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. [Read more…]