What makes literary fiction literary fiction? That’s kind of hard to define considering how it can and does borrow from every other genre.
Literary fiction can operate with a historical fiction premise set back in the 1800s: a poignant coming-of-age story in a small Scottish town.
It can be a mystery: the search for a woman’s abusive husband in Braintree, Massachusetts, during a portentous winter’s week.
Or it might be a romance: a reflective look into the life of a Texas oil baron’s widow when she decides to let herself love all over again.
But notice something about all three of those literary fiction possibilities. They’re not just any old historical fiction premise or mystery or romance. They’re poignant. Or portentous. Or reflective.
In other words, they’re deep. Or at least they want to give every impression that they are. And in order to show exactly how deep they are (or want to be), they tend to use certain writing styles with certain vocabulary choices. If they don’t, it’s kind of a deal breaker and they go right to being “plain old” historical fiction or mystery or romance.
They’re not special enough anymore. (Says a “plain old” historical fiction writer – who is perfectly fine staying that way.)
If you want to join the literary fiction-writing club, then this Writing Challenge of the Week is advice you really need to take.
Expand your vocabulary.
Literary fiction is written with a very particular literary style. While its critics might describe that style as boring or snotty, its supporters would be much more apt to call it highbrow: sentences designed for the refined reader.
As such, it’s bound to contain words like “existential” and “introspective,” “analogous” and “exacting.” Philosophical in its sentence structure and tone, literary fiction naturally leans toward using at least a smattering of uncommon words to boost its literary style above the fray of traditional mass market publishing.
That’s not to say that this kind of novel necessarily or intentionally overwhelms readers with big words. Instead, it treats them all like they’re college educated and fascinated by philosophical musings, exploring the psyche and worldviews.
In order to do that best (according to literary fiction standards, anyway), you have to have an almost Victorian concept of language. So you’re not going to write, “She was sad.” That’s too commonplace. Instead, you might describe her mood as “downcast, touched by a sorrow so vague she couldn’t quite capture its origin.”
“He moved into the room confidently” might turn into, “Every stride he took was masterful. Elegant. Eloquent. He owned that room, and he was very well aware of it.”
Or, “Their decision came at the perfect time” could look something closer to, “He couldn’t help but see their decision as auspiciously coordinated – one more celestial sign that his journey was destined to be.”
Most mainstream or genre fiction simply doesn’t read like that. It’s not supposed to because it’s intended to be bought and enjoyed by a much wider reader base.
Such “boring” writing styles and “snotty” vocabulary choices are precisely why Tuesday’s writing Definition cautioned that:
Truth be told, this genre typically doesn’t do as well in mainstream circles unless it gets on Oprah’s book list. Then it takes off. (Though so does every other novel, no matter the genre, that’s fortunate enough to find its way to her positive proclamation.)
So if you’re going to write literary fiction, understand the risks involved. And accept the fact that you’re just not going to be every reader's highbrow cup of tea.