The question comes up during Q&A at almost every writers’ conference: What makes fiction literary? I’ve frequently been on that panel. I’ve listened as smart and experienced editors and agents try to pin it down. Literary? It’s…well, it’s…
Mostly the stabs at an answer boil down to, literary fiction is beautifully written. But wait, so is some commercial fiction. Or, maybe literary fiction is the stuff that is highly regarded but achieves low sales? Um, you could say that about much commercial fiction too. Well, perhaps it’s subject matter, you know, being grounded in the real world? Then how do you explain Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Or it’s something about characters…arc…voice…themes? Sure, but commercial fiction has plenty of those as well.
For every factor that could identify fiction as literary, we can find examples of the same factors at work in fiction that’s considered commercial. And vice versa. The swift pace, active characters, high stakes and urgency that are associated with commercial fiction can be spotted in literary fiction.
So what’s the answer? Is it a matter of subjective judgment? Is literary a label allocated by the publishing gods to certain imprints at certain houses? To debunk that idea, try this thought experiment: If your novel is published by Nan Talese’s imprint it’s called literary, but if the exact same novel comes out under a different imprint at Penguin Random House, say Dell, then it’s commercial? That doesn’t make any sense, does it.
Clearly, what causes us to feel that a given novel is literary is something about the way it reads, which in turn starts with the way it’s written. Beautifully written is often accurate of literary fiction but it’s also broad and vague. Ask me, it’s time to stop guessing and hone our understanding. Literary comes from something and if we grasp that something we can use it when it suits our purposes.
One thing we’re talking about is the difference between scenes and what I call postcards. What are the building blocks of a novel? The term “scenes” is most often used, but that is imprecise. Scenes, summary and postcards are three different ways to shape the discrete blocks of narration that build a novel. These blocks are arranged either in strict chronological order, or in some other pattern, which taken together tell a story.
However, there are differences, such as:
- A scene enacts a change in story circumstances; a postcard illuminates something that we haven’t yet fathomed or perceived.
- A scene leads to further action; a postcard leads to deeper understanding.
- A scene is about what happens; a postcard is about what we discover.
- A scene is an event that has implications; a postcard is a moment with meaning.
- Scenes change characters; in postcards, the change is in readers.
We’re not only talking about the author’s intention. It’s not just wanting to entertain versus wanting to illuminate. It’s not only in pushing characters to a new place versus pushing readers to new ways of seeing. The difference is hard-baked into a discrete block of text. What will this text-unit in the novel accomplish? How will it be constructed and what will be its effect?
The difference between scenes and postcards can be seen in two recent novels that on the surface are very similar, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Both novels are set in France during World War II. Both have paired protagonists. Both are well written. Both are well reviewed. Both were published by well-regarded imprints (St. Martin’s and Scribner, respectively). Both have trendy dark-turquoise jackets with discrete embossing and foil. Both are enormous best sellers.
However, they are not the same.
In The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah more often works with scenes. The Nightingale is about two sisters, one of whom joins the Resistance, the other of whom remains at home. The Resistance sister is Isabelle Rossingnol. After a childhood bouncing between schools and convents, she goes to Paris to live with her reluctant father, a bookseller, just prior to the German invasion. She is evacuated by family friends who are far more practical than she. They bring food. She brings books. On the road she separates from them and meets a young man, Gaëtan Dubois, camping in the forest. Gaëtan has been released from prison so that he may fight the Germans. In this scene, he persuades Isabelle to join him:
“You were in prison?”
“Does that scare you?”
“No. It’s just…unexpected.”
“You should be scared,” he said, pushing the stringy hair out of his eyes. “Anyway, you are safe enough with me. I have other things on my mind. I am going to check on my maman and sister and then find a regiment to join. I’ll kill as many of those bastards as I can.”
“You’re lucky,” she said with a sigh. Why was it so easy for men in the world to do as they wanted and so difficult for women?
“Come with me.”
Isabelle knew better than to believe him. “You only ask because I’m pretty and you think I’ll end up in your bed if I stay,” she said.
He stared across the fire at her. It cracked and hissed as fat dripped onto the flames. He took a long drink of wine and handed the bottle back to her. Near the flames, their hands touched, the barest brushing of skin on skin. “I could have you in my bed right now if that’s what I wanted.”
“Not willingly,” she said, swallowing hard, unable to look away.
“Willingly,” he said in a way that made her skin prickle and made breathing difficult. “But that’s not what I meant. Or what I said. I asked you to come with me to fight.”
“I could do something that matters,” she said quietly.
“Of course you could. I could teach you to use a gun and a knife.”
“I need to go to Carriveau and make sure my sister is well. Her husband is at the front.”
He gazed across the fire, his expression intent. “We will see your sister in Carriveau and my mother in Poitiers, and then we will be off to join the war.”
He made it sound like such an adventure, no different from running off to join the circus, as if they would see men who swallowed swords and fat women with beards along the way.
It’s what she had been looking for all of her life. “A plan, then,” she said, unable to hide her smile.
You can see that in this scene Isabelle’s path is changing. She’s at a crossroads in her life and things hereafter will be different, and so it proves. The intention in this scene is to begin a relationship, turn Isabelle from a girl to a woman, from refugee to Resistance fighter. The mechanism is the passionate released prisoner, Gaëtan, the agent of change. There’s sexual tension between them and the change underway is demonstrated largely in dialogue.
In All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr also puts his blind young heroine, Marie-Laure LeBlanc through changes. The story concerns Marie-Laure and a young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, whose lives intersect following the Allied carpet bombing of the French coastal island city of Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure’s part of the novel involves a number of flashbacks to her earlier life in Paris, becoming blind, and later hiding in her uncle Etienne’s house in German-occupied Saint-Malo, where in the attic her father builds her a miniature of the town. Being young, she wishes to go out, which is not possible, a reality reflected this postcard:
In Saint-Malo, people are fined for locking their doors, for keeping doves, for hoarding meat. Truffles disappear. Sparkling wine disappears. No eye contact. No chatter in doorways. No sunbathing, no singing, no lovers strolling the ramparts in the evenings—such rules are not written down, but they may as well be. Icy winds whirl in from the Atlantic and Etienne barricades himself inside his brother’s old room and Marie-Laure endures the slow rain of hours by running her fingers over his seashells down in his study, ordering them by size, by species, by morphology, checking and rechecking their order, trying to make sure she has not mis-sorted a single one.
Surely she could go out for half an hour? On the arm of her father? And yet each time her father refuses, a voice echoes up from a chamber of her memory: They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.
Make them do things.
Outside the city walls, a few military boats cruise to and fro, and the flax is bundled and shipped and woven into rope or cables or parachute cord, and airborne gulls drop oysters or mussels or clams, and the sudden clatter on the roof makes Marie-Laure bolt upright in bed. The mayor announces a new tax, and some of Madame Manec’s friends mutter that he has sold them out, that they need un home à poigne, but others ask what the mayor is supposed to do. It becomes known as the time of the ostriches.
“Do we have our heads in the sand, Madame? Or do they?”
“Maybe everyone does,” she murmurs.
The intention in this postcard passage is not to change the course of Marie-Laure’s life, but to sink her deeper into her confined existence. The desperation of her situation is captured in the vivid details of life in an occupied place; details which—did you notice?—are heavy with metaphorical reference to seeing and blindness, order and its breakdown, acquiescence and denial. The time of the ostriches.
Blind Marie-Laure opens our eyes to the reality of hiding. We are invited to feel as trapped as she. The point is not to push blind Marie-Laure into action but to push us into seeing and feeling her entrapment. The change here is internal, but not internal to Marie-Laure. She doesn’t change. We do, in terms of our perception.
Scenes hustle us from point A to point B. Postcards sink us into point A. A scene takes us in a new direction; a postcard shows us a static picture and says wish you were here. Neither intention is wrong. Both achieve a narrative effect, seeming to move us along, somehow, except that the direction of scenes is forward while the direction of postcards is deeper.
So let’s turn this concept into tool that you can use to achieve a literary effect, or commercial drive, whenever you want to.
- Think not about your manuscript, but about the chronology of your main character’s experience. Picture a calendar covering all the days of the story’s duration. Stop on any one of those days. Ask, what would be good to show here: 1) Events moving forward, or 2) a snapshot of my protagonist’s state of mind, heart, being or world? Is there something the reader needs to see happen, or is there something the reader needs to apprehend, deeply question, or see anew?
- If it would be good to move events forward at this point, identify what is going to change. In the scene that enacts this change, work backwards to make the change unlikely, even impossible, at the beginning of the scene.
- If it would be good to dive deep and make your readers apprehend something, or feel the condition of your main character, or question things, then take time (page time, that is) to first conceal, and then reveal, what you wish your readers to experience. If you need a framework, start with a provocative statement or question; finish with a punchline.
- In the first instance (scene), add action that more emphatically moves your protagonist forward, backwards, or sideways. In the second instance (postcard), add visual details of the environment around your main character; paint it for us.
- In the first instance (scene), spring a surprise on your protagonist. In the second instance (postcard), spring a surprise on your reader.
If you’ve ever wondered how commercial fiction comes to feel literary, and thereby gain extra respect, now you know: it sometimes acts to illuminate as much as to advance a plot.
If you’ve ever wondered how literary fiction achieves a sense of narrative drive without tons of plot events happening, now you can see: the sense of change we feel really is a series of moments in which we recognize things as true.
What are you working on today, a scene or a postcard? Which mode comes more naturally to you? How can you use the other in your WIP?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!