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Monday, January 17, 2011

Is Writing Literary Fiction a Death Knell?

I'd asked one of my favorite authors if he minded people calling what he wrote literary fiction. He laughed and said,"It's a compliment in a sense. They're saying I write pretty, I guess, but my mentor told me never to call it that. It's a death knell."

I never forgot that even back when I wrote supernatural suspense. As I evolved as a writer, some of my critique partners began to point out that I was getting a little literary. Like the author I'd interviewed, I took it as a compliment because it meant I was writing pretty. Who doesn't want to do that?

I recently won the blogger's choice INSPY award in the general/literary category for my debut, Crossing Oceans. This pleased me of course but it also got me thinking again about the subject of literary fiction.

There's a documentary on John Steinbeck's life that is fascinating. Even though he wrote what are considered masterpieces now, the critics hated him. Why? Because, in my opinion, he wrote literary fiction. By writing beautifully, I believe writers are opening themselves up for closer scrutiny.

When Nicholas Sparks puts out a book we're not admiring his prose. We're just reading the story for the story's sake. When we read someone like Lisa Samson, Khalid Hassan, or Arthur Golden, we expect the language to be unusually beautiful.

But there's a problem--sometimes the story doesn't call for that. Sometimes literary writing in certain chapters or even in certain books would be out of place. Literary fiction, is a genre, in many ways like any other, and a writer can get pigeon-holed there and criticized if they don't live up to the literary genre expectation that demands gorgeous language and imagery.

That's not the reason people say that literary fiction is "the death knell" however. They say it because it often doesn't sell well.

Some does of course, usually if it has an unusual premise--like Memoirs of a Geisha, or the The Kite Runner, but often the most beautifully written books will end up on the midlist--winning prizes and criticism, but not fat paychecks.

So, if literary fiction seems to be nothing but trouble, drawing sharper criticisms and making the author little money, why do they continue to write it?

I do not consider myself to be a literary writer. I just want to tell a story. If the words are pretty from time to time, hooray, but my ultimate goal is to get others to look at the world and fellow man in a new light.

Others, however, were born to write gorgeous prose. They are story tellers like the rest of us, but more than that, they are madly in love with words--death knell or not.


  1. Gina, I agree. We have to tell the story the way it's given to us and let the chips fall where they may. Lots to consider here.

  2. What does "doesn't sell well" really mean? I know. I know. But certainly there's a niche market for these well done literary pieces just as there are significant niche markets for a lot of other supposedly unpopular genres (in CBA). Some literary novels don't sell well because they forfeit story for prose. Others supply both (as Lisa Samson does) and gain a following.

    Why should niche markets be ignored? Now with POD they can be supplied like any other market without having to eat all the unnecessary product from an over-printing.

    There's no question literary readers are out here, but you gotta have story to go along with that lovely prose. Otherwise it's just showing off skills without providing the nuts and bolts of a novel. As always, JMO.

  3. Great post! And I think there's something deeper here. While beautiful writing isn't a death knell in and of itself, the reason so many literary novels (not to mention a gazillion unpublished literary manuscripts) don't succeed is that they are nothing but beautiful words. They don't tell a story. So they become what's known as a beautifully written "so what?" The first job of any story is to engage the reader, to make them want to know what happens next. Words alone can't do that. The good news is we're literally wired for story -- we think in story, it's how we make sense of the world. The trick is in decoding what it is we're really responding to in a story (hint: it's not the beauty of the words), so that the gorgeous prose actually has something to say. Doesn't get better than that!

  4. I agree for the most part. But I think it is more than writing pretty and selling fewer books.

    Anyway, being a good storyteller is my goal. Beautiful language comes after that, if it comes at all.

  5. You know what? I hated reading this. But I loved it at the same time.

    Thanks for the reminder to embrace the story I tell before and beyond the words I write.

  6. I agree with those who said story has to be there or the lovely words don't matter. But I don't think lovely words are optional while story is essential. Both matter equally, because excellence in all things matters equally.

    As it happens, earlier today I posted something on my blog about this very topic:

    Thanks for bringing up the subject, Gina. It's very important.

  7. I agree that there must be a story for me to keep reading, though I love unique, inventive language.

  8. I've had lots of turndowns because of my focus on style and character.

    "It's too literary for us."
    "The tone isn't right for literary fiction."
    "Why the allusions to both high and low culture?"
    "Not enough character development for literary fiction."

    I'm not even trying to write literary fiction. I'm writing a farce. But I do pay attention to the sound of it, because I like smooth flowing, evocative prose. Do we all have to write like Dan Brown in order to be publishable? I couldn't do so if I plagiarized him.


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