Reflections on Literary Fiction

by James Scott Bell

I read a literary novel a few weeks ago, and it frustrated the heck out of me. There was a powerful story wanting to bust out, but I felt it was hemmed in by the author trying too hard to be, well, “literary.” There was an emphasis on style, some of it quite good. But the scenes didn’t grab me. The author wanted things implied rather than rendered dramatically on the page. That’s often a nice touch, but not for a whole book. There was too much description and narrative summary, and not enough on-the-page action and dialogue. Any momentum was stopped a few times with flashbacks (Chapter 2 being one of them; not a great place for a flashback ). The ending was ambiguous, and left me feeling nothing.

Other than that, it was a pretty good book.

So what is literary fiction anyway? I once asked a respected editor for a definition. With a wry smile, he said, “Fiction that doesn’t sell.” Fact check: Mostly true. For example, most novels nominated for the National Book Award top out at four or five thousand units. Which is not a knock on literary fiction. Books are written for a variety of reasons, and authors do best when they write what they’re moved to write. It’s just that the other side of the fence is called “commercial fiction” for a reason.

One source states: “Literary fiction explores the human condition. While genre fiction (as a whole) seeks to distract the reader through light entertainment, literary fiction is much more introspective in its objective. Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.”

That seems to me inadequate. The best genre fiction also explores the human condition, as in, say, Michael Connelly. Indeed, I have long held that high school reading lists would be better off ditching The Great Gatsby in favor of The Maltese Falcon. The latter is all about the human condition—lust, avarice, greed, obsession, and lies. Best the kids learn about politicians in tenth grade.

Perhaps someone will say literary fiction is more about character, and genre fiction is more about plot. I say that some literary fiction could do with more plot, and some commercial fiction with more character.

In short, I have no idea how to define literary fiction. Maybe it’s best to echo what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in another context: “I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964).

There is good and bad literary fiction, and a bunch in between. Judgment here is a matter of taste, of course. But I will venture the thought that “bad” literary fiction stresses style so much that it sacrifices story. It tells us more about the author than it does about the characters. It can feel too much like an attempt to impress. (If you want to do a deep dive on this topic, then pack a lunch and read the controversial article “A Reader’s Manifesto.”)

“Good” literary fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t set up stylistic roadblocks on the way to bonding us with a Lead character.

Someone might say that literary fiction doesn’t tie things up in a “neat little package.” The ending is thus more like “real life.”

You can botch this, too, as did the novel I referenced at the top. There’s a difference between an ambiguous ending that leaves you confused, and one that invites you to contemplation. In my book The Last Fifty Pages I discuss what I call “open-ended” endings. That’s where the author leaves us with a trajectory that we fill out for ourselves. For example, at the end of The Catcher in the Rye we wonder if Holden Caulfield has found a reason to go on living. Salinger doesn’t tell us. Instead, we are made participants in the dénouement.

An ambiguous ending, on the other hand, just leaves us flat.

So why did I write this reflection? I guess to make the point that fiction writing should always be in service of story. Don’t write to impress your readers; write to distress your characters.

I don’t know what else to say on the matter, so I leave it to you to pick up the discussion. Do you have a definition of “literary fiction”? Do you have a favorite writer of same? What draws you to him or her?

I apologize in advance if I’m not able to respond much today, as real life needs some tending.

My Favorite Westerns

by James Scott Bell

I love a good Western. This uniquely American genre sums up our collective spirit better than any other. In fact, the decline in the popularity of Westerns seems to track right along with the fragmentation of our society. So a look back at the classics (I’m not into post-modern revisionist oaters) is also a look back at ourselves, as we were, silhouetted against the horizon. Maybe in doing so we can re-learn a few things.

Anyway, here are my top five Westerns:


1953, dir. George Stevens

Not just the best Western ever, but one of the top American films of any genre. Mythic, amazing to look at, and featuring one of the great villains: the grinning Jack Palance (he earned an Oscar nod for his turn as the gunfighter Wilson, the “low down Yankee liar”). Alan Ladd and Van Heflin are superb as the mysterious gunman and rock solid homesteader (the early scene where they team up to remove a stump is a symbolic prophecy for the entire film). Also earning an Oscar nomination was the young Brandon De Wilde as Joey (yes, it’s easy to parody “Come back, Shane!” But it’s been done, so don’t go there). The film should be seen on the big screen if at all possible.

The movie is about the need for a community to band together to defeat evil.


1956, dir. Budd Boetticher

When director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy and B star Randolph Scott got together for a series of Westerns in the 1950’s, no one paid them much mind. But the French critics recognized true auteur artistry when they saw it, and these Westerns were rediscovered and are now honored. Seven Men is the best, a prime reason being the fabulous turn by Lee Marvin as the villain. The quiet scene where he verbally emasculates a husband in front of his wife is as memorable as any gunfight in any corral. The movie succeeds despite its low budget and fast shooting schedule (Boetticher trademarks). Randolph Scott becomes an icon here, and the film is a gem you need to watch more than once. Please disregard the awful theme song that the studio stuck in over Boetticher’s objection.

This is a movie about revenge and greed, two of the best motivations.


1952, dir. Fred Zinnemann

Gary Cooper displays his acting chops almost entirely with his weathered face (and earned his second Oscar as a result). You know the story. A retiring town marshal, newly married to Grace Kelly (Grace Kelly!) stays to face the just pardoned killer coming back for revenge. He’ll raise a posse, he reasons. But as the clock ticks toward high noon, when the train with the killer arrives, everyone seems to have an excuse not to help him. Not only that, his Quaker wife, opposed to all guns, says she’ll leave him if he stays. Talk about pressure (Grace Kelly!) The hit song, “Do Not Forsake Me,” that haunts the movie is one reason so many bad songs were planted on so many Westerns in the 1950’s.

Lesson: there’s a duty to stand up to evil even if you’re alone.


1939, dir. John Ford

Why this title for John Ford, and not, say, The Searchers or My Darling Clementine? Because I just like this better. It moves. It has heart and none of the clunky Ford humor that mars his “bigger” films. Yes, Ford deserves his accolades, especially for his framing of Western vistas, but when it comes to the West I don’t think he ever did it better than here. It’s the film that made John Wayne a star, of course, just as he was about to fade into obscurity as a C level serial actor. Thomas Mitchell (Oscar winner) and Claire Trevor deliver standout supporting performances.

We learn that sometimes it’s the outcasts who are the moral ones among us.


1979, dir. William A. Fraker

It’s a bookend with Shane, taken from the novel by Shane‘s author, Jack Schaefer, and also featuring Jack Palance (in a very different role). It’s about the end of the West, the swan song of cowboying as a way of life. Lee Marvin stars in the title role and evokes a bittersweet rendering of what it once meant to be a man of honor. The theme song, sung by Mama Cass, is actually one of the few that is perfect for the film’s mood. Netflix this underappreciated classic. (The Tom Selleck remake for television is also excellent).

The lesson here is pure Americana: the only honorable way to live is by being true to yourself. That’s an essential lesson for writers, too.

Honorable Mention: Ride the High Country, The Magnificent Seven, 3:10 to Yuma (Glenn Ford/Van Heflin version).

So what about you? What are your favorite Westerns and — most especially — why?

UPDATE: Netflix apparently doesn’t have the original Monte Walsh available. However, it is due to be shown on Turner Classic Movies on March 27, 2010, 2 p.m. (Eastern). If you go here you can have them send you an email reminder and IMPORTANT: you can click to vote that it be released on DVD. Enter your vote today!

Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts

By John Gilstrap

I’m getting a little panicky. Tomorrow (Saturday), I am moderating a panel at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, called Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts, an exploration of the truths and truisms of the prejudice we all have felt at one time or another.

I’m one of those people who takes moderating responsibilities pretty seriously, so as I gather research for the panel (two genre authors and one literary author), I’m finding this all to be much more difficult than I had expected. Defining genres is fairly easy. You’ve got your mysteries, your thrillers, you romances and on and on, each with their expected constructs. Okay, I get that. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rules and some crossover authors, but basically genre is, well, genre.

So, what the heck is literary? I talked to my agent today to bounce my thoughts around and hypothesized that perhaps “literary” could be defined as absence of genre. No, she said, that would be “mainstream.” Literary is something else. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a lot of help when it came to putting a finger on a useful definition of that other something.

Some who post on the Internet posit that while a commercial novel stresses plot, a literary novel stresses other-than-plot. Okay, then explain how Harper Lee or even J.D. Salinger can be considered “literary.”

There are lots of throw-away insulting definitions of “literary,” but those aren’t useful to me in my hour of need. Seriously, what makes the difference? Is it merely a matter of personal taste? Surely it has to be something more that merely “well-written,” because most books fall within a ring or two of that bull’s eye.

If a book fails to move me, can it still be “literary”? If a book does move me, can it be anything but? All input is desperately welcome.