What is literary fiction? Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism. It tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Read a definition plus tips on how to develop literary writing style:
How do you define literary fiction?
- valued highly for its quality of form, endurance and playful use of language
- writing placed into the category ‘literature’ (books culturally accepted as ‘literary’ because they have common features such as elevated writing style or dense allusion)
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.
Common features of literary fiction
Demanding subject matter, themes, or interpretive framework
Often, literary fiction is more ‘demanding’ than genre fiction. Like genre fiction, it may use tropes such as the Hero’s Journey, yet may depart more from expected conventions, too.
This is one reason why many describe literary fiction as cerebral or ‘difficult’. It tends to require the reader to be more active in the act of making meaning and interpreting. It doesn’t always hand a decisive, singular interpretation to the reader, wrapped in a neat bow.
Emphasis on context and milieu (in reception)
The themes and subtexts or references of the text (often serious rather than comedic) in literary fiction are often important.
Writing happens in a context, after all. It happens in place and time. A story’s social and historical context (aspects of reading that change over time) shapes (and shifts) how readers approach it.
Part of this is due to the way literary texts are given as set works and studied in educational contexts. Critical thinking requires learners to read more broadly, compare texts, situate them in their contexts (or create interesting new conversations between them).
A story’s literary status is not static
Many books classified literary were written in past centuries. The so-called classics.
Societal beliefs and values change. Vocabularies do, too. Charles Dickens, now found on ‘Classics’ shelves, was the Stephen King of his Victorian times. The way he serialized popular stories such as The Pickwick Papers (1836) predates Kindle Vella.
Literary vs popular fiction: Blurring the line
Before we discuss ways to develop your literary style, we’ll briefly examine the ‘literature vs genre’ debate, and the idea of genre snobbery.
Literary is a bookstore category, not a genre
A lot has been written debating the merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction (genres such as fantasy, romance, crime, thriller).
Elizabeth Edmonson, writing for The Guardian, for example, argues that Jane Austen wasn’t writing ‘literature’ and that posterity made that decision for her. In some respects it’s true that ‘literary fiction is just clever marketing’, as her article’s title suggests.
But what are some useful differences?
Literary fiction may combine genres or create its own
Many novels classified as literary are simply tough to categorize. Experimentation, subverting tropes or narrative conventions, might weaken argument a story fits this or that genre, for example.
Sui generis (Latin for ‘of its own kind’) stories might mix fictive elements with non-fiction.
Genre fiction tends to require of writers that you know your genre and deliver on its promises. For example, the reader knows they’ll find the meet cute and happily ever after in feel-good romance.
Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer shares more on knowing your genre in the writing webinar extract below:
Literary writers have explored hybrid genre often. Several of Margaret Atwood’s books explore science fiction or speculative 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.
Other literary books mash up multiple genres (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example, which mixes historical, detective, dystopian and sci-fi elements).
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Genre fiction has many of literary fiction’s hallmarks
Although some may say literary fiction is ‘art’ while genre fiction is ‘mass market’, can one say this about the epic historical quality of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle?
Many essays and even whole books argue that Tolkien deserves ‘serious’ study in literary and critical establishments.
Some genre fiction also concerns itself with elements such as language and is not necessarily plot-driven (a common but false distinction used to separate genre from the literary – plot-driven equals genre, while character-driven equals literary).
Examples of writers who write or wrote genre fiction but who are literary in the breadth and depth of their work include Ursula K. Le Guin, John le Carré and Neil Gaiman.
Literary fiction and the genre snob debate
Some argue that literary fiction goes hand in hand with snobbery or elitism.
Literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds. Literary fiction is, however, mostly written and read by a more privileged class (people who have access to things like libraries or tertiary education). Genre fiction, with its more mass-market roots, is often seen as more working class.
Whether or not you see it as rarified, complex or overwrought, literary fiction has a great deal to offer. If you usually write genre fiction, reading literary fiction can show you ways to use language and form playfully – though not reinventing the wheel entirely does ensure the accessibility that helps genre fiction sell.
Whether your focus is primarily genre or literary fiction, here are some of the ways that you can develop your own literary style:
How to develop literary style in writing:
- Avoid or subvert genre clichés
- Read literary writers
- Copy out passages from literary works you like
- Play with form and narrative conventions
- Go deeper with allusion and intertext
1. Avoid or subvert genre clichés
In some genre fiction, heroines are always beautiful, heroes always brave. The detective always solves the crime. People live happily ever after, and good prevails over evil. Bad guys are bad through and through.
There is nothing wrong with these clichés (or rather, tropes – story elements that recur and are recycled). Authors repeat tropes because:
- They are familiar and recognizable and thus comforting – we know what we’re getting in a James Bond movie
- Readers of specific genres tend to expect them
- They often serve important story elements such as plot development, or characters’ goals, motivations and conflict
How to make stories literary – undercut genre tropes
Genre fiction often gives us tropes such as ‘innocent orphan boy must save the world’ (Star Wars, Harry Potter). Literary fiction often turns these commonly recycled ideas upside down.
What happens if a crime is never solved? David Lynch famously ended Twin Peaks (a very postmodern – some would say ‘difficult’ – TV show often requiring the viewer to draw their own conclusions) on a detective becoming a possible antagonist. The story thus opens out into disturbing possibility rather than providing the comfort of closure.
What if two people move mountains to be together and then discover they don’t actually like one another very much? In literary fiction this might be the premise for a tragic or comedic story.
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.
Think of ways you could subvert or undercut what is expected of genre elements in your story. This is a common literary device, including parody (which sends up or pokes fun at typical genre ploys).
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 Toni Morrison, 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 critically acclaimed literary novels, too.
As you read, notice the many different types of literary writers and how writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Helen Oyeyemi experiment with genre or the fantastical. On the other hand, writers such as Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen work in a more realist storytelling – yet still 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 out passages from literary works you like
Copy out sentences by famous literary authors often. This is how Bach (considered one of the greatest masters of western classical music) learned musical composition.
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.
John Banville wrote Mrs. Osmond as a kind of literary-pastiche-meets-sequel after Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.
Copying writers you love helps because you pay closer attention to the mechanics. You peel back the skin to see the bones that knit together an author’s specific writing style and voice. This helps you assimilate the elements you like, and filter them through your own voice.
4. Play with form and narrative conventions
One thing you’ll notice as you read literary fiction is how freely literary writers depart from 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 play with language and modify traditional narrative 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 or ‘given’ forms.
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 upends both narrative and typographical expectations.
5. Go deeper with allusion and intertexts
Intertext – literally ‘between text’ – is a literary theory term coined by theorist Julia Kristeva. It refers to the way writing exists in conversation with other writing.
A hallmark of literary fiction is that it often draws on other writing. One way it does this is through allusion (for example, the way Aslan being resurrected in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series calls to mind Jesus Christ).
A character hesitating or looking back and losing everything by doing so would immediately call to mind (for those familiar with it) the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Some literary texts literally rewrite or retell prior stories, from different or novel vantage points. As an example, Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells the story of Bertha, a secondary character in Bronté’s classic Jane Eyre (1847), from a more feminist perspective.
How can you hide easter eggs or allusions for the astute or well-read reader to discover? Or how how might you ‘write back’ to a previous story, questioning some of its blind spots, the failings or follies of its times? These are literary questions.
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