Monday, February 27, 2012

On Literary Fiction

Well, it's sure been long enough since I last posted, hasn't it?

I thought I'd kick off this year's first post by addressing the old, oft-argued question on the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. What makes literary fiction "literary"?

Everyone has their own opinions on this matter, and it's spawned many a writers' forum debate and flame war. Even agents and editors seem to disagree, and many fall back on the ol' "I know it when I see it" non-definition. One former agent's definition that I like is Nathan Bransford's blog post on it, which is very similar to my own definition, but I use a couple terms differently.

Before getting into what makes literary fiction "literary," I'll start with a few definitions with which I disagree. Some say genre-fiction is plot-driven and literary fiction is character-driven. I think that's a bit too simplistic. Where does that leave, say, a character-driven genre romance? What about literary fiction that has a great, exciting plot (and yes, they do exist(!!))? Some say literary fiction is just "good" genre fiction that manages to "transcend" its genre. I think that's not only inaccurate, but terribly demeaning to writers of genre fiction, as if genre was a shackle holding them back.

What else is literary fiction not? It's not a genre. It's a category. I often hear "literary fiction is just another genre," which is inaccurate in the same way that other categories like "YA" or "commercial" are not genres. Genres describe the content of a story. It allows the readers to form expectations about what's going to be involved in the plot or setting or characters. If it's a science fiction, you know to expect science or technology to play some sort of major role in the plot. If it's a romance, you know to expect a couple getting together with an HEA or HFN. If it's a mystery, you expect a mystery to be solved. What does "literary fiction" tell you about the content of the story? Absolutely nothing. Rather, it tells you something about the nature of the story and how it's written. Moreover, any novel which is literary fiction can also have (and probably does have) a genre. You can have a literary sci-fi story or a literary mystery. Many novels of literary fiction fall into genres that don't really have sections in bookstores, such as bildungsroman or magical realism. (By the way, when talking about "genre fiction" vs "literary genre fiction," I often used the term "straight-up genre fiction" to describe fiction which belongs to a popular genre but is not literary.) Literary is a category, and just as knowing a novel is YA tells you something about the pacing and voice, but very little about the content, knowing a novel is literary fiction tells you something about the style of the writing and on what level the story is going to take place.

What do I mean by what level the story takes place? The way I like to think about the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is to draw a distinction between plot and story. In an interview with Jon Favreau, Martin Scorsese talks about the difference between plot and story. When I speak of "story," I don't mean the definition you often see that regards "The king died and then the queen died" as story and "The kind died and then the queen died of grief" a plot. When I speak of story, I'm addressing more directly what is the meat of your story? What is it about? What do you want to tell?

And now, finally, here's the way I think about the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction (hint: it's not that exciting, but maybe it's illustrative): in (straight-up) genre fiction, the plot and the story are convergent, are more or less the same, and basically coincide with one another; in literary fiction, the plot and the story are divergent, are different from one another, and the story happens under the surface of the plot.

Yes, a lot of this is a rehashing of Mr. Bransford's definition in different terms. Like I said, this is just the way I like to think about it.

In genre fiction, the focus is more or less on the material, interconnected and interrelated events that happen in the world of the character's (plot). In most genre fiction that is not literary, this is also the story. In literary fiction, the plot serves as a vehicle for the story rather than coinciding with it: the plot exists to allow the story to happen. This is why some literary fiction can seem to aimless and plotless. In some literary fiction, the story requires only a very minimal plot, because material events in the real world have minimal impact on the story. (This is also easy to do very badly.) However in more commercial literary fiction, you can have an abundance of plot (see Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, David Foster Wallace, etc.). In literary fiction, the focus and purpose of the novel is what happens beneath the surface of events, while in genre fiction, the focus is on the events themselves, even in a very character-driven piece.

Now don't mistake me! This is not to say that genre fiction can't have a lot of things happening under the surface as well. Genre fiction can and very often does have a lot going on beneath the surface of its plot. But that is not its focus. It's not where the meat of the story is, though it may be where many important and valuable morsels may be hidden.

Since I see the question on forums so often, I hope my thoughts make sense to one or two confused people out there. Or maybe I just confused you more. What is literary fiction to you?

Next week (oh who am I kidding: whenever I get to it) I define magical realism! Stay tuned.


  1. One thing that often confuses me when Literary is refereed to as "Character-driven" is there are plenty of genre-fiction novels that are character driven.

    I'm thinking particularly about stories that have Exotic settings, yet every day problems. Stories where its basically a story about going to school, doing your homework, going to church, just whatever. They just happen to go to school in hover buses, or can turn on a televsion with their mind.

    Which apparently makes it "science fiction" if you pitched it to an agent. Which sort of lacks specifics like Space opera, Cyberpunk/Dystopia, military sf.

    This is problem I often come across. and why I have a hard time finding a genre.

  2. I just found this. A nice discussion of an issue I'm still trying to understand. I'll freely admit that most of my favorite writers are considered straight up genre fiction (mostly SF and F)and not literary, though a few (Neil Gaiman and Ursula K Le Guin) also get hailed for being more "literary" than the norm for the genre.

    The thing I always picked up on was their use of language. It seemed richer and fuller of all those devices (metaphor, simile, and long, leisurely descriptions of scenes, people settings and emotions) that our writing teachers wanted us to include in our work, but when I've tried to do it in practice, it often comes out sounding "too purple" for many readers (so I end up scrapping a lot of it in my own writing and favoring a leaner, more to the point style).

    It seems like some writers have a gift, or a skill they've developed, where sometimes the language itself becomes as much the point of a passage, scene or story, as the story and characters themselves. I'm pretty sure I've read a literary story when I read something where I have no idea what really just happened, whether the ending was sad or happy even, but it was beautiful.