If fiction were fashion, literary fiction would include everything from red-carpet to smart casual, Armani to Prada and Zara. That makes a huge wardrobe, but such is the imprecise art of defining literary fiction.
Consider the term. “Literary” describes a written work of artistic merit; however, one person’s definition of artistry may be another’s of affectation. This is where the test of time comes in. Just as a fringed minidress may be not old but “vintage,” and perfectly wearable to a cocktail party, a literary work should endure the passage of time. Given a few centuries or even decades, it might well earn the status of “classic.”
Fiction is the combination of the five elements discussed below. What separates serious fiction from the mainstream is, as in any art, the proportion of each element in that combination.
We read fiction to be told a story, and general fiction delivers stories in fast-paced plots. Serious fiction, on the other hand, lingers. The conflict gains dimension and depth before it is resolved – from details of a character’s background, evocative images of the landscape, events of the historical period. A literary narrative might even eschew chronological order, moving back and forth in time as the plot unfolds, as in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
The setting of general fiction is usually concrete: an actual time, a particular place. Not so in literary fiction, whose stories can take place in symbolic settings such as the island in Martel’s Life of Pi or the rebellion in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Plot and setting in serious fiction are expressions of not only a writer’s imagination, but also the author’s philosophy.
We read and write stories because we are always trying to understand our human condition but are sometimes unable to examine the issues directly. Writers of general fiction explore the recurring universal themes of human life – love, loss, betrayal, secrets – but don’t dwell on them, as the story must go on. Through literary fiction, however, we delve deep, ponder social problems, and try to face undeniable truths without flinching, as, for instance, the works of Toni Morrison challenge us to do.
In mainstream fiction, characters are just that, even if they are complex. We can discern and sympathize with the heroes and heroines, even if they’re not completely virtuous. Characters in serious fiction are harder to judge. They might represent a social problem or an ugly truth and still be the character we’re supposed to identify with, like Briony in McEwan’s Atonement. The philosophy or personality of literary characters could be so intricately plotted that we may feel frustrated with them until the final chapter. Or, as in life, we may never understand them at all.
Perhaps the biggest difference between mainstream and literary fiction is in how the story is told. Stream of consciousness, interior monologue, an unreliable narrator – these and other narrative techniques suffuse serious fiction with philosophy, whereas mainstream stories are more straightforward. Perhaps the narrative perspective is one that should be questioned, as Lionel Shriver suggests in We Need to Talk about Kevin; or perhaps the story is enclosed within a frame story, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which emphasizes its narrator’s remorse and its theme of Promethean ambition and consequence.
Whatever the narrative perspective, it’s this element of fiction that highlights the author’s style. Take just the following authors: Austen, Dickens, Kafka, Woolf, Cather, Hemingway, Lessing, Pynchon, Atwood, Murakami. Many of their works have stood the test of time, and their extremely diverse styles are very distinctive – Austen’s impish humor, Hemingway’s spare prose, Atwood’s crystalline detail.
Style is the product of an individual’s creative and critical thought, and the best way – perhaps the only way – in which these thoughts are conveyed. Reading a work of serious fiction, we appreciate how the author’s carefully chosen words resonate with our own thoughts and evoke personal feelings, even if the words were written hundreds of years ago, or thousands of miles from where we live.
Style, therefore, is what ultimately differentiates literary fiction from the mainstream. If a story provokes your thought or wrenches your heart, and if – like a hand-stitched dress – its five elements are crafted with care, you are probably reading a work of literary fiction.