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Literary Fiction Might Be Highbrow, but the Best of It Digs Deep

So now we know that literary fiction is highbrow. Using Victorian writing styles and vocabulary choices, it’s designed to explore the writer’s worldview somehow. Someway.

That “someway” is traditionally captured by focusing on one particular story element over the others, as Writing Rule #51 describes.

Literary Fiction Is About the Character, Not the Plot

While there are rising action segments, climactic moments and falling action, those are all much more muted than in just about any other fictional genre.

Since literary fiction focuses on the beauty or complexity of the human situation, literary fiction writers shine deep and penetrating spotlights on their main characters.

What is the main character feeling? What are his goals? What are her musings? What are they sensing at any given point?

As we discussed last week, in order to qualify as fiction in the first place, a manuscript or book has to include a plot, a setting and at least one character. But that doesn’t mean it has to make a big deal out of any of those elements – a loophole that literary fiction plays up to the max when it comes to plot.

For instance – spoiler alert – that House Girl novel I mentioned on Tuesday partially follows a 21st-century lawyer who is trying to uncover details about her deceased mother. In the course of her search, she finds out that both of her parents were unfaithful to each other, she meets her mother’s previous paramour – and kisses him. On the mouth. Which is weird – and she travels to research the historical subject of her unconnected legal case.

But throughout all of that, her actions are not the main point of the narrative, no matter if they’re technically pushing it along. It’s her thoughts about the actions and non-actions that stand out.

  • What are her eyes taking in?

  • How is her mind processing the sensory stimulation around her?

  • Where did she come from, and why is she driven to find somewhere new to be in an emotional, familial and societal sense?

This piece of literary fiction’s main character is clearly conflicted. Not by anything outwardly overwhelming like the kind of kidnappings or romantic entanglements readers typically expect in a novel. She’s burdened by her own thoughts.

Is she good enough?

Does she know who she is?

Can she make a difference? Does she even know what to make a difference about when the world is so full of powerful people who say all the right stuff without an ounce of feeling?

In this particular author’s case, it’s impossible not to feel her own questions behind the main character’s soul-searching quest for answers. Whether that was intentional or unintentional is up for debate, though I’d be willing to wager it’s the first.

Other literary fiction writers cover up their own worldviews more thoroughly on purpose or accidentally. But they’re still there all the same in every footstep the main character or characters take. After all, how can even the most amazing author dig for something deep – as literary fiction is supposed to be – without digging inside himself?

The best literary fiction expresses that excavation with class, dignity and clarity, no matter if the author doesn't have the answers herself.


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