Literary Fiction: Not for the Timid

Melancholia1Looking through my NBT (Next Big Thing) list, I find dozens of attractive ideas for a new novel. I notice many of them would fall into the category of “speculative fiction,” which I believe is mostly realism, but with some fantastic “what-if” element that drives the story.

For example, what if a huge planet were on collision course to Earth (as in von Trier’s excellent movie, “Melancholia”)? What if a man and a boy trudged across a post-apocalyptic landscape (McCarthy’s “The Road”)?

I have loads of speculative story ideas, involving invisible men, telekinetic wizards and ordinary people with access to future events. All fun.

I also have a long list of sci-fi ideas, but I decided to give the genre a rest, having just come through a series of four novels. It’s still an attractive genre, the way I do it as “Boring Science Fiction” ( But I don’t want to get into a rut, which can be indistinguishable from a groove.

I would like to try literary fiction, if only I knew what that was. My idea of it is the novel treated as an art form, in which the character arc dominates the external story elements so as to illuminate something interesting about the human condition (Abe’s “Woman in the Dunes” is an example).

If I had no fantasy element, no distracting MacGuffin, I’d have to write a pure character-driven story. Okay, fine. I settled on a historical period and a cast of characters I had interest in. But as I began sketching, I became bored.

What was wrong? Am I so shallow that if a space ship doesn’t land by page ten I’m outta here? Do I need a murder on page one? My instinct is to go immediately to the speculative MacGuffin to drive the story. Am I bored because my character is boring?

I have to say that most of literary fiction I’ve read is uninteresting. I usually read at least five boring-as-dirt novels before I find one that grips me then haunts me for weeks or months. Most lit-fic doesn’t do it, and I’m afraid I would end up writing something that reads like a saltine cracker tastes.

So I went through a list of about a hundred literary novels I’ve read recently and separated the good ones from the bad and asked, What’s the difference?

The bad ones, even when they’re very well-written, tend to veer to one of two extremes. One batch tries to elevate ordinary everydayness to existential proportions and ends up wallowing in sentimentality. Elena Ferrante’s “Days of Abandonment” was like that. Allende’s “Eva Luna.” Larry Brown’s “Joe.” McCarthy’s “The Road” (I know – sacred cow).  I have a long list of these, including a whole, leafy branch of them that turn on utterly uninteresting (to me) kinship relations (Who was the real father? Answer: Who cares?).

The other category of “failed” lit-fic is wrapped in an eye-catching wrapper that disguises the quotidian machinations of the characters. A lot of “ethnic” and “immigrant” fiction is like that. (I know – politically incorrect. Kill me now).

Readers are supposed to be so caught up in the main character’s fish-out-of-water struggles that we don’t notice that there’s nothing going on that transcends ordinary human experience. We can be safely charmed by an “alien” culture without feeling condescending (I’ll name one of those, at risk of receiving death threats: Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”)

I am NOT saying that all writing by authors from nonwhite, non-mainstream cultures or at the margins of the dominant culture are uninteresting – far from it. I found Llosa’s “The Storyteller” gripping, for example, and Alexie’s “Reservation Blues” haunting. I’m making a case that fiction by or about minority culture is not, by itself, sufficient basis for an interesting lit-fic novel. The good ones have genuinely interesting characters that show us a humanity we may not have seen before.

My thesis is that reader empathy in any literary fiction depends on condescending sentimentalism. That’s the game. That’s how they’re written and that’s why they sell. A character must be seriously deficient, flawed, or conflicted to make it in a literary novel. That’s required in order to execute the art form. Plot points confront the character, revealing the hidden flaw (Aristotle’s “hamartia,”) and the drama arises from how the character deals with that.

The problem with “bad” literary fiction, I am proposing, is that the main character’s conflict is often mundane. Childhood trauma, overbearing parents, secret shame, shot a man in Reno, coulda been a contender.

Sometimes excellent writing elevates an ordinary conflict to the sublime, as Ishiguro did with Stevens the Butler in “Remains of the Day,” or Woolf did with Mrs. Dalloway. But too often, the conflict really amounts to the fact that the character is not very self-aware, which leads to disastrous behavior, but it’s still not interesting. This is a flaw I find in much of Faulkner’s writing, but also in characters like Rabbit Angstrom (Updike’s “Rabbit, Run”). Watching stupid people behave badly is just not that interesting to me.

Speculative fiction and sci-fi get around that problem by focusing on the exogenous story. End-of-the-world asteroid? Nobody saw that coming! And nobody really knows how any character would or should react to it, because nothing like that has ever happened. Finesse!

So, back to my trepidation about attempting to write literary fiction. I’m afraid I would write one of those milquetoasty, boring characters whose precious little conflict revolves around sibling rivalry, frustrated ambition, mixed feelings towards parents, and so on. I’m an ordinary person who has rarely faced the abyss, so I’d need to stretch my imagination and dig deep. Am I good enough to do that?


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