Growing a Novel – Book Thoughts


I’ve done a lot of reading lately.  I’ve ground through about six books in two weeks, in fact; and a fair number of those were books on the craft of writing.

One I chewed through was Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel, and I complained in a previous post about his clear and unmitigated slant against what he calls “transient” fiction (which would be commercial, or genre, fiction to most everyone else).  The book didn’t hold any mystery solutions for me; that is, it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already, unless you count Stein’s shameless and repeated plugs for his previous book, Stein on Writing.  And the subtitle is, “The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and how to Avoid Them.”  I didn’t get a lot of that out of it either.  Not as I can recall, anyway.

I’m sure Stein’s a big deal – just ask him, he’ll tell ya – in the publishing industry, but he set a tone of “only literary fiction is real fiction” to me which sort of put me off through the whole thing.  One achievement he did manage, however, was to get me curious about literary fiction.  I’ve had literary fiction described as fiction in which the plot unfolds within the characters, fiction which is internal and not external, fiction which only shows evolution of person, fiction which makes statements and offers insight about human nature (gimme a break!), and fiction which does not sell (ha!).  Still, I don’t really think I understand literary fiction or how to write it, despite my best attempts to glean information from Stein and others.

What Stein wants is fiction which talks of human nature in high-brow terms, but what he wrote (one of his novels, at least) is a story about a high school magician wannabe who hires a lawyer to represent him in a trial when the school bully is killed.  The lawyer, it turns out, is a character he ended up returning to later.  But isn’t that sort of commercial fiction?  I don’t know.  Anyway, I was supremely disappointed with How to Grow a Novel because, after all Stein’s posturing and puffing and self-adulation, I expected him to be able to teach me something, guide me through the differences.  But alas, I don’t think literary fiction can be taught, because it’s so doggone subjective.  Subjects, characters and internal angst.  That’s what literary fiction’s made of.

So, I disregarded most of what Stein had to say about the publishing aspect of writing, mostly because the book is more than 10 years old and I don’t think the information’s valid anymore.  A lot’s changed, after all.  But the rest of the book?  Well, the section on dialog was all right, I suppose.  There’s nothing, whatever, on story structure I can recall (I finished it about two weeks ago as you’re reading this), so if he discussed it, I missed it.  I probably wouldn’t pick it up again, frankly.  Stein’s too self-impressed and too literati (at least, he thinks so) for my tastes.  And I’ve had better how-to books in front of me, to be honest.  Stein on Writing might be more to my taste, but I can’t find a copy at my library, so until I stabilize financially, that one’s out.  In the end, Stein’s book wasn’t super-memorable for me.

Anyone out there familiar with literary fiction, can you recommend some books I can read to get a good feel for it?  Authors you’re particularly fond of?  Writers, are any of you doing what you believe to be literary fiction, or are you all commercial writers like me?

-JDT-

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12 thoughts on “Growing a Novel – Book Thoughts

  1. I think that’s the problem with even having a category called “literary fiction”. It’s so subjective it’s almost impossible to define. I was going to recommend a couple of contemporary books I’ve read over the past year or so, but I think they can be put in other categories, too. I’m pretty sure The Great Gatsby would be considered lit fic, but it’s so old I guess it might not be…I don’t know.

    Now, that’s interesting to consider; does the AGE of the book help delineate the literary vs. genre thing? When did commercial fiction become commercial? Is Dracula literary fiction or genre horror? Great stuff to think about Sher; thanks for that info. And do give me the names of those books; would love to see ’em. I really want to make this distinction if I can. And maybe Stein’s Stein on Writing would help, since he’s a pompous, pretentious literary fic-snob.

    • Ooo. I’m teaching The Great Gatsby this semester. It is good to remember that Gatsby was dismissed by critics at the time as fluff. The main thing age will tell you about a book is if it has stood the test of time. We still read Gatsby.

      Go this list of bestsellers http://www.listology.com/lbhick/list/publishers-weekly-bestselling-novels-united-states
      and see how many are still in bookstores.

      Interesting! Thanks for the link!

      Some books are clearly genre and other literary (in the college literature sense of the term) but tons of books are in-between. Immediately coming to mind is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I loved. Fantasy and literary. I think of literary as being a certain style or care maybe? To be honest, publisher packaging has a lot to do with it.

      I think that’s the first time I’ve heard that; no one’s ever said marketing determines whether it’s literary or commercial. Hm.

      I’ve recently decided to give in to my love for fantasy & fairy tale. And if certain people won’t take that as real writing–their loss.

      I’m not going to become a literary writer — not that I can see, anyway — but being able to write it if I want is driving me bonkers. Gotta know! GOTTA KNOW! 🙂

  2. I don’t know what you call it Darc, I read all kinds of stuff. If it is good, I look at the author and will try whatever else they have written. My favorite author’s would include you, Ben, Sara, Bryce, Stephen King, Laurell K. Hamilton, Dean Koontz, Michael Creichton, Raymond Khoury, just to name a few. That’s right, you guys are at the top of my list. I’m not sure what drives you to make you so infatuated with trying to find this out. When you close your eyes and picture them talking about the best selling __________ author, DarcKnyt, what do you hear filled in the blank?

    Oh, it’s not necessarily anything “driving” me to find out something; it’s just a matter of wanting to know firsthand what the distinctions are between commercial (or “genre” — or to this clown, “transient”) fiction and literary fiction. One description is, the plot only unfolds internally to the character(s). I want to know what that looks like. And I want to write this stuff because it will only add to the depth of my ability to write what I want to publish, just as reading outside my chosen genre will deepen my ability. It’s just one of those essential skills to being a well-rounded and publishable writer. OH, and thanks for the flattery. I can always use another ego-boost. 😉

    • And here I go to you to ask questions and learn how to be well rounded…. I can respect the desire to learn and to strive to be better. Just know that we all already think you are great.

      Well, thanks for that, but I bet it’s not ALL of you. 😉

  3. A contemporary guy whose books are generally considered literary fiction is Michael Chabon. I’d be interested to read your take on him, especially because he loves transient *cough* fiction — comic books, detective fiction, etc. Start with either the Kavalier & Clay book (about early “Golden Age of superheroes” comic books), or the alternate-future/reality Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Don’t even have to read more than, say, 50 pages if you don’t want.

    Thanks, JES! I’ll look at my local library for this name! I appreciate it!

    I can think of a good number of literary types (especially ones from Europe) who would possibly drive you nuts. I don’t want to drive you nuts, though. Heh.

    Well, I’m open to hearing about them and if they drive me nuts — hey, I can always stop reading it, right? Heh. (Thanks for not trying to drive me nuts though; kids are doing just fine with that. 🙂 )

  4. start reading

    anything by Anthony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Depak Chopra, and mandatory – the Little Prince.

    Okay, The Little Prince I can see, but … Anthony Robbins and Wayne Dyer? 🙄 Um … yeah, I’d need help understanding that. I realize those guys are all fiction writers and making a mint, but it’s not really SUPPOSED to be fiction.

  5. All I can say is that I heard of a book on writing called “Bird by bird” by Anne Lammott, if I recall correctly, and it sounds like a good one.

    I’ll check it out! … If I can find it, that is. Thanks, Spark!

  6. You are too cute for words. I read Vanessa when I wake up and you before bed. I think you two should collaborate on a book entiled “Letters to a Married Man.” I’m now designing books in my head, it’s time for sleep.

    We’ve tried collaborating before; it just never seemed to get off the ground. We may try again someday. Sleep well! Nighty-night! 🙂

  7. Came across some info the day I read this post, been holding it since: I don’t know if you knew of the so-called “Book Blogger Appreciation Week” — this year is the first I heard of it. But short version, go here:
    http://bookbloggerappreciationweek.com/index.php/awards/P30/

    …and do a search on “Best Literary Fiction Blog.” I’m unfamiliar with all the nominees, but browsing them might give you a better handle on what makes lit fic whatever it is.

    Sah-WEET! Thanks, JES! I’ll do just that! I appreciate the link and info!

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