, realistic scenarios. Not so: do a George Saunders and populate a novella entirely with characters who’re amalgamations of random objects, or write a novel where most of the characters are ghosts. Saunders’s books – the two I’ve mentioned here are The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil and his Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo – are remarkable in that they’re literary, serious, and moral without being dry. He, unlike many serious-minded literary types, has no qualms borrowing conventions and tropes from genre fiction, and neither should you.
A sense of style
When most people think of literary fiction, the first thing they tend to think of is florid language and literary style. Certainly, quality of writing remains central to literature. This doesn’t mean you need to wax poetic (although you can), and it absolutely doesn’t mean you should swap out every word for a more complicated and esoteric synonym (please don’t), but it does mean you need to pay more attention to your use of language than you would when writing, say, a thriller. After all, in genre fiction, the focus is on the story, meaning you don’t want the language to distract from what’s going on. With character and interpersonal dynamics typically foregrounded in literary fiction, language becomes much more important.In literary fiction, quality prose is both means and end.Click To Tweet
There are hundreds of remarkable prose stylists out there, and you should seek out and read as many as you can. Cynthia Ozick, for example, one of the finest prose stylists alive today, can teach any writer a thing or two, not just those writing literary fiction.
A fun exercise can be to find a stylist you like – Ernest Hemingway, for example, or Toni Morrison, or Cormac McCarthy, or Angela Carter – and try to mimic them. Do it for a paragraph, or a page, or a whole story – but try to capture and copy what makes their voice unique. Try it again with a different writer. You’ll find it can seriously help you piece together your own unique voice.
A good idea
I’ve discussed many of the key elements that separate literary fiction from genre fiction, but one thing that’s a little blurrier is the presence of ideas. A work of art – and literary fiction is considered art in a way that much genre fiction is not – can be appreciated in its own right without having to interpret or decode its ‘message,’ but nonetheless many novels are built on the backs of ideas, symbols, themes, and allegories. Of course, many works of genre fiction are, too, and this is why the presence of a subtext is less useful for sorting your genre fiction from your literary fiction.
That said, literary fiction tends to be less direct in the story it tells; this, along with the slower pace and the absence of narrative patterns and conventions, grants space for subtext and reader interpretation.
Of course, literary fiction’s primary concerns – human beings and aesthetics – can’t help but lead to the inclusion of ideas, themes, and symbols. The fact that these allow for a multiplicity of interpretations is a good thing! Richness should be sought out, after all.
I’ve discussed the many aspects of fiction that mark a book as either literary or genre, and now it’s time for you to decide whether literary fiction is for you or not. Even if not – even if you have no desire to attempt something literary – I’d recommend at least reading a few literary short stories, if only to see prose at its sharpest and most stylish.
And if you do feel compelled to jump in yourself, think first of what appeals to you most about literary fiction, and build from there. If, for example, you like the focus on character, begin with that, even if it means writing a character study of a genre archetype – a wise man, for example, or a femme fatale. Best of luck, and be sure to tell me your literary fiction recommendations!
What do you think of literary fiction? Who’re your favorite writers of literary fiction? Have you tried it yourself? Let me know in the comments, and check out Five Experimental Novels That Will Inspire Any Writer and So You Think You Know Your Short Prose? for more great advice.