One of the most common questions I hear from authors and at writing conferences is this: How can you tell the difference between commercial and literary fiction?
This very question was addressed at a panel at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, and everyone had a different answer.
- Some people feel that commercial fiction emphasizes plot whereas literary fiction emphasizes characters.
- Others feel that literary fiction emphasizes unique prose whereas commercial fiction is more straightforward.
- Still others stick to the “I know it when I see it” defense
- Then of course there’s the “literary fiction is that which does not sell” definition.
Complicating any delineation are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, who write genre fiction and have plot heavy books but are considered literary. What, dare I ask, are we to make of all of this?
Literary fiction should still have a plot
First off, 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.
It starts in one place and ends in another. The characters face challenges and evolve. Even in quiet books like Gilead (a seriously amazing book, btw), things happen. A literary novel might not end in a shootout or with the death of an albino, but there’s a plot there.
Before I get to my own definition, I think I need a caveat paragraph: I love both genre novels and literary novels, so I’m not trying to express a preference here. Also there are a bazillion exceptions to every rule in literature, so of course there are going to be exceptions to my definition.
With the caveats out of the way, here’s my own delineation of the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Are you ready? With all this buildup it’s not going to be very exciting. So dial down your expectations. I swear, it’s kind of mundane. Should I get to the point? Ok, fine, I’ll get to the point. In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.
The world of genre fiction
Here’s what I mean.
Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world. The character is an active protagonist who goes out into a world, experiences the challenges of that world, and emerges either triumphant or defeated. Think about every genre novel you’ve ever read: sci-fi, westerns, romances chick lit, thrillers…. They are all about a character with a certain level of mastery over the world in which they are in bumping up against the challenges of that world and trying to achieve their goal. Sure, the character might have an inner struggle and be a richly rendered character, but for the most part genre novels are about the exterior — they are about how a character navigates a unique world.
So the plot in a genre novel usually involves things happening — action sequences, love sequences, chases, shootouts…. The best genre novels fold these action sequences with the inner life of a character, but make no mistake: genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world. The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens.
The world of literary fiction
Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them.
The plot may be buried to such a degree (like Gilead) that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless — an old man writes a letter to his young son and reflects on his life. There doesn’t seem to be a plot there. But there is a plot in Gilead. It is about how the protagonist comes to terms with his life and how he reconciles his desire to leave something behind for his son with his impending mortality. Gilead has all the ups and downs of a genre novel, but the plot points all relate to the inner mind, and the climaxes and nadirs are almost hidden in quiet moments and small-but-powerful revelations.
Even when the prose is straightforward, literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. The reader has to recognize the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature.
And there’s a reason very few literary novels end with a shootout (er, except for The House of Sand and Fog) — what happens out in the world isn’t as important in literary novels as what happens within the minds of the characters, and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.
What hybrids can tell us
So there’s a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.
I will devote another post sometime to my obsession with plot, but what you see here is my belief that a literary novel should be as finely plotted as a genre novel, and anyone who ignores plot does so at their extreme peril. Just because the plot in literary fiction is harder to spot doesn’t mean it’s not there.
What do you think? What makes a literary novel literary?
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Art: Stilleben mit Juwelen, Musikinstrumenten und Globus by Anonymous