1. Teladan

    Teladan Active Member

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    Contradictory Nature of 'Literary' Fiction?

    Discussion in 'By the Genre' started by Teladan, Jun 16, 2018.

    Hello. I won't get into the vast array of issues with the term 'literary fiction' as opposed to 'genre fiction' and why it's nonsensical, other than to say that a lot of people seem to use it as a stand-in for 'good' writing. For example, people say that Jane Eyre writes literary romances whilst Stephanie Meyer writes terrible genre romance. I see that as basically saying one is good, the other bad. I'm wondering, if one were to aim to write 'literary fiction', how would one go about it? It's often said that the meaning of a story should come without force and that 'bad' writing is to force some sentimental meaning and evoke sentimentality.

    Literary fiction apparently extols the goal of achieving more meaning in the writing than genre fiction. It emphasises character over plot. There are a lot of commonly known comparisons between genre and literary fiction, but the achievement of meaning in a story is the issue here. In trying to write a piece of literary fiction I would like to emphasise character and meaning (as I would normally strive to do) over flashy surface-level events, but doesn't this go against the rule of not forcing meaning? What I mean is, you should focus on the story and let the hidden depths of your mind write the meaning from the values you hold as the story develops. But from what I've read, literary fiction doesn't care so much about plot. It feels odd to sit down and try to conjure up some agenda, too much like preaching. Normally I'd focus on just telling a good story, but I don't see how trying to specifically write a work of literary fiction can be done without setting down to shove a bunch of morals down the reader's throat. Essentially, I have no idea how to start a story without a plot because that's what a story is. This is the main reason I don't understand the term 'literary fiction'.

    Care to discuss?
     
  2. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    That's not exactly my impression, because what people call "literary fiction" seems to have a wide umbrella. I watched a lecture on YouTube where a creative writing teacher said the literature they study in college has two main characteristics: short enough to fit into the class and difficult enough to warrant an instructor.

    Literary fiction out in the world, by my estimation, uses beautiful prose to justify difficult plots that break genre conventions, sometimes to say something true about people that wouldn't be palatable in genre fiction. Also:

    Love without a HEA
    Crimes that go unpunished
    Mysteries that go unsolved
    Luck and coincidence as plot drivers
    Reader left unclear about the nature of what really happened

    And it's a spectrum. On one end you have things like traditional romance, where two people overcome chaos to live happily ever after, written in a way that is perfectly clear, with mostly forgettable and friction-free prose. On the other end, you could have a story about two people who try and fail to overcome the chaos of the world, who are romantic but don't live happily ever after, experienced through beautiful prose the reader will want to show people, remember, and quote.

    The second example is a little bit of an acquired taste for most people, because it's difficult, and it's more "enriching" rather than, "feel-good." For those reasons, you wouldn't expect it to sell to as wide of a market, but the market that gets it will be appreciative of it.

    In between, you can have all sorts of stories. Happily ever after with beautiful prose. Windowpane prose with a sad ending. Whatever.

    Edit: and people knocking sentimental romance as poor writing are failing to appreciate how difficult it is to give readers an emotional experience, how valuable it is to read about someone else overcoming chaos, how these stories help grow compassion and empathy, and how much skill it takes to write about a slice of life while engaging the reader, without relying on artistic prose or strange plot elements like dragons. An awful lot of the traditional hate romance gets is due to pure sexism or the ever popular: "My tastes are the best tastes so if I don't like it, it's bad."
     
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2018
  3. Kerbouchard

    Kerbouchard Member

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    I have to first break this topic down into realist or non. Literary fiction is broad because there are so many subgenres that fit under it. Same for genre fiction. When you disaggregate these two based on realism, I think you can get a truer sense of what you're asking. Your example of Bronte versus Meyer serves this well. Jane Eyre is hardly what we would call realist fiction, though it does uphold much of that discipline. Twilight is completely over the top and would even go into fantasy. Both employ romance in the plot (I've never read or watched the Twilight series, so this is purely based on hearsay). There is such a thing as realist romance (where the outcome isn't always predictable or what the reader would necessarily wish for by the end--Gone with the Wind, Romeo and Juliet, A Tale of Two Cities, etc).

    I naturally gravitate toward stories (books/movies) that deal with realistic themes or plots. (I enjoy fantasy, too, now and again, but largely the former). Many of my favorites have realistic, happily ever after endings--some don't. Real life is full of this, and it makes it easier to relate.

    I think stories have to have character development and plot. I can't think of the works I call favorites as not having a healthy balance of both, to varying degrees. As for subliminal messages, I always respect works that follow the iceberg method and leave interpretations up for debate. That's what I would categorize as high literature. Interesting topic.
     
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  4. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I don’t feel that “meaning” in this context is about morals. I feel that it’s more about a deeper understanding of...something. Maybe, for example, an exploration of someone totally without morals.

    And I don’t think that a lighter focus on plot means that you’re not allowed to have anything happen. I see it as just a change in focus—say, from “It’s about a bank heist” to “It’s about a bank robber.”

    Maybe, “It’s about a bank robber who gets a concussion and discovers to his horror that he now has morals.”

    (Actually, that’s the plot of the TV series Shuteye, kind of, if you change the details of the crime and add some supernatural.)
     
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  5. BayView

    BayView Contributor Contributor

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    For me, there are no black-and-white distinctions to be made (and we have authors like Margaret Atwood who write books that are simultaneously classed as "literary" and "genre") but things to consider...

    I don't think "focus on characters" is at all useful as a distinction, because writing at both ends of the "respect" spectrum, (literary at one end, romance at the other end) focus on characters. So do lots of books from other genres.

    I think sometimes "literary" means "we can't fit it anywhere else and think snobs will like it", but from a less cynical perspective I think there's an emphasis on prose in literary fiction that isn't there in a lot of genre fiction. (Although I've been reading a lot of YA lately that, for better or worse, involves highly stylized prose...)

    Ultimately I think it's a marketing category just like all the genres are marketing categories. Trying to make the definition more precise leads to artificial, misplaced, illusory concreteness.
     
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  6. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    It sounds like you haven't exposed yourself to a lot of contemporary literary fiction. Literary fiction is not the same thing as a piece of writing that has literary merit, though, a piece of writing could have both. And literary fiction isn't for the snobs. It's just a different kind of story. I like what @John Calligan said i.e.. mysteries going unsolved and that sort of thing. Sure, you still want to tell a good story, but there are tons of good literary fiction stories, and anyone who reads contemporary literary fiction knows this work is quite often accessible and not lacking any of the elements of a good story. If you really want to write literary fiction, I suggest reading a ton of it because I do believe it will alter your view on this. Also, I have no idea what you're talking about when it comes to hidden meaning or forcing meaning. I don't think you have to do any of those things in literary fiction. It sounds like you don't really like what you know about or think of literary fiction so I'm not sure why you want to write it. Again, literary is not a substitute for good.
     
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  7. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Even the stupidest stories have morals so I'm not seeing how literary would be the leader of moral issues or conflict. In fact they can be embarrassingly lax on where they stand in coming to any kind of moral conclusion. Rather like bad genre i.e. my villain is the hero -- leaving the reader to wonder what exactly was the point of all this? For me when I strive to do literary I essentially want to stay something about a certain topic i.e. --hunger -- and then I'm usually going to typify my character into standing for what I want to say about the subject more than just letting the character do it's thing. This of coarse makes the goal more difficult -- as you've lost the handy template of genre.
    With genre the structure of the story is already implied within the confines of the genre -- romance, thriller, mystery, etc all have implied story goals within the readers mind before you start reading -- a mystery must be solved, a thriller must have a showdown, a romance must have some sort of get together. With literary there is no built in story goal. The book usually ends when the writer has said what she has wanted to say about something. And I'm not saying this is all literary but there is a good portion of literary out there that behind the exciting story there is a theme driving it.
    I also find the best literary books I've ever read have straddled a happy line between genre and literary as I've never found literary to be superior, especially not in keeping the readers attention. Even Jane Eyre, though literary, the structure became the template for all gothic romantic fiction in the 70s.
    If you want to start something literary start with a plot -- and give it a good theme to give it some deeper meaning. Look at 1984 -- a good genre book also very literary because of it's theme.
     
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  8. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Active Member

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    I will be thrilled when/if I reach the point where I can consistently write "traditional" quality adventure stories. It's not that I'm aiming for "friction-free" prose—actually, depending on what you mean by that, I might be—but my priority is page-turning storytelling over life-changing literature. I almost feel like I need to apologize for that. :oops:
     
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  9. srwilson

    srwilson Senior Member

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    Having morals is not enough. It's about exploring those morals as a primary driver of the work. And it's not about finding a conclusion. Often, it's about the difficulty of finding one.
     
  10. srwilson

    srwilson Senior Member

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    I'm no expert, but I think good literature deals with difficult questions and the human condition. Life, love, conflict, war, death, etc. It deals with them in a deep, meaningful way, that tries to make sense of them, rather than just in passing.
     

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