I studied English literature in university, so you can be sure I’m very much used to reading literary fiction.
… I’ve been a little disappointed lately with some of the so-called literary fiction I’ve encountered.
I hate to use the terms good and bad to describe any book because fiction is incredibly subjective and what one person loves, another hates. Perhaps strong literary fiction versus weak literary fiction are better terms.
But, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll use good and bad just this once.
What is Literary Fiction?
Literary fiction is fiction of ideas. While the story must be good, emphasis on action is not often as important as emphasis on the ideas, themes, and concerns of the book. Literary fiction tackles “big” issues that are often controversial, difficult, and complex.
The vocabulary [in literary fiction] may be more extensive than common, and when the story ends, readers feel they’ve learned not just the fate of the characters, but something about the human condition.
I’d like to bust one of the myths about literary fiction — that it doesn’t have a plot. 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.
Notice how both Writer’s Relief and Nathan Bransford say that “the story must be good,” and “good literary fiction has a plot,” respectively.
What Makes Good Literary Fiction?
Many of the classic books typically studied in high school and university can be considered literary fiction in terms of the style of their writing. The majority of them have easily identifiable plots, such as the following (all of which I read and studied):
- Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
- Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
- The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
- Atonement, Ian McEwan
Of course, there are other examples of great literary fiction that have more subtle plots, like James Joyce’s short stories, Dubliners.
I remember studying The Dead and a few other of these stories in a third-year Modern Irish Literature course. The thing is that even though plot may be barely discernible, the language is amazing and you come away from reading it—as Daily Writing Tips describes it—feeling like you’ve learned something about the human condition.
So, good literary fiction—at least in my experience—is that which marries excellent plotting with thought-provoking language, or that which simply dazzles us with language and characterization even if the plotting remains subtle.
But please note that subtle does not mean non-existent.
What Makes Bad Literary Fiction?
I don’t want to name any names because all books have some redeeming qualities, but I recently acquired a book that fits Nathan Bransford’s description of what he usually receives under the guise of literary fiction:
…[A] character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence.
In its defense, it was published by a niche publisher and therefore may not have had the benefit of the type of editing available to larger publishers. But still.
The book’s jacket copy was convoluted and, though it went on and on, said absolutely nothing about the plot. However, I did expect masterful use of language and storytelling. Fifty-pages-in, I found neither masterful language nor storytelling.
My immediate reaction to the story was that the main character was really the just author writing about himself, in one form or another. A lot of the ‘action’ centered on completely irrelevant details, and the dialogue was terribly stilted and amateurish.
And, I might add, I was completely bored reading it, because nothing was happening. Absolutely nothing.
Good literary fiction shouldn’t bore its reader, even if there isn’t a lot of so-called action. Again I say, if the plot is subtle, then language and characterization must intrigue your reader enough to keep them reading.
Bad literary fiction can’t do that.
An Example of Good Contemporary Literary Fiction
I recently finished Elizabeth Strout’s novel Amy and Isabelle, which was shortlisted for the 2000 Orange Prize and nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction (Wikipedia).
Strout also won the Pulitzer in 2008 for her book of interconnected short stories, Olive Kitteridge.
Amazon’s product description says:
In most ways, Isabelle and Amy are like any mother and her 16-year-old daughter, a fierce mix of love and loathing exchanged in their every glance. And eating, sleeping, and working side by side in the gossip-ridden mill town of Shirley Falls doesn’t help matters. But when Amy is discovered behind the steamed-up windows of a car with her math teacher, the vast and icy distance between mother and daughter becomes unbridgeable.
Here’s an example of a novel where not a whole lot happens in terms of classic action, but there is a definite plot.
I loved Strout’s language and narrative voice, and I came to love the characters. I wanted to keep reading. It was one of those books that had me thinking about it long after I’d read the final words.
Sure, it wasn’t absolutely perfect. There were a few things that bothered me as I read, but overall I found the writing wonderful and the story absorbing.
That’s good literary fiction.
What do you think makes for a good literary read? What do you dislike about some literary fiction?
Join the discussion
Eva Porter says
Hmmm…a great literary read has to include a character I can relate to, language that doesn’t require a dictionary for every other word, and a lack of authorial tone that feels as if the author is speaking down to me.
I don’t know if many of the books I’ve read lately have qualified as literary. I’ll use McEwan’s “Saturday” as a template for a good literary read. Rich language, interesting character and, yes, a plot. To me, literary fiction emphasizes character over plot as opposed to books like “The DaVinci Code” which are plot over character but you still have a plot.
As a writer, plots tend to be my bugaboo so I really try to pay attention to plots in literary fiction.
Yes, Eva, I don’t like having to look up every word in a story! If I have to read excruciatingly slowly just to understand what’s going on, that’s no fun either!
Eeleen Lee says
Literary fiction’s main aim is supposed to make the reader think and ponder, as opposed to other sorts of fiction .Genre fiction’s main purpose is to entertain but of course, it can provoke thought too, and literary fiction if well-written will always entertain.
Poorly written fiction in any form will always excruciate or amuse in equal measure.
“Poorly written fiction in any form will always excruciate or amuse in equal measure.” Well said! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Michelle McCartney says
I am absolutely passionately in love with the writings of Rohington Mistry. Although I have only read “A FIne Balance ” and “A Family Matter” I found his books absolutely spellbinding and I feel like his characters really exist somewhere else. He also can make me fall in love with more than one character flaws and all.
I don’t know how he does it but he seems to be able to weave stories of human relationships onto a backdrop of actual events that seem so bizarre and far fetched to one as ignorant as I was on Indian history. The plot is never tedious and often comical . He uses his ‘actors’ to deliver philosophies so I never felt I was being railroaded or swamped with the writers opinions.
As a rule I find history tedious and avoid it to the best of my ability but I have every intention of exploring this subcontinent courtesy of Mr. Mistry. I might add that Mistry ‘s content is often excruciatingly sad, almost unbearably , but he presents also one of the most admirable traits of mankind……….the ability to survive the unsurvivable.
He using words and prose skillfully like a master tailor so the end result seems to be effortlessly put together .
Mistry’s books embody ‘good literary fiction’ and I bow to his genius and thank him for doing what he does.
I haven’t read anything by Rohinton Mistry, but because he’s a fellow Canadian, I really should!
Thanks for the recommendation 🙂
Melissa Donovan says
I have thought about this a lot. What makes me love one story but not another? I can go along with plot-driven fiction and I can appreciate a piece of work for its masterful use of language, but ultimately, the stories that I consider truly great are the ones that had vivid characters with whom I forged an emotional connection. These are definitely the same stories that say something meaningful about the human condition. When the reader cares about the characters, everything else pretty much falls into place.
Well said, Melissa! I know a book is great when I find myself thinking about the story or the characters long after I’ve finished reading.