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.
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!
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.
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.
About 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.