What is literary fiction? It’s a genre category used to describe fiction that:
1. Is valued highly for its quality of form and creative use of language
2. Has been accepted into the category ‘literature’ (books culturally accepted as ‘literary’ because they have common features such as elevated writing style)
Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Examples of literary fiction include the modernist author Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse and the novels of Nobel-winning authors such as Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee.
Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction. This is because it merits a higher level of intellectual engagement. The themes and subjects of the text and its social or political and/or historical context are important to how you read literary fiction. This is especially true since a lot of books seen as literary were written in past centuries and societal taboos and beliefs aren’t static.
In many ways, the above definition is unsatisfying. For one thing, the notion of ‘literary’ fiction is largely an invention of the twentieth century. Before this, novels were generally considered somewhat suspect and not very edifying. Many books now taught as English ‘classics’ in schools (such as Charles Dickens’ novels) were popular entertainment for many different types of people in their day and were once serialised in magazines just as many people watch television shows today.
What complicates matters is that some genre fiction also concerns itself with elements such as language and is sometimes not particularly plot-driven. Examples of writers who write or wrote genre fiction but who are arguably literary in the breadth and depth of their work include Ursula K. Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, John le Carre and Neil Gaiman.
Literary writers have also dabbled in literary-genre hybrids. Several of Margaret Atwood’s books explore science fictional themes as did Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Graham Greene famously alternated between writing literary fiction and genre thrillers while the Scottish literary writer Iain Banks published science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks. Hilary Mantel won two Booker prizes for her works of historical ‘genre’ fiction, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies.
The lines are also blurred as genre fiction increasingly becomes a subject for academic study. Students may now take courses in mystery, fantasy or science fiction by professors who lead research in those fields. What this suggests is that academic interest in a novel might influence whether it is perceived as literary or not.
Literary fiction is also arguably defined by a kind of elitism. Although literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds, literary fiction is mostly written and read by a privileged class. By and large, literary fiction is seen as work that is created and read by an educated middle and upper class while genre fiction, with its populist roots, is often seen as more working class.
Elitism aside, many genre writers work just as hard at their craft as literary fiction writers do (just ask any of the authors in Now Novel’s genre-specific online writing groups).
Whether or not you see it as snobbish or elitist, literary fiction has a great deal to offer. Genre fiction has been enhanced by literary technique, and literary fiction can teach genre writers to use language more adeptly, to avoid over-reliance on plot and more.
Whether your focus is primarily genre or literary fiction, here are some of the ways that you can develop your own literary style:
1. Avoid genre clichés
Genre fiction is rife with clichés, some general, some specific to the genre in question. For example, ‘the innocent boy who must save the world’. Literary fiction often turns these clichés upside down. What happens if a crime is never solved? What if two people move mountains to be together and then discover they don’t actually like one another very much? What if there is very little difference other than personal belief and background between the good guy and the bad guy?
If you want to write literary fiction, avoid these types of clichés. Many genre fiction authors manage to steer clear, after all. The bleak, violent, morally ambiguous world of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a far cry from high fantasy fiction in which good prevails. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley crime novels are not about a cranky detective catching a criminal. Instead, they’re narrated by a sociopath.
2. Read literary writers
You need to read the kind of fiction you want to write. Answering the question ‘what is literary fiction?’ is easier the more you read. Make an effort to read some of the classic writers (such as Virginia Woolf, Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner, for example) as well as contemporary writers. Magazines such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Granta publish short fiction by the top literary writers of today. Prizes such as the Booker and the Nobel Prize for Literature can point you towards important literary novels, too.
As you read, notice the many different types of literary writers and how writers like Michael Chabon or Helen Oyeyemi experiment with genre. On the other hand, writers such as Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen work in a more traditional storytelling literary vein.
Reading literary fiction avidly will help you understand its conventions well. When you try to write it, start by imitating authors you love because this will help you develop your style:
3. Copy literary authors to get a feel for elevated writing style
Copy out sentences by famous literary authors often. In addition to copying passages word for word from the writers you admire, you might also try to write some passages of your own or even an entire story mimicking an author’s style. These exercises help because you pay closer attention to the mechanics, how the parts that make up a writer’s style fit together. The parts you like will also filter into and expand your own writing voice.
4. Stray outside the bounds of narrative convention
This is nothing new; many consider the 18th Century novel Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne an early forerunner of 20th Century postmodern playfulness. In the early 20th Century, modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf set out to play with language and abandon traditional narratives structures. Decades later, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest told much of its story via footnotes. In literary writing, we don’t have to reproduce traditional ideas about storytelling.
Genre has its experimental writers as well such as science fiction Samuel Delany. Mark Z. Danielewski, while not necessarily a horror writer, wrote a haunted house novel, The House of Leaves, that upsets both narrative and typographical expectations.
5. Be deeper in your themes and allusions
‘Theme’ and ‘allusion’ can’t be forgotten when defining literary fiction. There are plenty of well-written thrillers, romance and science fiction novels with developed characters and page-turning plots, but in the end, the primary purpose of those books is to entertain the reader. They may have a message as well, but the message is usually secondary or is not particularly difficult to grapple with or tease out.
Literary fiction often presents more difficult or complex truths than genre fiction. It may offer few answers but instead simply make observations about human nature. Its purpose is seldom escapism, more often engagement with big ideas. Examples of literary ideas include questions of governance – ‘what is the ideal type of government?’ Literary ideas include philosophical questions such as ‘what is the meaning of life?’ Many famous literary novels attempt to either answer these questions or simply represent characters grappling with these questions themselves.
Many of the techniques of literary fiction can be practised by genre writers as well. You can learn lessens from any kind of fiction. Genre fiction often teachers us how to create tension and drama and interesting characters. Literary fiction gives us poetic and beautiful turns of phrase and profound ideas about the human condition.
To write literary fictoin, pay careful attention to language and meaning. Work at developing your own, distinctive literary style and voice. Train yourself to write in a more literary way by reading literary writers, practising their style as a means for developing your own, and by challenging yourself and your readers.
If you want to start and finish writing a great literary novel, get writing feedback and help developing your book idea on Now Novel.
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