Literature, or Transience?

Cover of

So, I’m dipping my toe into Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel.  And, while I haven’t gotten far, I’ve gotten far enough to figure something out.

I have no idea what literary fiction is.

Not that long ago, I thought I understood this concept.  Genre fiction is plot-driven, for the most part, and literary fiction is more character-driven.  Then I started reading about characterization and thought, Waitaminnit … ALL fiction is character-driven.  Those characters might be involved in a plot of some sort, but if you use cardboard cut-outs you’re not going to get far in any kind of literature. Or something like that.

Now, if characters drive the story by moving through a plot in genre fiction, then what’s literary fiction?  A story driven by characters moving through … what?  Other characters?  A series of random events?  Nothing, like the Seinfeld show?  Really, what the heck?

Stein calls non-literary fiction “transient fiction”.  I think that’s demeaning and insulting.  (Which is making it hard to keep pushing through the book, btw.)  I don’t want anything I write to be anymore transient than necessary.  Matter of fact, I’d like my work to be lasting, remembered long after I’m gone.  None of us, I don’t think, is trying to write transient fiction … or do transient work in any capacity where artistic endeavors are required.

So, what’s the deal?  What’s literary fiction, and why is it considered “better” fiction?  What’s wrong with genre fiction?  Why can’t it be as artistic as any other fiction?

Also, I’ve heard about this “literary horror” thing, but have no idea who’s writing it or where to find it in the library.  Anybody have any tips?

Seriously, I’m confused now.  What is literary fiction?  How is it different than genre fiction?  And why do snobbish reviewers and critics find it “better”?

Let me know, y’all.  I’m gettin’ more confused with every passing moment.



15 thoughts on “Literature, or Transience?

  1. Me too, I’m just as confused. Though reading you every day gives me more knowledge than taking Lit 101 and then some. And as for those snobbish critics, well if they could write great fiction, they would. They wouldn’t write how tos.

    LOL! Good point, Sara! Sol Stein, however, HAS written fiction successfully. He’s also a renowned editor and publisher. So I guess he actually can DO, and doesn’t just TEACH. 😉 Thank you for the compliment, too. I appreciate your support, sweetie.

  2. I always take the reviews and critics with a grain of salt. When I was in school it always amazed me that some of the current writer’s they gave accolades to were very confusing to decipher and not read by very many people. In my book club we always read several reviews from different critics and many times they have very little to do with our perceptions on the read or our likelihood to read further offerings from the author. I guess it comes down to whether you want to write for critics, yourself, or your audience. Or what order to put them in if you want to write for all three. I suspect that these critics don’t always determine how many sales you make.

    Great points. I think part of me wants to try literary fiction (I’ve started a story which I THOUGHT fit the bill, but now I’m not sure), and always like the idea of being able to write what suits me at the time. Critics make WAAAAY too much out of stuff; sometimes their analysis borders on ridiculous (okay, it crosses over). So I guess for me, it’s writing what I want to write and hoping someone wants to read it. But if agents and editors all think like these people, I’m in trouble.

  3. I’m too lazy to look up the post, but Nathan Bransford said once that literary fiction deals more with internal changes and genre deals more with the character changing the external. Although there is internal change and external change in each one, the focus is more on one than the other. That makes sense to me.

    Me too. Leave it to Nathan to cut through the bull and offer clarity for the flounderers, eh? 🙂 Thanks, hon.

  4. I don’t like the labels. Good writing is good writing. I know agents want the label for marketing reasons, but the labels make me crazy. And often labels just reveal people’s biases anyway. And sure I’d like my work to last, but I also realize that in the grand scheme of the universe, that doesn’t matter. I write as well as I can. Other people can label it if they want.

    Don’t you have to know what to call it when you’re querying, though? You can’t send a romance novel to an agent who specifically says they don’t want romances. You can’t send a thriller to someone who doesn’t accept them. You have to have some labels at least before the query process begins, don’t you? It’s not possible to target agents and publishers if you don’t, is it? Just thinking aloud here. One label we can’t give our own writing is the “literary/transient” one Stein uses; put that in your query and it’s probably a guaranteed form rejection.

    • Oh, I know. You do. And I’m sure my inability to get an agent has something to do with the fact that I can’t label my work. (There may be other factors too like unsellable…) But there is selling your story and there is writing your story. I want to write and sell. But first you gotta write. And you don’t need the label to do that. Okay, if you’re a more focused person maybe you do.

      I dunno — I can be pretty doggone focused when I have to be, and I didn’t need it to write my one finished piece. I need it now and it’s elusive, but I didn’t need it to write it. You’re absolutely right there. And you’re a good writer with a good manuscript. Trust that.

      I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m talking about at all–except that if there is nothing written, there is no label. SO KEEP WRITING!

      For someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, you sure say a lot of solid and true things! YES MA’AM! Back to the keyboard!

  5. Here is a question to toss back at you…. When was the last time we relied on critcs? I mean think about it. They rate a movie poorly and you see it and are blown away and think it was awesome. Critics are like weather people really, get paid to take a stab at it, but doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong. In my opinion, forget the critcs, write for your readers. They will give you more out of it than any critic. And as for your writing, you have no worries, just check out your followers, we all agree, we love what and how you write!

    Aw, thanks, Beth. That’s a sweet thing to say. I can’t speak to how we respond to critics yet; my critics are my readers, those I trust to tell me when something’s wrong or off about a story. Other people don’t use the word “critics” for this group; they call them “critiquers” instead (which isn’t a word), because it makes the distinction between someone sitting around being vitriolic about someone else’s work when they can’t do it themselves and someone who’s trying to offer insights to improve the work of the one being examined. I do write for my critics — my critiquers — but not for professional “critics” yet — those know-it-alls who don’t have the gumption to write themselves but feel they know enough about it to sit around and be jackasses to someone else. 😉

    Still, the question of “transient” fiction vs. “literary” fiction remains. I don’t like Stein’s attitude about writing in general, but I do like the idea of being able to write in both styles. I just don’t know the difference right now. Sherri’s comment helped the most with that. 🙂

    • Okay….silly question….Why does it have to be about labels? Why can you not just right to right? Does it HAVE to fall into a category? What if one moment you are feeling writting more through one way, and a week later you do a different piece a completely different way? I know, I am naieve, but I pour it all out into the computer and put it out there. I am no where near the level of great you are, but I’m learning. I just don’t agree that it always has to be one way, tell me, why could it not change up?

      First, you’re dangerous for my easily-inflatable ego. Thank you for being so generous with your praise. 🙂

      Second, I don’t know if it DOES matter with labels, but I think the agents you query — should you choose to query agents — will be dependent upon a label. For instance, an agent who specializes in SF/F and Horror isn’t going to want a literary coming-of-age story. An agent who specializes in Romance doesn’t want to be sent a Thriller. You need a label almost up front to know what you’ve written, so you know where to market it. It’s critical in that respect.

      Yes, I can write one way one week and another the next week, but if I’ve set myself to my agent as a horror writer, I need to make doggone sure however I write it, it’s horror. Or can be classified as horror. If not, I have to approach my agent and let them know I want to write in a different genre and will probably have to do so under a pseudonym. Stephen King can explore other styles or genres or even lit fic if he wants, but he’s Stephen King. I’m not. And when he did it early in his career and experimented with different stuff, he did it as Richard Bachman. Part of that was because he wanted to keep it separate, part of it was to make sure he didn’t cloud his own body of work.

      Does that answer the question? Let me know if it doesn’t. I know the resistance to labeling is a strong one for some folks, but it’s almost unavoidable from what I read on agent and editor blogs.

  6. I agree with Beth, critics are just people that give their (usually) overinflated opinion about something whether it is a book or a movie. They are just people and all people have opinions about anything and everything and some have a more educated basis for the opinion but it still all boils down to that – an opinion based mostly on personal perspective and preferences.

    Is that just your opinion? J/K! HA! We see eye to eye on this; if I thought I could do it, I’d start seeking to be a critic somewhere for something. Food hopefully. I LOVE giving my opinion. I can tell ya what I think o’ ya with the best of ’em! HEHEHE!

    What I find interesting in reading material or in movies is not necessarily going to be the same as yours since we are all individuals with individual tastes. Doesn’t make something better or worse just whether or not it is our cup of tea.

    True enough. And it becomes clear to me in reading a critic’s “review” whether or not they like that style, that genre, that … whatever. Which is why I think literary fiction continues to be hocked as better than genre fiction, more artistic, more whatever literati term they want to use that day. Because they’re told in “school” or wherever it is, for whatever reasons. Never went to lit school, so I can’t say. 🙂

    You really have to stop over thinking stuff dude, you are driving yourself bonkers. Write what you want, what you feel and worry about labeling it afterward.

    Oh, I do. I just want to figure out what makes literary fiction literary, and find out if anyone knows of a literary horror book. I’ve heard they’re out there, but I haven’t any clue where to look or who to look for.

  7. Like others have said, the genre vs. literary fiction label is a marketing convenience. I think you oughta write that thing you want to write — plenty of evidence you can — and leave the labeling for after the fact.

    Marketing convenience … heh. Lot of that opinion here today. Thanks for the compliment, too. I appreciate that.

    (Btw, above applies to book-length fiction. For magazines, you do need to know what they generally run.)

    Yeah, word counts count. Or something like that.

    One reason there’s so much confusion about it all is that people think of these categories as mutually exclusive (like the shelving in bookstores). It helps me to think of them as a hierarchy, not in the sense of one being superior to another but like nested sets, subsets, and supersets. So say “literature” is the outermost, all-encompassing term; within that are fiction and non-fiction; within fiction would be literary and genre fiction; within literary fiction would be straight-up lit fiction, lit horror, lit romance, lit SFF, etc.

    Hm. Yeah, I get that. I’m trying to figure out what sets one superset apart from another, though. But yes, this is a helpful analogy. Thanks. 🙂

    A few years back, Stephen King had his first fiction published in the New Yorker. This probably surprised some readers. To me it just signaled that the NYer had finally accepted the real world. 🙂

    Hey, that’s awesome! The lines seem to be blurring; at least, that’s what I heard as of ’08, I think (early ’08, that’d be). Maybe the distinction’s not as critical anymore. I’d like to know for myself mostly for the satisfaction of knowing.

  8. I think about the mystery series I read which would be genre fiction. A dectective is out to solve the case. There are tons of details about the murder, the perp, the area where it took place, the motive and the way it was carried out (who, what, where, why and how), but the details on the dective come out over a series of books. There is very little character build up in any one novel. You might know he is an orphan and lived in foster homes which made him hard and edgy. You might know he is a loner, but you get his character piecemeal, almost like an afterthought, in each book.

    Hm. Sounds interesting. An unconventional approach to be sure. Who’s the author, and what’s the series.

    Literary fiction is like a chick flick. Its all about the people and their place in the world, sometimes carried out against a backdrop of something huge. Books like ‘Gone with the Wind’, ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘The Sun also Rises’ are literary fiction. At the end you are left wondering, “Well what was *that* about?” and really it was about … nothing except the characters. I don’t read much literary fiction because it leaves me feeling empty and it is full of too many details about what the character is feeling or wearing. Really, I don’t care. Get to the point. What, there is no point? Great. I just wasted my time, but now I can be a snob and throw out some book titles at my next soiree.

    HAHAHAHAA!! AWESOME!! I thought I’d be the only one like that, but THANK GOD I’m not!! ROFLMAO!

    In my opinion the worst type of writing is where the author tries to combine genre & literary fiction and you have a character who can’t solve the murder because he can’t decide whether to make amends with his estranged son or move on with his life. If a woman is writing it, he also can’t decide which jacket to wear to match his shoes.

    I’m in trouble now.

    We’ll see! HAHAHAHAHA! Funny as heck, though! That’s “A” material! Thanks for making me laugh today. I needed it!

  9. I think both have their place.

    Literary fiction deals more with the internal landscape of characters. It throws up questions regarding our current times, questions we must ask if we have to evolve socially, spiritually. These kind of books tend to get a bit obscure sometimes ( but they should not be obscure for the sake of obscurity).

    The goal of genre fiction is to entertain. It hardly ever gives rise to intellectual argument. And well, it most of it does not become classic. Some of it does, though.

    I read and write both types, and no, in my small opinion, it is not right to look down on either.

    Like I said to you earlier about Stein, or any other writer of a “writing-help” book, pick what strikes you as helpful, and let go of the rest.

    Good advice, Damyanti. Thanks. I’ve been doing that all along — I see how-to books as a buffet, not a Bible — and I’ll be sure to weed through this one just the same as always. I appreciate the insight on how literary vs. genre fiction too. 🙂

  10. Literary horror? Well the problem with horror in general is that the goal posts are always moved by the critics. Lovecraft and Poe were derided during their lifetimes now they’re lauded. The Universal horror films, the Hammer horror films? The critics tore them to shreds back in the day.

    I know. Critics have never had taste. Which is why I gag when someone like Stein calls them “important”. UGH. SELF-important, maybe.

    So I am not sure what is or is not transient fiction- especially since the whole fucking universe is transient and maybe when it all comes down to it all that matters is if we were nice to each other.

    Pff. Screw that, ya sissy, I’m gonna be rude if I want. (j/k).

    I love the stories of Robert Chambers and George Chesbro but I bet most of you never heard of them but for a while their dreams lived in my head and maybe after I’m gone my dreams will live in someone else’s. That may be all we can ask for.

    Maybe. But I’m going for Hemingway fame here.

    Now for actual literary horror try out Thomas Ligotti. Sometimes he’s great and sometimes I have no idea what the Hell he’s talking about.

    Sound literary to me, thanks Al! 🙂

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