October 4, 2012

What is Literary Fiction?

Yesterday I got an email from a member of my critiquing group that said, after careful consideration I’ve decided to drop out. Apparently she had just started an online course designed to help her write a novel in six months and it’s turning out to be far too intensive to stay in the group. Actually, she was quite shaken with the comments she last received from her coach.

“This is so HARD!” she said.

From time to time we all have doubts about our writing. I’m slowly beginning to realise that while some of us are striving for literary excellence and some of us are actually capable of it, the rest of us just want to write a decent tale with good entertainment value. Not everyone expects a Pulitzer. I see nothing wrong in that.

Yes, finding the time is hard and sometimes finding the disciple is even harder but unless English is not your first language, technically it shouldn’t be hard to write. When my friend says that writing is hard I can only assume that her coach railed her over what she was writing. Do we want another Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelf? No, but I’ve read her stories and she’s not that bad. They just don’t qualify as literary fiction.

So what is literary fiction?

According to Wikipedia it’s ‘critically acclaimed and serious’ with a style that is ‘elegant, lyrical and layered’. I tried to explain it to my friend Sara who managed to clarify what I felt but thought too ignorant to say.

 “It’s boring.”

“Yah, kind of.”

I read a lot of literary fiction. 70% of it I don’t like but when I find that one book that stands out, that connects or changes my perspective, it can be profound and worth slogging towards. For entertainment I read mysteries.

So when my friend tells me that what she’s doing is hard, I think it’s only a matter of what she wants to achieve. Taking writing workshops and creative writing courses provide focus, direction and help touch up areas of inconsistency and confusion. Unfortunately they also can make you feel like an idiot. So my take home message is that, what ever you are writing, love it. Don’t worry about onomatopoeia, alliteration, poetry, word count, excessive detail or clever metaphors. Worry about making yourself astoundingly clear and the love will follow. 


  1. Yes I've long since wondered who reads literary fiction anymore; I certainly don't think the online masses - which is no good for an indie author trying to make money, I don't suppose.

    I tend to write some stuff 'a bit fancier' than I do others, try to inject an underlying cleverness, subtlety, sometimes bordering on poetic even - a natural tendency for me, but I can see how it would be easy for the unsuspecting reader to get lost in the words of those; not get the true meaning of everything, the suggestion, them not necessarily being sit back and enjoy easily writing. And so I've come to write others in a more straightforward style to simply tell the tale and entertain. But it depends on my mood; I'm not a writer to stick to one genre at all; trying to tie it all together with my propensity for humour in all.

    One of my novels, which a great deal of care and clever use of words was put into, has been given five stars by a number of people who actually appreciate and get that style, the nuances of it, and not overly difficult to either since I did 'simplify' it somewhat in future edits for the reason that people might want something easier to get through. But one woman who said she liked it well enough only gave it three stars (used to reading paranormal romances judging by the list). She touts herself as a reviewer, giving them in exchange for free books, but I hardly think she's qualified judging by HOW she reviews and the various interviews I see her do that are more suited to a teenage girl's magazine; asking completely irrelevant questions, like chocolate or vanilla). So, I was annoyed when she read 50 Shades and made a big deal of how great she thought it was, giving it 5 stars. But I knew then, if I hadn't before (because she'd indicated that she's simply let her e-reader READ my book to her while she got on with whatever... the hoovering?) instead of contemplating its subtleties, that she hadn't been the right person at all to read ANY of my stuff let alone comment on it - well, perhaps outside of my nonsensical, wacko collection, yes, but certainly not my serious stuff, as even though its not exactly literary, compared to what I've seen of 50 Shades, for her, I am sure, it really was.

    So, I wonder in this day and age, because of all the fantasy and romantic and erotica books that are all we seem to see (well I do anyway) written so simplistically and usually in first person, if literary styling is a dying art?

    As in the Woody Allen film, I wish I'd been around in the 'Golden Age' of writers, which for me would be the turn of the 19/20th century, where people actually laboured over their words - simplistically or not.

    1. Well,I look forward to reading your book ;)

  2. oh, and I agree totally about your 70% remark: so much literary fiction IS totally dull. In fact, I'd probably up it to 80% but that's just me. However, finding that one magical book truly is, well, magical and kind of life-changing.

  3. I'm behind on my blog following and twitter/tweeting, so pardon me for reading and commenting here 3 months behind schedule. I have a good excuse...I too am taking a novel-writing course (not a 6-monther like your friend - that would kill me, literally) and I tend to agree with her assessment. It is so HARD! After banging my head against the wall in my office in time with the music on my I-Pod, I've come to a conclusion. And that conclusion is, to hell with the story...how about concentrating on creating really good characters and see where they go? Like, (get this!)people who stuff contraband turkeys in their backpacks and escape over the Alps?