“Literary” is not a dirty word
Fiction falls into two broad categories: genre/mainstream fiction (sometimes called plotted fiction) and literary fiction. Many of us have an intuitive sense of the differences, but defining them is difficult, and not everyone agrees on a single definition. Check out the following for one viewpoint.
According to the viewpoint in these articles, mainstream fiction is fiction that sells well and can be either genre or literary. I’m not sure I agree with that because what about a novel that starts out as literary then sparks huge sales? Does its category then change to mainstream? Many people view mainstream as fiction that is plotted but doesn’t fall cleanly into a particular genre. In other words, it’s unclassifiable fiction (until someone invents a new genre for it). How do we classify Jurassic Park? Is it science fiction or a thriller? Do we split hairs, create a new sub-genre, and call it a science thriller? Where do we shelve it in the bookstore? That last question is what publishers look at. If they can’t fit your book neatly into some existing category that they know sells, your work might well be rejected.
Let’s get back on topic. Rather than argue fine category distinctions, we’ll divide fiction into to broad categories: plotted and literary. These two are, however, not opposites in the sense that a given piece has to be one or the other. Neither are they absolutes. In the real world of writing there exists a continuum between these, and if you think about a variety of novels from classics to modern works, you’ll see this.
We’ll begin our understanding by broadly describing them. Plotted fiction usually consists of a strong story line where the protagonist is motivated to achieve a GOAL that becomes complicated by one or more opposing forces–CONFLICT–that he or she must overcome to accomplish or reach the goal–RESOLUTION.
Literary fiction may have a plot. It is more often a study of characters, who may represent a larger group of characters or a segment of society, or who embody some concept [SYMBOLISM). This character or characters struggle against some external object or person (again symbolism) or against themselves (INTERNAL CONFLICT), and the story ends on a concluding note that instead of being a true resolution may instead be a resonance with the reader. Keep in mind that these are extreme broad and simplistic explanations.
These might help:
Literary Fiction Characteristics
What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?
This latter article is useful because it highlights the problems with defining “literary fiction.”
The following quote from another of Nathan Bransford’s blogs is apropos:
“Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It’s just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem – absolutely nothing is happening and thus it’s (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot.”
–Nathan Bransford (literary agent)
NOTE: Mr. Bransford was an agent when he said this, but he’s now left that part of the profession to become an author.)
Now, let’s contrast them: PLOTTED v. LITERARY
Plotted: action, external conflict, resolution
Literary: symbolism, internal conflict, resonance
I’m sure you can think of many examples of the former. But what about the latter? How about The Color Purple and The Help? Do these have a plot? Does Huckleberry Finn have a plot?
One of my favorites mentioned previously is John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany. It certainly has a plot: young John wants to find out who his father is (he lives with his mother, but she’s never told him who his father is). Owen has a vision part way through the novel that he’s going to die (he sees his tombstone in a dream). He’s totally convinced it will happen. Both John and he want to know if it’s true and the circumstances surrounding his death. This novel certainly has all the elements of plotted and literary fiction in abundance. So where do we place it? This dilemma demonstrates the difficulty of classifying it as one or the other. In truth, it fits between the two. I’m sure many would simply call it “mainstream” and be done with it.
Another author friend, Thea Atkinson writes literary works. Yes, they do have plot pieces in them, but they two that I’ve read so far (Formed of Clay (actually a novella) and Anomaly) are exquisite examples of literary fiction. Yet they don’t feel like it. They’re not stuffy and filled with obscure symbolism. They do resonate with the reader, and they contain both types of conflict. Formed of Clay is set in Ancient Egypt, which puts it cleanly into the realm of historical fiction. I loved both of these, but Formed of Clay is my favorite of hers to date. Buy it and read it, especially if you want a different reading experience and want encouragement that literary can be non-boring. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Before we look at some examples of familiar fiction to try to judge how they fall on this continuum, let’s consider one more point. Literary fiction is often said to be about “The Human Condition.” John Steinbeck wrote what my Mom called “dirty stories about dirty people.” I wouldn’t use those terms myself, but I think we can understand what she meant: stories about people fallen on hard times and cast out of society, stories about the baser aspects of mankind. Dickens focused on these people as well and often contrasted the downtrodden with the upperclass.
(1) A Christmas Carol. Few of us would call this plotted fiction. Still, I wouldn’t push all the way to the literary side. There is a basic plot: Bob Cratchit wants Christmas Day off, with pay, to be with his family (GOAL). Scrooge doesn’t want to allow it (EXTERNAL CONFLICT) and only does so because it’s a societal convention (INTERNAL CONFLICT), and in the end is shown the error of his ways (RESOLUTION). Of course, there’s a lot more to the story because Cratchit is merely the precipitating factor that will lead to a change in Scrooge’s life–where INTERNAL CONFLICT and RESONANCE with the reader all play an important part. The novella is about more than one human’s condition, but about the element of society of which to which Scrooge belongs (SYMBOLISM).
(2) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This contains far more plot, but this book extends far past being a mere children’s story. Heavy symbolism, internal conflict, and resonance abound. Yet it contains the basics of plotted fiction. Hence it lies somewhere in the middle of the continuum. The ending is a resolution for Dorothy (and the others) as much as it is resonance for the reader (there’s no place like home).
(3) We’d be hard pressed to put most modern romances, horror novels, or thrillers into the literary mold (some do fit there, of course). Most of them are pure plotted fiction, and there are so many that I won’t call attention to any one. (But if you think Winnie The Pooh is plotted fiction, you need to read the original book to see just how much of it is symbolism, internal conflict, and resonance.)
So, what are you to do when confronted with the choice of writing what’s in your literary heart or writing in the more popular genre/mainstream fiction category in order to sell your work to a publisher? Good writing–the best writing–comes from the heart, regardless of how we want to classify it. Literary is a hard sell to most larger publishers, and one of the strong criticisms against some traditional publishers is that they no longer foster “literature” because it doesn’t make them enough money. You don’t have to make that concession or compromise your integrity because you now have the option to self-publish those pieces that can’t find a home elsewhere.
Nevertheless, do not to fall into what Nathan Bransford warns against: In ANY novel, something must happen. Prove to your readers and yourself that “literary” isn’t stuffy prose that goes nowhere. Even with self-publishing, if you want to sell, you have to write a compelling story.
Now, go read one or more literary pieces so you understand literary–regardless of whether you want to write it yourself.