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.

Literary Fiction and Self-Publishing

James Scott Bell

English novelist Will Self writes literary fiction. You can tell, because in an essay on the “death” of the novel, he writes: “There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of narrative prose. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic…”
When you use Panglossianand melioristic in the same sentence, you’re not exactly trying to communicate to the masses—which is one way to describe literary fiction!
I tease because I love. Literary fiction is by definition more challenging for the reader than the so-called “beach read.” It’s supposed to be. Which is why it does not sell in huge numbers.
Which does not mean anything in terms of quality or reasons to exist. I love a good literary read. And I laud those who choose to write less marketable prose out of a certain calling and love of literature. This often produces books that move and even shape us, that require us to ponder deep things and perhaps make us the better for it.
Indeed, there is even research to suggest that literary fiction makes us nicer than does its more popular cousin!
Let’s be honest, though. Just because something is considered “literary” doesn’t make it, perforce, superb. I’ve read some dreadful fiction published under impressive imprints. Why does that happen? Have a look at a famous essay if you want to delve more deeply into that little matter.
Will Self has a view of the literary novel that goes like this (note: pack a lunch):
The literary novel used to be “the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.”
Now, I have to admit this very paragraph is a challenge. I am left wondering what the Gesamtkunstwerk is actually being said. I think I may have strained my simulacrum trying to read it. (I leave open the possibility that Self is running a bit of a goof on us, but I digress).
So yes, let’s settle on the fact that lit-fic can be “difficult” for the reader. As even a favorable review of Self’s latest book admits, “The novel isn’t exactly light reading.”
Then Will Self gets to the crux of the matter: “[T]he hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations.”
He has a point, though I’m not sure it’s limited to contemporary culture. As Mickey Spillane once explained, salted peanuts always outsell caviar.
The bigger challenge today, I think, is technological. As Stephen Henighan, in a thoughtful piece, observes:
More than a decade ago, when I moved to the university town where I teach, it was common to see students reading books on municipal buses. Now, with the exception of the occasional nerd stuck into a fantasy novel, or a diligent student poring over a diagram-filled textbook on her lap, this sight has disappeared. The students travel in stooped postures, jabbing their cellphones with their thumbs. Most of this jabbing is texting, or playing solitaire; but even when the students are browsing online course readings, what they are doing is not reading, because they are not performing an act of concentration, but rather one of perpetual distraction.
This leaves the writer of lit-fic in somewhat dicey circumstances. Traditional publishing has to make a profit, and so must concentrate on the tastes of the book-buying public––which is increasingly for distraction, entertainment, and short chapters. There is less time to nurture a literary career and less money to advance toward a livable income.
Yet this is not news, either. Literary writers of the past almost always had to supplement their incomes, many times by teaching creative writing at the college or graduate level.
A few made extra bank by churning out genre fiction on the side, using a pseudonym. Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle) always considered himself a literary writer. But he needed money, so he cranked out pulp stories and paperbacks under the name Ed McBain. His pseudonym became a world-famous multi-millionaire. I don’t think Evan Hunter ever forgave him for that.
Gore Vidal wrote mysteries as Edgar Box.
So here’s my question for those who think the novel is “dead”: why shouldn’t literary fiction find vibrant new life in the world of self-publishing?
Let’s compare:
The chances of selling a lot of lit-fic copies the traditional way are slim. Look at the average sales of books nominated for the National Book Award. Two or three thousand, tops.
Now, the chances of selling a lot of copies of literary fiction via self-publishing are also slim. But time is on the side of the indie. 
A traditional book that doesn’t catch fire in the first couple of weeks is out of the bookstores for good, except perhaps on the remainder shelf.
But an indie title is always available and the author can do several things to move units, such as deal-alert services like BookGorilla and BookBub (which currently has 810,000 subscribers on their literary fiction list). Or just getting out there and plowing ground in social media.
Discoverability seems more likely in the indie world, too. Placing a literary novel in the right categories can unleash Amazon’s algorithmic ability to match author and reader. Contrast that with trying to get a book some real estate in the increasingly limited space within physical bookstores, which also have to make money and tend to be top-heavy with commercial fare.
In fact, I can see a whole new wave of literary authors gaining a cultural foothold via self-publishing. Something tells me that David Foster Wallace would have been all over self-pubbing had he come along at a later time.
So the novel is not dead––it’s spread.
Literary fiction need not go extinct––it can reproduce in various forms in the verdant world of indie publishing.
Why not? I ask. 

Literary Fiction and Me: A Complicated Love Story


Last week’s dustup in the comments, begun by my good friend Porter Anderson, and continued by him on The Ether, may have left the impression that your humble correspondent is a dastardly assassin of literary fiction, ready to step out of the shadows with my sap and conk erudite authors on the head, stick them in the back of a sedan, and take them “for a ride.”

I plead not guilty, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, and thank you for this opportunity to set the record straight.
Let’s step back a moment: Just what is literary fiction anyway? I’m not going to attempt an all-encompassing definition. I’m not sure one exists. Sometimes it’s defined by what it is not: it is not genre fiction, for example. It is not “commercial.” Style and meaning are more prominent in literary fiction. It is “more complicated” and requires more “effort” to get into.
Whatever. My only point last week was to say that some (key word) highly lauded literary fiction seems to me to get in the way of story, not help it. I thought that was an innocent enough remark whose truth is all but self-evident. But then came the storm, and broad-brush asseverations that, even if unintentionally, splashed gooey residue upon your blameless observer.
I am thus compelled to offer evidence, which is why I now post the following. It is from a critically acclaimed literary novel. The author is highly regarded and many people love his work. My intent here is simply to point out that this is a type of writing that does not work for me.May I repeat that, please? For me. The broad brush is in the garage, unused.
It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jeda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.
There is just too much going on in this paragraph, at least the parts of it I could understand. How did we get from the desert to a place called Jeda, wherever Jeda is? I had to look it up. It’s a village in Iran. I’m still confused. And while I’m all for specific detail in fiction, overkill dulls the effect, especially if the vocabulary is esoteric. I started to get really tired somewhere between solpugas and vinegarroons and desert basilisks. And what the heck is a chowdog? I Googled it and it’s not even a word. The closest is “chow dog,” which is a reference to a Chow-Chow, a fluffy dog with, indeed, a little black mouth. But is that what is meant here? If it is, is the juxtaposition of a stereotypical rich dowager’s pet with a poisonous lizard meaningful in this context? 
Look, it could be that I’m just obtuse. But the effect, to me, is to overwhelm with sound. Maybe it’s supposed to be like a poem. But if I want to read poetry of this type, I can re-read Howl. If I’m reading a novel I want a narrative that doesn’t constantly push me into prolix potholes. This is not an isolated opinion, by the way. See, for example, the famous article “A Reader’s Manifesto.”
Now, what I alsomentioned in my post is that when style and story meet, I love it. Here are a few quick notes I jotted down as I thought about that:
Talk about your literary fiction! Talk about your bane of

high school students’ existences! But I absolutely love Moby-Dick. The style is like the ocean itself—undulating currents and crashing waves of narrative. Calms and storms and the occasional port. It’s also a whale of a story! And I love Ishmael from the start. Here’s part of page one:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
Compare that to the excerpt I posted above. Which one is trying to tell an actual story?
To Kill a Mockingbird
Need I say more? This book gets better with each reading. Donald Maass, Christopher Vogler and I went through Mockingbird chapter by chapter for Story Masters this year, the second time we’ve done so. I found even more richness in the text this time than last. And here’s the thing: Harper Lee never intrudes with style. For her, it’s all in the service of the story.
The Catcher in the Rye
A novel about an inner journey, usually one of the marks of lit-fic. The storytelling key, however, is that we care about Holden Caulfield. Salinger gives him attitude and confusion (the two things adolescent boys have most of) and a prep school experience that increases our sympathy for him. Without such fiction technique from the storyteller’s toolbox, the novel wouldn’t have worked.
Of Mice and Men
I remember reading this in Junior High and weeping at the end. Steinbeck had captured me with his story, and the guy won the Nobel Prize for literature. It can be done! 
Ask the Dust

John Fante’s novel of Los Angeles, published in 1939, holds up as a literary classic. The style pulsates with the heart and yearning of the young writer, Arturo Bandini, bleeding on the page:
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town. A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya hya: there’s a place for me, too, and it begins with B, in the B shelf. Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett, not much that Arnold Bennett, but I’d be there to sort of bolster up the B’s, old Arturo Bandini, one of the boys, until some girl came along, some scent of perfume through the fiction room, some click of high heels to break up the monotony of my fame. Gala day, gala dream!
This is so much grander than mixed metaphors offering up sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Raymond Carver
With whom I once took a writing workshop. His stories are powerful in their subtlety, and from him I learned the great value of the “telling detail.” See “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” for starters.
Joyce Carol Oates
It was during the Carver workshop that I read many literary short stories that have stayed with me, including “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. (Maybe I like literary short stories with question marks in the titles).
Ernest Hemingway
I consider Hemingway’s stories to be among the finest in the English language. “Hills Like White Elephants” is an absolute masterpiece. Another Nobel Prize winner who told stories. Imagine that.
William Saroyan
A somewhat forgotten writer now, but in the 30s and 40s he

was considered a comet of literary genius. He didn’t stop with short stories and novels. He also wrote plays and memoirs. He won (and famously turned down) the Pulitzer Prize. I think Saroyan’s My Name is Aram is one of the best collections of short stories ever put together. The first and last stories frame the entire work in a way that inspires pure wonder in me. My beloved high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, introduced me to Saroyan.

Ken Kesey
The first two pages of Sometimes a Great Notion have some of the best writing I’ve ever read. Kesey also told a great story, as Notionand One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestattest.
Jack Kerouac
Even though Truman Capote famously dissed On the Road by saying it was “typing, not writing,” I do have a soft spot for Mr. Kerouac. His most famous novel has some beautiful riffs, as does The Dharma Bums. Kerouac called his literary style “Be-Bop Prose Rhapsody.” 
Joan Didion
For Play It As It Lays and that irresistible opening:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
I could go on, but this post is already too long. Let me conclude that my love of fiction includes the literary side of the family, too—even though some of those family members are prone to wander off by themselves, leaving readers behind. But I will always be at the house if they want to come back and offer up . . . a story.
Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case.
So what about you? What is literary fiction in your mind? Is it your cup of tea? Does it ever frustrate you? Who sends you soaring?

Talk it up, because this is the last Kill Zone post of the year!