I did begin this article with something of a grudge against literary fiction but during the course of my ramblings I realised that I happen to like and read a lot of literary fiction. My grudge has two sources and I’m sure there are readers out there who will feel similarly. Firstly, the concept of literary fiction is such a slippery notion. Who decides what is literary and what isn’t? There are so many literary experiments that are considered groundbreaking because the author dared tamper with syntax or basic story structure. I do love a good syntax messer-upper but there are few novels that are improved by playing around with sentence structure and fewer still are the authors who can pull it off. A reader will not be fooled by confused characterisation and lukewarm plotting no matter how you cut up your sentences. And that is not because readers are too thick to understand what they are reading. Pretentious, self-gratifying prose is not difficult to spot and the moment a reader becomes aware of the writer’s hand at work, the magic is lost and in my view, literary or not, the author has failed. We’ve all read one of those books that after wading through 40 pages, you hold at arms length and think: “Who on earth called this literary?”
The second reason for my curmudgeonly attitude toward literary fiction, is the burden I feel to read and support it, as if it were some near extinct entity. I resent that. I resent it particularly when a novel deems itself above the use of grammar and syntax. I resent that when I finally give up and peg it across the room, I feel like I’ve failed and I have a niggling sense that I have contributed to the demise of The Literary Novel. Maybe I’ve read too many Will Self articles on how the literary novel is dead and it’s all our (the reader) fault for being too brain-dead to switch off our Internet connections. Who can blame us when reading some experimental lit fiction is comparable to reading my old physics tomes. Self can’t even tone down the shade of purple in the very article he hopes to win more literary readers:
“There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of narrative prose. (W Self)… Just one of the ironies that danced macabre attendance on this most awful of conflicts was that the conditions necessary for the toppling of solitary and silent reading as the most powerful and important medium were already waiting in the wings while Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg dipped their pens in their dugouts.” (read full article here)
Really? Is this necessary? Should the reader have to hacksaw through such dense vocabulary to get the worth of a simple idea?
We’ve all read books that have been hailed magnificent only to discover that magnificence in today’s literary world translates to—without the accompanying blurb from the publisher giving you the entire plot and a manual on how you should read it—unintelligible. As a result, I am unwaveringly suspicious of any novel awarded the term literary or god forbid, ‘genius’. When I say suspicious, I don’t necessarily mean put off; I mean that I am drawn to investigate with a cautious purse. I don’t buy literary fiction without reading the first few pages, something that I rarely do with genre fiction. With genre fiction, I am the ideal careless modern day buyer, two clicks and I am reading, or a wander into Blackwells and I am vacating the shop arms aching under the weight of hardbacks.
So what makes a novel literary? In my lowly opinion, the author of literary fiction should reach for the deepest levels they can with regard to: characterisation, detail in setting, theme and complex plotting whether the plot is subtle or not. There may also be some new developments on the traditional narrative form but these developments are not taken at the expense of the story but rather enhance the reading experience. All these aspects should be conveyed with whatever language that succeeds in communicating the novel’s meaning in the most genuine sense.
There are those who think plot unnecessary to literary fiction, however that is not so. Novels must have a plot, but in literary fiction it can be somewhat subtle. There is a lot of fantastic genre fiction that could easily be classed as literary but these novels are frequently overlooked because they also happen to have a definite plot. It is so refreshing to see novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl considered for such literary awards as The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s a novel that stands out not only because of its complex characterisation but because of its rocking plot; something that could have persuaded judges to disregard it as a potential winner.
Looking back over the history of literature it’s clear that for each of the classics that I love, some writer took a risk or veered onto some unknown writerly path to create something new. They toyed with readers’ expectation when it came to narrative and viewpoint and they created something better than what had existed before. These literary pioneers changed the course of literature. Everywhere you look from Booker Prize to Folio, it seems the industry is in agreement: it’s imperative that literary fiction enjoy a different status to genre fiction so that pioneering prose is preserved. The more that I considered this stance, the more I had to agree. Great literary fiction should enjoy some kind of elevation, if nothing else so that writers keep striving to reach those lofty heights. We need authors to take that unknown path and take The Novel with them.
On Twitter: @LivKiernan
Olivia Kiernan is author of DAWN SOLSTICE
Writing as Olivia Bright: BECOMING LADY BETH