I’ve been haunted by a question since Adam bet me into reading Freedom. What is literary fiction? It’s a surprisingly slippery designation. I gave one definition in my review of Freedom.
Literary novelists are typically supported by patronage via employment at a university or similar institutions, with the continuation of such positions determined not by book sales but by critical acclaim by other established literary authors and critics. Genre fiction writers seek to support themselves by book sales and write to please a mass audience.
I haven’t been quite satisfied with that definition though. I felt comfortable applying it to Freedom. After all, I didn’t like it much. But then I started reading books by Robert Silverberg, read Stephen King again, and discovered Guy Gavriel Kay. I increasingly noticed a difference in the tone of writing between these books and the books that I normally read. And I began to feel that my earlier definition didn’t, quite, capture the essence of literary fiction.
Ever since, I’ve been struggling to find the language to express that storytelling otherness. What was it that was different about Silverberg’s and Kay’s stories? I found myself wanting to use words like “beautiful”, “lyrical”, “poetic”, etc. Those descriptions weren’t inaccurate but they didn’t feel quite right either. But I haven’t known how else to describe the separation. For the first time, I’ve found myself regretting that I didn’t take more Lit classes when I had the chance.
That brings me full circle. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that literary fiction is. I feel like it differs quite a bit from the fiction that I normally read, in vague and unspecified ways. It’s not necessarily more formal, elevated, pompous, serious, or stylistic—though it can be any of those things at times. But what is it?
I finally found a description that makes sense to me. Nathan Bransford wrote a post about What Makes Literary Fiction Literary.
In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.
Here’s what I mean.
Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world. The character is an active protagonist who goes out into a world, experiences the challenges of that world, and emerges either triumphant or defeated. Think about every genre novel you’ve ever read: sci-fi, westerns, romances chick lit, thrillers…. They are all about a character with a certain level of mastery over the world in which they are in bumping up against the challenges of that world and trying to achieve their goal. Sure, the character might have an inner struggle and be a richly rendered character, but for the most part genre novels are about the exterior — they are about how a character navigates a unique world.
… Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them.
This, intuitively, feels correct. Even better, it’s in terms that I can readily understand. I get the difference between a character navigating through a world and a character navigating through his own mind and motivations. That’s a definition that I can use to analyze a story and pick which bucket I want to put it in. I don’t know if it will be my final definition of the distinction between literary and genre fiction, but it will work for now.