The Case for Literary Writing

The young writer or the very new writer most often begins with a story or a poem in mind. The subject calls to them, pesters them, until one day they say, “Enough already! I’ll write it down!” After that first adventure, they may start thinking about publishing what they’ve written. They buy some books on craft and some books on formatting and then maybe Writer’s Market or Best in Print. Maybe they join an online critique group.

They sit down to write their cover letter or their query letter and suddenly, they realize that they have to categorize what they’ve written. Is it science fiction? Neo-existentialist? Postmodern? Mainstream? Literary? Wait..what the hell is “literary” anyway? And somewhere along the line, someone tells them that if they want to make money, they have to write genre fiction, but if they want their writing to last, they have to write literary.

Bullshit on both counts.

Let’s start with a definition of “literary fiction.” This is reputedly fiction that:

1.       Focuses on events that could actually occur,

2.        Pays careful attention to word choice,

3.        Utilizes primarily tools of figurative language and symbolism, and

4.        Is intended for an educated and/or cultured audience.

While these criteria are indicative of the standard realm of thought about literary fiction, they ignore the reality that many, many pieces of genre fiction also fit the criteria (with the possible exception of ‘could actually happen’) and find their way into the literary canon. The question of whether to write “literary fiction” becomes a question of purpose and style. If I have one complaint about the majority of genre fiction it is that it mostly lacks both purpose and style.

Some would argue that genre fiction reaches a broader audience (and thereby makes more money) than literary fiction. To some degree, this is true, but the argument ignores such literary giants as John Irving, John Updike, Jean Auel, and Toni Morrison, not to mention Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen. If we were simply to analyze the majority of film rights sold on novels and short stories, we would likely come to the conclusion that literary fiction actually enjoys a far broader audience than genre fiction. Add in the number of students that read these novels (often from used copies that don’t factor into their sales rates), and we may come to understand that literary fiction has gotten a bit of a bad rap with little evidence to prove the case.

In addition to the popularity argument, some literary authors have unwittingly encapsulated literary fiction in a stigma of inaccessibility. Because such fiction is often billed as “intended for an educated  audience,” the general reader may feel intimidated by it, particularly if they were ever forced to read something like James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” In reality, millions of average Americans read and enjoy literary fiction every day. Some examples just from the last two years, all on the New York Times Bestseller’s List: “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski, “A Mercy” by Toni Morrison, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” by David Sedaris, and “Room” by Emma Donoghue

While genre fiction tends to rely on standardized formulas for plot development, well-written literary fiction demands originality. When genre fiction steps out of the formulaic process, it becomes literary fiction—for example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness,” George Orwell’s “1984,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” or Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” As in the case of “Lord of the Rings,” this shift in category also becomes the basis for new formulae in the original genre.

While it may be true that genre fiction generally enjoys more popular appeal, fiction that transcends genre and utilizes the major tools of literary fiction – figuration language, symbolism, allegory, allusion, and characterization – enjoys a longer and fuller life. That said, our goal as writers should not be to determine what kind of writing is best, but to explore all forms of writing and discover what kind is best for us.


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