“Literary” fiction in a nutshell

One of the questions that comes up from time to time in critique group is this:

What is literary fiction? How does it compare to genre fiction and by what criteria should it be critiqued?

Here’s my humble contribution to that discussion.

Literary fiction is fiction that transcends the formulas, templates, and conventions of specific genres. In some cases it may resemble or possibly even embody the best (or not) of a particular genre, but what distinguishes literary fiction is its meta.

Modern literary fiction is foremost about its meta.

Modern literary fiction is foremost about its meta. Plot and convention tend to be secondary to treatment.

The meta of literary fiction can take many forms including but not limited to tone, (unconventional) perspective, commentary, inner monologue, experimental structure, and other elements. If these elements were entirely predictable and enumerable, we’d be describing a genre, because what makes a genre a genre is its conformance to well-known norms.

If you’re trying to write literary fiction, it’s wise to understand that it will succeed or fail in appealing to a literary audience on the strength of its meta-elements. To some extent, literary readers want to see the elements that make good genre fiction, and in particular sufficiently interesting characters and plots with a mixture of surprise and invention with satisfaction of expectations. But understand two things: One, literary readers tend to be more forgiving of expectations about plot and in some circumstances about characters. And two, they’re demanding of the meta. The most boring thing to literary readers is conventionality. A great conventional story with little about its meta to distinguish it is likely to satisfy neither genre readers (“It was fine, but you should scrap all that distracting stuff”) nor literary readers (“It was rather bland and neither original nor insightful”). It’s not enough to write with meta. One must make the meta gripping in its own right.

There’s considerable overlap between literary readers and genre readers, but it’s also true that the very elements that make a book popular with one group may make it unpopular with the other.

Readers of modern literary fiction also tend to favor work that is less constantly in-the-moment and is more reflective about the meaning or effect of events than focused on the events themselves. They don’t need to be shown as much action or hear as much literal dialogue as genre readers typically expect or even require if they’re to sustain interest. Literary readers will often prefer an interesting characterization (“telling” in the context of the maxim to Show-Don’t-Tell) of what happens during a conversation over reading the literal words of the entire conversation. It’s perfectly all right to characterize as long as you maintain a good balance. Think of how sophisticated painters can create a scene that contains only a few carefully chosen, literally recognizable elements from the physical world and fill the rest of the canvas with impressions. So it most often is, to one degree or another, with modern literary writing.

At a far end of that spectrum is philosophical fiction, in which events and showing things in the moment may be quite a thin framework on which more interesting thoughts are hung. When you do that well, you will find an audience. You will also find many readers who can’t stand what you write.

The most interesting words I ever heard around critique group came from a published author who attended one single time and emailed me afterwards, regarding both that person’s submission for the week and my own, “The most important thing I’ve learned from hundreds of hours of critique groups is this: never let anyone in group talk you out of your original concept.” Do I always agree with that? I’m not certain. But certainly I agree much of the time. And I do always remember that advice — and I’ve seen many attempts to badger more than one skillful writer out of a concept just because a critiquer didn’t really understand (or simply didn’t like) what was happening in the text.

My second rule of critique is that you must first understand and appreciate what a writer is doing and recognize what’s distinctive about their writing. There’s always a readership somewhere for anything that’s truly distinctive. Once you “get” a writer, you help them become more of what they are, how to do their thing better in their manner, not more of what you like. That is the essence of mature interpersonal critique intended to help writers improve. If you want a book or a story written a different way, then write it yourself.

(My first rule, of course, is that you stand no chance whatsoever of being taken seriously or of influencing someone to change even a single word if you express yourself in terms that are hostile, contemptuous, sarcastic, denigrating, or ridiculing toward writer, characters, or material. That’s Adult Education 101, right? Or even Decent Human Being 101. It’s so intuitively obvious to most of us that you wouldn’t think it needed saying among adults — but in reality there exist critiquers who need to be reminded over and over.)