The Literary Genre, Part 1

For a long time I thought there was a war between people who write literary fiction and those who write for the commercial market.  I’ve grown past that childish belief but I belong to a literary writers’ group so I’m sensitive to the differences between the two and have given that difference a lot of thought.  This post is the beginning of an explanation of those differences as I see them.

The difference is all about the reader.  But it isn’t what you might think.

A friend who writes in the literary genre once defined the act of writing literary fiction as ‘writing around the story’.  There is a story in what may appear to be nothing more than pages of description in which nothing happens.  But there is a story!  There is!  But, since it’s not clearly laid out, the reader must find the story for him or herself.

That’s where things get wonky.  Literary writers tell stories through references, allusions, indirect descriptions and anything else they can think of that will nudge the reader towards the actual story without directly telling the reader much of anything.

Think about it.  Literary writers carefully choose words that they hope will give the reader the same mental pictures that are in the writer’s head.  They hope the reader will then form those same mental pictures and make an intuitive leap into the story the writer is actually writing.

Problem is, every writer’s arsenal of words is limited to words from their own world.  Their own background. Those words work fine for readers from a similar background.  From their world.

But readers from a different background might interpret those references, allusions and indirect descriptions … those words they chose so carefully … in a different way.  And end up reading a completely different story.

Think about this as you go about your day.  In my next post, I’ll illustrate what I’m talking about with a concrete example that happened about the time I joined that literary group and began wrestling with the difference between the literary and commercial genres.

4 responses to “The Literary Genre, Part 1”

  1. I am obsessed with thinking about literary works and ordinary fiction. Most of my posts are about this topic. But I have not managed so concise a description. Very well expressed, and everything I have been thinking but cannot say as precisely as this.

    • What is it about the literary genre that generates so much obsession? I know exactly what you mean when you say you are obsessed because that’s what led to my giving it so much thought!

      • It all started with a few creative writing classes. I noticed they were all mechanical and seemed to be teaching formulaic writing, which came across as very contrived. And I went to a literary critique group where everyone seemed to be expounding what I think of as writer’s talking points. I began to notice that writers with an ability to write literary fiction, were being ripped apart by the folks that all appeared to have come out of the same writer conferences. That, and I am pursuing an English degree, so literature is on my mind a lot.

      • I can’t believe how uptight I used to get over literary writing. I believe you are right in saying that there’s a group of writers out there who think there is an arbitrary way to write literary works and that there is also an arbitrary way to talk about such writing. But eventually I noticed that, after any group of writers are finished discussing the literary genre, they seek out commercial writers and ask for publishing advice because they, too, would like to actually get paid for their work. And that’s when I stopped agonizing over literary fiction.

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