How to Create Literary Fiction
By Magdalena Ball
As a book reviewer, I get anywhere from fifty to one hundred review requests a week. Of these, I might accept five or so. While I do occasionally take nonfiction books, most of what I accept will be in the genre known as literary fiction. But just what is literary fiction? What differentiates literary fiction from what most publishers class as commercial or genre oriented fiction, and why am I biased towards it? It’s a question I get asked regularly. Some, like author David Lubar (“A Guide to Literary Fiction,” 2002) equate the label with work that is pompous, dull, plotless, and overly academic: “If you’re ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there’s a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.” Publishers often use this label for work which defies other genre distinctions, eg it isn’t romance, isn’t “chick-lit,” isn’t science or speculative fiction, isn’t a thriller, action, or political drama. It is meant to denote a fiction which is of higher quality, richer, denser, or, as the literary fiction book club states, work which “can make us uncomfortable or can weave magic.” These distinctions aren’t always clear, and there are some superb exceptions to the genre rule, such as Margaret Atwood or China Mieville, whose high quality work fits the speculative fiction genre, or Umberto Eco and Iain Pears, whose work is full of mystery and suspense. All writers feel that their work is high quality, and most write fiction with the goal of producing great work. So how can we ensure that our work is literary fiction rather than some other form? Here are five tips to guide writers who are inclined to produce literary fiction:
1. Aim for transcendency. The one quality which seems to be present in abundance in literary fiction and much less so in other forms, is what agent and author Noah Lukeman calls “transcendency.” It isn’t easy to define, and in his exceptional book, The Plot Thickens (St Martin’s Press, 2002), Lukeman presents a number of points, such as multidimensional characters and circumstances, room for interpretation, timelessness, relatability, educational elements, self discovery, and lasting impression. I would say that transcendency equates to depth, to writing which does more than entertain its readers, and instead, changes something, however small, in the way they perceive themselves. How do you get transcendency in fiction? With a deep theme, deep and powerful characters, complex plots, and exceptional writing skills. Sound easy?
2. Read quality literature. This is a lot easier than transcendency, though not unrelated. Since achieving literary fiction is a subtle and difficult thing, you’ve got to develop your literary senses. The best way of doing that is to read books which fit this genre. If you want to create literary fiction, chances are, you probably are already reading it. These are books by the writers we call “great.” Your list of names may differ from mine, but these are the writers who win prizes like the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Commonwealth Prize, and the National Book Award to name just a few. The more great literature you read, the better able you will become at recognising the elements which make a fiction literary.
3. Don’t get defensive! Lubar’s article is lots of fun, but literary fiction isn’t meant to be snobbish, academic, plotless, or boring in any way; just well crafted. That may be daunting if you are a writer, but it won’t help your work to shrug off quality by calling it dull or unachievable.
4. Re-write. This may be the single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction. Work which is timeless takes time. There’s no other way to achieve literary fiction than re-writing, dozens, and maybe many more, times. It isn’t glamorous, nor is re-writing dependent on a muse or inspiration like the first draft is. It is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to the story. This process cannot occur solely in the fingers of the author. Every writer of literary fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can provide the kind of objective advice which will transform your inspiration into a stunning creation.
5. Don’t stress about it! Of course there is no point in worrying so much that you get writer’s block (and if you do, get hold of Jenna’s terrific book on the topic :-). If you read great books, write fiction which is true to your own creative vision, and revise (with feedback from others) until the work is as perfect as you can make it, you will produce literary fiction. That’s all there is to it. Writing a novel is about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances, thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you can’t stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and your work will have transcendency. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing it!
Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything and three other poetry chapbooks Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks.