Write It Sideways

The Difference Between Good & Bad Literary Fiction

I studied English literature in university, so you can be sure I’m very much used to reading literary fiction.

That said…

… 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?

Writer’s Relief Inc says:

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.

Daily Writing Tips says:

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.

Nathan Bransford says:

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):

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?