The conventions of literary fiction

I’ve mentioned Robert Boswell’s excellent The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction here before. One of his essays includes this paragraph:

This could be material at the heart of a literary story. It makes the events the result of motivated action rather than contrived coincidence. It makes the relationships among the characters multifaceted. It substitutes familial connections for celebrity. It moves the center of the story away from the surface event and into the inner life of the main character. Rather than blithely ridicule the woman, the story would attempt to investigate the real and gnarly interplay among familial loyalty, good intentions, malevolence, racial fear, and sexual politics. Not that it would attempt this by means of a calculated journey through each issue; rather, it would engage these subjects through the investigation of this character’s complex responses.

While the conventions of some genres are usually very obvious (crime fiction, for example, is crime fiction because it includes, you know, crime), the conventions of the genre of literary fiction are often less obvious. Boswell’s paragraph usefully describes those conventions, which can be helpful for writers trying to create examples of that genre.

Notice as well, from Benjamin Percy’s outstanding Thrill Me, this description of literary fiction:

Sentences were now more than vehicles for information; I pleasured in the arrangement of their words and read them aloud as if they were songs. Structures did not march forward with a chronological doggedness; they were cyclical or modular or framed or even arranged backward. Characters didn’t act purely in the service of plot; they flirted their way into digressions, lingered in conversations and on windowsills, and in doing so became more than puppets, but as alive as anyone I knew.

Percy argues persuasively for using the best strategies of both literary and genre fiction.

This entry was posted in Writing tools. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s