Sunday, September 18, 2011

LIterary Fiction? Are You Serious?

When someone asks me what I write, my answer is, "Fiction." The inevitable follow-up question is, "What kind of fiction?" If I could say, "Mysteries," or "Sci-fi", or "Horror," that would be the end of it. What I'd really like to say is, "Literary fiction," but that sounds awfully snooty, doesn't it? It's as if I'm looking down my nose and saying, "Serious fiction. Fiction that matters." That isn't what I mean. Although, in a way, it is. Let me explain.
I was an English Lit major long, long ago. In that era in Academia, Literary Fiction was the stuff you studied. In contrast, Genre Fiction--mysteries, sci-fi, horror, romance--was the stuff you just read.
That distinction soaked into my soul. I built a magical castle in the clouds and invited Jane Austen and Herman Melville to join me there--along with Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway--Theodore Dreiser and John Updike--and all of the other serious authors. They were special. And if I intended to be an author, I wanted to be special, too. Way up there in the clouds with them. Above the fray.
Other writers wanted to be popular and make money. I didn't blame them. But they were, in my view, marching to the beat of a lesser drummer.
Not long after I left Academia, I, too, began marching to the beat of that lesser drummer. Because I wanted to make money. (I was getting married, and that's quite a serious matter, too.) Writing fiction was too chancy, so I got steadier work as an editor. And then, as my family grew, I became a speechwriter, weaving fiction of the corporate variety.
I never regretted my decision. Yet I often dreamed of that magical castle and my old pals--Jane, Charles, Ernest--the whole serious gang. Perhaps someday I would be able to join them again.
That day did come. When I retired from corporate life, I returned to my magical castle. I began to write fiction. My first book--a collection of short stories, The Terminal Project and Other Voyages of Discovery (Sunstone Press)--was published in 2005. It was finalist in the science fiction category of the New Mexico Book Awards. But, in truth, it wasn't a sci-fi collection, although the majority of stories were science fiction. But several of the pieces were contemporary, realistic. One was a fantasy. One was what I would call a historical detective story. And that made the book a difficult item to categorize. And to sell. The target audience was too diverse.
But all the stories did have one thing in common. Although I hesitate to say it, they were all Literary Fiction.
Let me define what that means to me. Of course, an author of literary fiction, like every author, wants to be popular. He (or she) wants to be loved. He wants to be read by as many people as possible. He wants to entertain. He hopes to make as much money as possible. He tries to write as skillfully as he can. He yearns for both popular and critical acclaim.
What, then, distinguishes literary fiction from other forms of fiction? The difference is: in one way or another, literary fiction is about you, the reader. It resonates with you. It speaks to you about your own life. It stimulates reflection. Because whatever form or genre literary fiction adopts, it always offers the reader something more than a compelling story and interesting characters. It is an attempt to provide insight, expand understanding--of a society, or a time in history. It analyses social or sexual or emotional relationships. It conveys a sense of the ways of the world, or of our place in that world.
Does my definition work for you? I'd like to know what you think about it.

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