follow a rookie writing his first novel

My novel: an identity crisis

Well, actually, crisis might be stretching things a bit as the first draft has only just now lurched past the 10,000 word barrier like a marathon runner that smokes 40 a day – a mere foetus of a novel, with no identity at all yet to speak of. But, the question of identity did occur to me this week, prompted by a question Kirsty Wark posed to Ian McEwan in this weeks book review show. The question was about literary fiction and did he consider his work to be in that category.

Now, I’ve heard the term, but what does it actually mean? A lot of the publishers in Writers & Artists Yearbook seem to contrast it with commercial fiction, but doesn’t this suggest that would make it non-commercial? Whose going to write that? And wouldn’t that then include all the unsuccessful novels languishing in the EPub world as well?

I’ve also heard it described as the sort of book used in literature classes at school and uni. Let me see (he says dredging back ancient memories of ‘O’ level English). That would include Chaucer’s ‘The Nuns Priests Tale’, Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’, Dickens’ ‘A tale of Two Cities, Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ and H.G.Wells ‘A History of Mr Polly’. Now, while I might wish I hadn’t been made to read all of them, they don’t seem to have much else in common – and if they are all considered literary fiction, were they always in this category? I mean, Dickens was widely read in his day as a popular novelist. So what’s this category all about?

Why am I bothered? Ah yes, the identity crisis. I’m beginning to suspect that the novel I’m writing isn’t falling into a neat genre category. Yes, it does have elements of fantasy, BUT, all the elements I’m including are actually practised by occultists and shaman today. It also has (or will have) demonstrations of occult theory in practise woven into the storylines, hidden for those who know about such things to discover. The work will just as much be about a persons development through magical means in overcoming their mental limitations such as fear and anxiety as it is about fantasy.

Perhaps the best I can do is call it contemporary fiction, but this sounds so bland.

What do you think? What do you know about what makes literary fiction, literary fiction? all ideas appreciated…


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7 thoughts on “My novel: an identity crisis

  1. I have never found a satisfactory definition of “literary fiction” (not that I’ve looked very hard, I admit). Someone proposed a definition that indicated “literary” fiction is more concerned with our deep esssences as human beings and “genre” fiction is more concerned with stuff that happens (I’m paraphrasing). I rejected this because Thomas Pynchon (who is generally considered “literary”) doesn’t fit into this description, and in fact some people complain that his characters have no interior life at all.

    My working definition for “literary” fiction is “fiction which wants to be taken serously by literary critics, and therefore doesn’t include zombies, detectives, space ships, magic spells, swords, corsets, vampires, elves, costumed heroes, or anything that might make the average person laugh out loud.”

    I don’t worry too much about genre myself (my stuff is usually a bit of a mash-up), but I think there is a genre called urban fantasy (fantasy elements in the regular world). That might fit. I recommend you check out Theresa Bazelli’s work in the area of categories: http://www.tsbazelli.com/blog/category/sff-genre-glossary/

  2. Literary fiction is a book that is packed full of similes, metaphors, allusions, symbolism, and all that fun stuff. You can literally spend a year reading and re-reading one of these books, re-interpreting it a thousand different ways. Most literary fiction is supposedly earth-shatteringly brilliant, although from personal experience, only about 5% of all literary fiction is actually worth reading. It very rarely includes supernatural elements (but deities are okay), and usually has to do with extremely flawed characters getting themselves into horrible situations, and often dying as a result.
    – Sincerely, a survivor of high school English class

    • Thanks for that. One book that instantly springs to mind that fits this bill is James Joyce Ulysses – well into literary fiction territory and so very hard to read… Do you know if authors start out with the idea of writing in this category or does their work get labelled with it later?

      • I imagine they would have to do it on purpose. Although the authors who write literary fiction are usually brilliant, so maybe that’s just the way they write.

      • Michelle: I love your definition of “literary” fiction. I may quote it on my blog (with attribution, of course 🙂 ).

        Martin: On one hand, I must speak up for Ulysses, which I have enjoyed many times (and much of which is not diffiicult to read at all). On the other hand, some of it is impenetrable (I know where those parts are and I usualy skip them when re-reading it), and Joyce definiely planned it that way. He said in correspondence that the route to literary immortality was to write something that could never be completely figured out.

      • Yes, not knocking Joyce, I think he’s great too 🙂

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