How can you tell the difference between commercial and literary fiction? It’s one of the very most common questions out there in the publishing world.
This question came up when I was on a panel at a writers’ 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 cynical “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 most common myths about literary fiction, which is that literary novels don’t have a plot or don’t need one.
So much of the literary fiction I used to receive in the old query inbox when I was a literary agent was plotless. It was just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose was lush, the character detailed, but one problem — absolutely nothing was happening and thus it was (forgive me) extremely boring and I couldn’t have sold it in a million years.
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), things happen. A literary novel might not end in a shootout or with the death of an albino and the essence of the story may take a while to emerge, but there’s a plot there.
Here’s my delineation of the difference between commercial and literary fiction:
In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface, and in literary fiction the prose has a unique, distinctive style.
The world of genre fiction
Here’s what I mean.
Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world.
The protagonist is usually an one who goes out into a world on a literal quest, 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 going out and doing something, bumping up against the challenges of the world they live in, 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 with its own set of rules.
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 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. The main character wants something, he goes after it, and he encounters obstacles along the way. He tries to come to terms with his life and reconcile 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 are subtle, they relate to the emotional life of the protagonist, 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.
A unique style
But perhaps the most important distinguishing characteristic of literary fiction comes to style.
What you will often hear is that literary fiction is “beautifully written.” What, exactly, does that mean?
Well, it’s subjective. There’s absolutely a “I know it when I see it” barometer. Literary authors have distinct, polished prose, and that authorial voice is what sets literary fiction apart from genre fiction. The prose elevates the novels into something approaching art, even when a literary novel has a genre-ish plot.
But the most important element here is that literary fiction has a unique style. You could pick up a page at random from Ernest Hemingway, Donna Tartt, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, and you’d have a pretty good shot at guessing who the author is.
What hybrids can tell us
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 accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity a a singular authorial style. 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.
And if you picked up a page at random, chances are you would know it was written by McCarthy or Leonard because of their style.
In the end, a literary novel should still 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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