Literary fiction: Learn to classify the genre and take pride in your work

This is a post by Novel Publicity President, Melissa Storm

Why are authors of literary fiction so hesitant to admit it? Is it because they think identifying their work as literary seems haughty? Is it because they think it won’t sell? Or is it simply because they don’t know how to identify the genre?

I think all of these factors come into play. But I’ll tell you what:  I’ve had more authors come to me with beautiful literary novels classified as something completely different than I’d like to admit. Take pride in your work! The lit fic genre is beautiful and hard to pull-off. Be proud of yourself and respect your work for what it is.

And, yes, literary fiction can sell well (remember Terri Giuliano Long, the indie lit fic prodigy who’s sold over 75,000 copies of her debut novel?). And, no, dubbing your work literary is not arrogant—especially not if the shoe fits. Call a cat a cat for goodness sake. That way you’ll know how to feed it.

This is where I come in. I’m an avid reader of literary fiction, and I want it to get the respect and attention it deserves from the indie community.

Romance can be easy to identify:  the central plot is a love story and you need to pull off an HEA (that’s Happily Ever After, folks). Suspense has edge-of-your-seat action with a quickly clipping plot. Young Adult features teenage characters. Then how do we spot a literary fiction novel? Sorry, there’s no easy trick. Instead you need to understand the various aspects of the genre in order to make a proper classification. What’s more, literary fiction can supersede other genres (Just like YA can), which makes it especially tricky to identify.

Here are my tips for picking a literary novel out of a crowd. They aren’t all inclusive, of course, but hopefully they will help.

 

Style

While plot may be the focus in many a-genre, it isn’t in literary fiction. Lit fic is less about what your story is and more about how you write it. Think about that for a moment.

This doesn’t mean your literary novel has to be all hearts and flowers and play host to exceptionally lengthy exposition. Hemingway wrote literary fiction, and I challenge you to find the hearts and flowers there. Another highly literary novel with great, but simple, style is The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.

A classic example of style over substance would be Ulysses by James Joyce. This is not an easy novel to get through, but you will learn so, so much from it. Joyce set-out to write a novel “for English professors,” and by golly, he did. Each chapter has a special style:  one is told using newspaper headlines, another like a play, another a series of questions and answers, and, hello, stream of consciousness!

 

Characterization

There are a lot of either-or propositions in writing. You either write by the seat of your pants, or you are a plotter. You focus on characterization, or you favor plot. If you favor characterization, then you might be a literary fiction writer. This isn’t always the case; in my YA novel  Farsighted, I focused on characters over the plot—but that doesn’t make it a literary novel. Anyway…

Ask yourself this simple question:  Does my character react to my plot/ setting, or does my plot react to my character? This is not relative to the personality of your character. Even strong characters like Tris in Divergent can still be propelled more by plot or setting.

Let me give you two great examples of literary fiction protagonists. The first is Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. This is the best book ever written (yes, I’m showing a bit of a subjective preference here, but wow)!  You will know Owen better than you know your real-life friends by the time you are done, and he’s not even the narrator of the story. From his frail and translucent appearance to that BIG VOICE to his belief that he knows his calling. Read it, or anything by John Irving really, for an example of flawless characterization.

The other strong literary protagonist I’d like to present comes from another of my favorites, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You won’t be able to hate love-sick Florentino Ariza despite his playboy antics, the fact that one of his lovers is gruesomely murdered because of their affair, and his eventual pedophilia, because you’ll understand him so, so well. This novel is definitely driven by its protagonist. If Florentino hadn’t held fast to his love for Fermina Daza, we’d have a completely different novel.

 

Themes & Resonance

Literary novels are often called “book club books,” and that’s because they offer so much to talk about. Lit fic is focused less on offering entertainment and more on offering insight (although some books can and do accomplish both). Literary novels are the kind you have to put down time and again simply to reflect. They haunt you long after you’ve read them. They teach you about the world and about yourself. In lit fic, you’ll find special layers of meaning deftly woven together:  symbols, motifs, allegories. People who don’t enjoy the genre may complain that the action moves too slowly, but pacing just isn’t the focus of these wordy beauties.

I’m going to throw two more of my favorites at you as examples:  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (the actual unabridged book, not the musical) and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Les Mis, oh! Yes, it’s long. And you get like 50+ pages on the Battle of Waterloo and another lengthy passage about the intricacies of the Paris sewage system and others about the nunnery and even Argot. But… this story speaks to morality, redemption, love, revolution, good versus evil, and what we expect of ourselves and others. This is the most thematically heavy novel I can think of, and there’s a reason why it’s found great success on the stage (even though all the best parts were cut out).

Lolita. I’m making my book club read it for Valentine’s Day. Most people know what the book is about whether or not they’ve read it—thank you, pop culture. It’s about a pedophile named Humbert Humbert who likes to prey on tween girls or nymphets. Right? Wrong! It’s easy to write this book off as a sick work of utter perversion. Most people would, but then you read it. And you find yourself sympathizing for HH and even rooting for him. You understand the man you were sure was a monster, and then you have to ask yourself:  Who am I really? What do I believe? These are deep questions accomplished by Nabokov’s mastery.

 

In Summary

I’m sure you noticed that most of my explanation was a discussion of works that exemplify the literary genre. That’s because the best way to know a genre is to know it. Read and reflect on great literary novels, and you’ll begin to absorb a subconscious understanding of what it is and how to identify it.

Please don’t sell your work short. If you’ve written a literary novel, admit it! And be proud of yourself for following in the footsteps of many great masters. Maybe one day someone will follow yours.

 

 

Emlyn Chand, President of Novel PublicityAbout this post's author:

Melissa Storm was born with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). Novel Publicity’s mascot is a sun conure, thanks to her obsession with birds–and she gets to decide anyway since she is the company’s founder and president. Her first novel, Farsighted, won the prestigious Writer’s Digest Self-Published Novel of the Year award in 2012 for the YA category. She now writes most of her fiction under her real name, Melissa Storm. Learn more or connect with her her author website:  www.melstorm.com or via Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Keredy Andrews

Great post. I adore literary fiction, but I did study lit for three years at university! Lolita is one of my favourites and I’ll be sure to order A Prayer for Owen Meany!
K

    Emlyn Chand

    Yes, read Owen Meany. It’s just exceptional. I’m glad you’re a Lolita fan too. That book is what made me love lit fic in the first place. So, so good!

    Stuart Ayris

    A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my all time favourite books! Just wonderful!!

    Stu

Laura Reese

Nice Post Em. 🙂

    Emlyn Chand

    Thanks, Laura. I’m sick of seeing lit fic bastardized. 😛

Fiona

Thanks for making us come out of the closet, Emlyn. Yes there is reluctance to admit you’ve written a literary novel, particularly if you’re hoping to pitch it as an e-book (literary fiction does not seem to do as well here). I alternate between calling my latest novel, The Peace Garden, a literary thriller and an apartheid thriller – but I’m not sure if either really fit because the thriller element only picks up halfway through the book. But I’m also scared of scaring people off by the ‘literary’ tag. Despite being strong on characterisation and dealing with themes and ideas it is also strong on plot but people have the idea that plot is for ‘genre’ not for literary novels. So what’s an author to do?

Fiona

Oh, and forgot to add, that another reason I’m reluctant to use the literary tag is that when you search for ‘literary fiction’ in online bookshops 99% of it is classic literature rather than new releases. My little ‘literary’ novel will get lost in the pile. I wonder if there could be a new search category ‘literary genre fiction’?

    Emlyn Chand

    My advice about cross-genre-izing is to pick one primary genre for classification purposes and then discuss the others in the back cover copy. Too many authors string 4 genres together, trying to show how clever they are–but it winds up being sloppy and hard to pinpoint. We all mix elements all the time. There is a stigma that literary doesn’t sell well, but I have 3 clients who would definitely disagree!

    My novel Farsighted, for example, is YA. It has paranormal elements, a strong mystery, and romance, but ultimately it is YA. I tried to capture the others in the summary I put on Amazon.

    Also, literary fiction does have sub-classifications. Women’s and historical for example. Maybe one of those fits you!

Terri Giuliano Long

Nicely put, Em! And thanks so much for the shout out!

    Emlyn Chand

    Thanks for stopping by, Terri, and thank you for proving that indie literary fiction can work. You inspire so many people including me 😉

Tameka Mullins (Tamstarz)

Emlyn, this is an beautiful description of literary fiction! After I completed my novel and was shopping it around I was confused as to how to describe it. My book is a family drama which features mostly African American characters so I was told that I should call it a multicultural novel. I found though that when I was sending it to lit agents that they considered multicultural to be Asian, Hispanic or Native Indian stories. I would look at their lists and even if they said they had multicultural titles, there would be no books by African American authors.

A friend of a friend knew an assistant that worked for one of the big publishers and she agreed to give my MS a read. In her feedback she said she felt my novel fell in the literary fiction genre and that they were not handling books like that. They wanted street or “urban” lit.

My head was spinning! After reading your post I recognize a lot of the elements you describe in my work. This piece will be printed out and saved for future reference! Thanks again!

http://lyricfire.typepad.com/lyric-fire/2012/01/lyric-fire-soul-diving-partial-poempart-confession.html

Michael C, Boxall

Emlyn, this is very interesting. Literary fiction provides more to talk about–yes! One of the (many) agents who turned down The Great Firewall, which I pitched as a thriller, said he was more intrigued by it that thrilled. I took this as a compliment. I like reading things that give me something to chew on. Good to hear that others feel the same way. Enough popcorn, already.

    Emlyn Chand

    YES, sustenance!

Fiona

Which is all well and good if agents and publishers actually took on literary fiction instead of simply complimenting us as they shut the door.

Emlyn Chand

Yup, it’s definitely a tougher sell, which is all the more reason for the indie community to adopt this beautiful genre. I know, because my first novel–the one I pimped to agents–was literary fiction. I did get an agent eventually, but, man, scarred for life!

Fiona

🙂 But hey, you survived and thrived!

Stuart Ayris

Hi!

Fantastic article. I for one am proud to say that I write literary fiction. Especially as my novel, Tollesbury Time Forever, is currently at the top of the average review ranking for Literary Fiction on Amazon UK (Kindle). I had no joy in trying to get either an agent or a publisher interested so went the eBook route. I am so pleased I did.

marc nash

Hey Emlyn, thanks for this. As you know I doggedly reject the notion of tagging any book with genre as it’s reductive rather than enhancing. But I suppose if I did have to apply a tag to mine, it would be literary fiction, for many of the reasons you cite above. However, agents repeatedly say they can’t sell litfic and though I hugely respect Terri Long’s success, to my mind there is little doubt that it’s an exception that proves the rule – in epublishing genre books and non-fiction are way easier sells. It might change in time, but there is an unconscious mental association between the printed page and books that place a premium on language. It’s harder to bask in words on a screen than a printed page though that may change. I do disagree with you about entertainment value – while plot-driven books are more upfront in their entertainment hooks, any book that demands a few hours out of a reader’s life must have sufficient entertainment in it, whether it is literary or otherwise. Even if that entertainment is the satisfaction of a reader in making all the clever connections or allusions that an author sets down in the book.

The commentator above who said that browser searching litifc and being returned mainly the Classics I think is apposite; Kafka and Wolf weren’t writing Literary fiction, they were just writing fiction. To me, literary fiction is that last genre classification left to scoop up all the books that can’t be classified under other more well-defined genres.

Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

I really enjoyed this article and the comments. I can certainly understand why some people would hesitate to write literary fiction and don’t want to be associated with the stigma of being a writer of “literature”, but there is an easy solution, use a pseudonym.

Thanks for writing such an informative piece about the subject. Who knows, I might try writing in that style, as an exercise. It never hurts to stretch one’s boundaries.

    Emlyn Chand

    I think it’s hard to set out to write literary. For me, it just happened with my first novel. I’ve had to un-lit-fic-ize some of the other things I’ve written, too. Now it’s no problem at all 😉

      Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

      I imagine it would be very difficult, which is why I’m sure it would be an excellent exercise.

      I once wrote an entire blog post in iambic pentameter, just to see if I could. It was a painful experience that took over three hours. In the end I had a page of dreck, but it was my page of dreck, so I liked it.

STINSON ANDERSON

Well done. I have always enjoyed reading and writing in the literary style. I have a hard time writing from a plot standpoint but give me a scene and strong character ideas and I can go with it. Thanks for shining some light on this (seemingly of late) commercially quiet genre.

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