to Create Literary Fiction
As a book reviewer, I get anywhere from fifty to one
hundred review requests a week. Of
these, I might accept five or so. While I do occasionally take nonfiction books,
most of what I accept will be in the genre known as literary fiction.
But just what is literary fiction? What differentiates literary fiction
from what most publishers class as commercial or genre oriented fiction, and why
am I biased towards it? Itís a question I get asked regularly.
Some, like author David Lubar (ďA Guide to Literary
FictionĒ, 2002) equate the label with work that is pompous, dull, plotless,
and overly academic: "If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is
literary, there's a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the
last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is
Publishers often use this label for work which defies
other genre distinctions, e.g. it isnít romance, isnít
"chick-lit," isnít science or speculative fiction, isnít a
thriller, action, or political drama. It is meant to denote fiction that is of
higher quality, richer, denser, or, as the literary fiction book club states,
work that "can make us uncomfortable or can weave magic."
These distinctions arenít always clear, and there are some superb
exceptions to the genre rule, such as Margaret Atwood or China Mieville, whose
high quality work fits the speculative fiction genre, or Umberto Eco and Iain
Pears, whose work is full of mystery and suspense. All writers feel that their
work is high quality, and most write fiction with the goal of producing great
So how can we ensure that our work is literary fiction
rather than some other form? Here are five tips to guide writers who are
inclined to produce literary fiction:
Aim for transcendency. The one quality that seems to be present in
abundance in literary fiction and much less so in other forms, is what agent and
author Noah Lukeman calls ďtranscendency.Ē
It isnít easy to define, and in his exceptional book, The Plot
Thickens (St Martinís Press, 2002), Lukeman presents a number of points,
such as multidimensional characters and circumstances, room for interpretation,
timelessness, relatability, educational elements, self discovery, and lasting
impression. I would say that transcendency equates to depth, to writing which
does more than entertain its readers, and instead, changes something, however
small, in the way they perceive themselves.
How do you get transcendency in fiction?
With a deep theme, deep and powerful characters, complex plots, and
exceptional writing skills. Sound
Read quality literature. This is a lot easier than transcendency, though
not unrelated. Since achieving literary fiction is a subtle and difficult
thing, you must develop your literary senses.
The best way of doing that is to read books which fit this genre.
If you want to create literary fiction, chances are, you probably are
already reading it. These are books
by the writers we call "great." Your list of names may differ from
mine, but these are the writers who win prizes like the Booker, the Pulitzer,
the Commonwealth Prize, and the National Book Award to name just a few. The more
great literature you read, the better able you will become at recognizing the
elements which make a fiction literary.
Donít get defensive! Lubarís article is lots of fun, but literary
fiction isnít meant to be snobbish, academic, plotless, or boring in any way--
just well crafted. That may be daunting if you are a writer, but it won't help
your work to shrug off quality by calling it dull or unachievable.
Rewrite. This may be the
single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction.
Work that is timeless takes time. Thereís no other way to achieve
literary fiction besides rewriting, dozens, and maybe many more, times. It isnít glamorous, nor is rewriting dependent on a muse or
inspiration like the first draft is. It
is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to
the story. This process cannot
occur solely in the fingers of the author. Almost every writer of literary
fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can
provide the kind of objective advice that will transform your inspiration into a
Don't stress about it! Of course there is no point in worrying so much
that you get writer's block (and if you do, get hold of Jenna's terrific book
on the topic :-)). If you read great books, write fiction that is true to your
own creative vision, and revise (with feedback from others) until the work is as
perfect as you can make it, you will produce literary fiction. Thatís all
there is to it. Writing a novel is
about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often
with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances,
thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you
canít stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful
outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and
your work will have transcendency. Iíll
look forward to reading and reviewing it!
Ball launched The Compulsive Reader website
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