What distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction, if it isn’t sales and popularity?
One of the distinguishing characteristics of literary fiction is that stories of this ilk may not have happy endings. The characters may not be likable, but the reader will get to know a great deal about them and their internal struggles. The writer will attempt to shed light on the human condition by creating vivid settings and circumstances, and by showing what relationships set inside them or against them reveal about the characters’ lives.
A second distinction that identifies literary fiction appears to be the presence of the writer’s “voice,” a writing style that is unique and memorable. Writing that feels fresh, that engenders an emotional response in the reader as the story explores symbolic and even metaphysical themes is more likely to qualify as literary fiction. Experiments with language and structure are not unusual, as the writer may provide a glimpse into another world and other kinds of relationships where even the rules of language have changed.
This is the point at which literary fiction may cross a line and become magical realism; but instead of focusing on the issue of whether a magical place could exist, the reader suspends disbelief willingly in order to learn how it affects the people who live there.
In the world of fiction readers as opposed to created worlds, there are purists lurking who so desire to elevate the consciousness of their friends, family, and other targets that they set aside time in which only well-regarded works—of literary fiction— may be discussed. Groups of such folk gather periodically all over Houston for just this purpose, though they hide their true intentions beneath benign phrases such as “book club.”
In assemblies where lofty intercourse is so highly valued, book club members actually present opinions about the writing, characters, and story arcs of the monthly selection—and may even be called upon to defend their opinions in polite debate (college English Lit, indeed, except with better wine and adult-style noshes). Knowing their preference for worthwhile pursuits, a Controller of the Book List helps members select each month’s book; but the options include only literary fiction. The Controller (and the members) disdain Travis McGee and the boat he sailed in on, as well as most authors who still breathe.
There are some happy exceptions in the world of book clubs, though, where the readers are encouraged to bounce back and forth between classics and commercial fiction, and where lively debates about the character’s choices, the writer’s voice, and his intentions still occur. Living authors visit these book clubs to tease the readers with contrary interpretations and with the promise of another story to come. Most of my writer friends like these better, as it’s hard to compete with any corpse of renown.
My work is “commercial,” by necessity of the format I’ve chosen, which is the screenplay. But isn’t everyone’s? I have learned that I must keep testing my initial story concept for its commercial potential, or else my work may wander into the category of “hobby,” and that isn’t how I view it. I take it seriously enough to continue to write, read, study, compare, test, and expose it for critique, in the hope of improving it…which means making it more readable. More—literary.
Even though it sounds somehow more serious or substantial to be a writer of literary fiction, I know by now that Hollywood loves a screenplay that clearly fits a popular genre. In fact, many wonderful books, award-winning books, have been adapted for film with unprofitable and uninspiring results because they are too literary. From the Latin littera, meaning—letters that one reads. Letters, not diary entries.
Eventually, I believe, every writer hopes that there will be a large audience for his or her stories. The moment will come when that writer will make the right neural connection between something that is interesting enough to write about it, characters that will entertain and intrigue a significant group of others, and an engrossing way to get the story across.
Lee Jessup, former director of ScriptShark.com, is a career coach for screenwriters. She advises, “Choosing your next project, be it a spec screenplay, a TV pilot or a television spec, should not only be a creative decision; it should, in a perfect, business-savvy world, represent a strategic decision as well.”
In choosing my latest project, I’m finally seeing the light. I’m seeing the audience lining up at the box office, and this time I’m paying attention to who they are and what they say about what they expect to see. If a movie of mine is also deemed a work of literary genius—so much the better, I admit. But it’ll be quite good enough if they tell their friends, “Don’t miss it!”
Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in A Death in Texas, Dead and Breakfast, A Box of Texas Chocolates, Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks,Underground Texas, and Deadly Diversions. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.