Tuesday, February 15, 2011

WHY WRITE?: Literary Fiction

Gentle Readers, it’s finally time for the last installment of the WHY WRITE?TM series!

Last but certainly not least, let’s discuss that lofty ideal of writerly circles, the prized gem of the literateur: the work of literary fiction. No one can quite define what it is. Agents and editors may tell you they can’t sell it. But, boy oh boy, do we in the book world ever lust after it anyway.

So, why write literary fiction?

For the glory. Let’s not kid ourselves: if you want a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize, you’re best off writing literary fiction. If you want to be read in classrooms long after your writing days are over, or to be immortalized between Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood in some ages-from-now edition of the Norton Anthology, you’re best off writing literary fiction. Writers of other genres may have avid, loyal fan-bases, but writers of lit. fic. tend to find followers in high places. There’s something about the genre that, when done well, demands respect. Those hungry for fame, or driven to find immortality through fiction (and let’s face it, who among us isn’t one of those people, to some extent?) seem to find themselves irresistibly drawn to literary fiction.

Because you are devoted to—nay, even obsessive about—the craft of writing. How does literary fiction earn that kind of respect? Though every writer labors over their craft, it’s the authors of literary fiction who seem to take it to a near-obsessive extreme. They make keen observations about even the most miniscule of events, then make an art form of expressing them. Writers of literary fiction, even when they rise to fame on the strength of their novels, are essentially poets and short story writers at heart. They excel at saying much in as few words as possible; at expressing complex thoughts in a single, clever turn of phrase or a precisely-chosen word; and at drawing lofty themes out of even the most deceptively simple texts.

Because you have something to say… Because of its complex nature, literary fiction begs analysis. Think of Hemingway’s spare dialogue, which nonetheless can spur hours of debate, or Tony Morrison’s lush language packed with Freudian metaphor and cultural significance. It’s nearly impossible to pick up a good work of literary fiction and not have to wonder what’s going on beneath the service. Well-crafted lit. fic. reveals more of itself as the reader delves deeper into its elements; thus, it’s a natural choice for a writer who wants to be considered in academic circles, to reveal universal truths about human nature, or to comment upon or critique society.

…And you want to be taken seriously about it. As you’ll know if you read the WHY WRITE?TM episodes on science fiction and fantasy, YA, or historical fiction, I don’t believe that literary fiction is the only genre that tells universal truths or lends itself to disseminating meaning. However, it may be the genre in which we most expect it, and thus the genre that gets the majority of the credit for it. Maybe it’s because so many of those who judge the merits of texts earned their laurels primarily by studying the last several centuries’ authors writing in the same style, or maybe it’s because the lit. fic. genre more than any other allows an author to strip her text down to its most meaningful elements; whatever the reason, the literary world does seem to take literary fiction more seriously than any other genre. The credibility gained from writing well in such a respected genre can easily transfer to your message—so if you want to be heard, literary fiction may be the way to go.

What are your reasons for writing or reading literary fiction, if you do? What have I missed?

And on another note, what did you like about this series; what did you not?

Let me know in comments!


  1. Great post! I do not write literary fiction, but I certainly enjoy some of it.

    And thanks for stopping by my blog!

  2. Love the post, Rachel! While I do not yet have a well-thought out reply, I just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed the series. Will you be tying this in to the 50 in '11 reviews? :-)