Posted in Books, Writing

How to Define Literary Fiction


Style of the Prose and a Focus on Character Development (Required)

First and foremost, literary fiction is more concerned with the style of the prose and a focus on character development above all else. A literary novel should still have an engaging story, but the emphasis will be on complex prose and rich characterization, both of which can be found in the following two lines from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

“Did she see how my mother’s nose had the tiniest bump at the top, where she’d broken it falling out of a tree as a child? Or how the black rings around the light blue irises of my mother’s eyes gave her a slightly wild quality, as of some steady-eyed hunting creature alone on the plain?” (30).

With these lines, Tartt demonstrates the qualities of her literary writing with specific, commanding prose that gives the reader insight into the main character Theo’s mother. Authors of non-literary novels are not concerned with any characters’ bumps on their noses or rings around their eyes — their intention is to get basic character descriptions and motivations out of the way so that they can set their sights on the inciting incident of the plot — while authors of literary novels pay close attention to these tiny details, going beyond description by delivering similes and metaphors and bringing the reader the kind of unique sensory images he would not find elsewhere.

Attention to Character Over Plot (Required)

However, complexity of prose and focus on character development are not the only defining characteristic of a literary novel. Attention to character over plot is a major element to be considered. Instead of writing a story that sets out to write a high-stakes plot that takes the main character strictly from A to B — think a Dan Brown thriller like The Da Vinci Code or a suspense yarn by Dean Koontz — an author of literary novels will spend less time focused on the plot itself and more time developing the main characters.

Ambitious Point of View (Optional)

Point of view is often, although not always, another characteristic, given that third person omniscient allows an author more freedom to describe what’s happening both inside and outside the characters’ minds, and go more into specific detail with description about anything he wants. While The Goldfinch is unique in that is a literary novel told in the first person, not third, it has characteristics of third because the story’s being written by Theo as an adult looking back over his life, giving the events of the narrative less intimacy and more room for retrospection with this clever use of temporal distance.

Historical Setting (Optional)

Another element to consider is historical setting, which often, but of course not always, makes necessary the use of complex prose to bring to life a place and time that many readers may never have been. Many recent award-winning literary novels are set in the past, like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this week) is set in 1930s Paris and 1940s Germany, and Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves is set in 1941 Queens.

Literary Example #1: Brokeback Mountain

A work of fiction I find particularly literary is the short story, “Brokeback Mountain.” This short work from Proulx (The Shipping News) features many of the elements I have discussed above. First, of all the prose I have examined in these books, hers is by far the most complex. Take for example her description of the Wyoming setting:

“Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green […] the sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire” (9).

This is a particularly fine sentence because it not only gives the reader a beautiful image of the setting he is being placed in but it also goes beyond mere imagery by relating the descriptions to something one of the two main characters is doing, not being completely separated from the story at hand. In addition, Proulx uses her complex prose that bring out the beauty of an act that most would have found reprehensible in 1963. After Ennis and Jack has sex, she writes,

“Ennis lay spread-eagled, spent and wet, breathing deep, still half tumescent, Jack blowing forceful cigarette clouds like whale sprouts” (24).

Instead of writing something simple about how ashamed they might have been or scared how others may find out about their sexual act, she presents these two characters in unique and striking detail the peace they’ve made with their current circumstance. Also, the aforementioned historical setting of 1963 Wyoming makes this more literary, as does the third person omniscient point of view, the only title on my list that has the omniscience. Proulx writes,

“They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word” (28).

This sentence goes beyond one character’s thoughts that would be used in first person by incorporating what both of the characters are doing with a brilliant use of setting that give her prose more complexity.

Literary Example #2: The Goldfinch

A literary work can reach a wide audience if it has an engaging story to spellbind the reader that goes beyond pretty prose and sharply drawn characters. The best example of a recent literary novel that has branched out as a massive hit in the book market, while also retaining highly literary qualities that won it the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is the aforementioned The Goldfinch. Many casual readers might have scoffed at a 771-page doorstopper of a literary novel, but the fascinating story, which features themes of isolation, parental loss, friendship, thievery, and love of art, takes center stage. Early on, Tartt writes a line like,

“Whenever we struck a bump, my teeth rattled, and so did the religious claptrap dangling from the rearview mirror: medallions, a curved sword in miniature dancing on a plastic chain, and a turbaned, bearded guru who gazed into the back seat with piercing eyes, palm raised in benediction” (13).

With a less compelling narrative, a line like this might be too showy and unimportant, but in this case, Tartt is effectively setting up the opening act of destruction and getting the reader attuned to her main character Theo’s voice.

Literary Example #3: A Home at the End of the World

Another example of a literary work that has reached a wide audience is Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. This extraordinary novel, released in 1990, was part of a new wave of gay fiction titles that included Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, books that showed realistic life of the gay man in the post-AIDS era. Cunningham writes astonishing prose throughout this book, but they never go too heavy with imagery, never too specific to the point of exhaustion. In the head of the main character Jonathan, Cunningham writes,

“My blackened eyes glittered like spiders above the lush white froth. I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether” (10).

With these few well-chosen details, he gives the reader a strong sense of the character by showing, not telling, how he feels about his appearance. The book is told in the first person but from four different perspectives, offering a complex and rewarding experience for the reader, allowing a minor character like Jonathan’s mother to offer her two cents about how she feels about her son:

“I feared my own son, out in that wild place so far from other beings. We had protected ourselves with silence because our only other choice was to howl at one another, to scratch and bite and shriek” (293).

While his prose is always complex, Cunningham makes this accessible to more than just gay readers by offering these different perspectives that bring insight into this complicated time and place.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Michael. A Home at the End of the World. New York: Picador, 1990. Print.

Proulx, Annie. Brokeback Mountain. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.

Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.

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