How to tell you’re reading literary fiction
It’s a term we hear all the time. “Literary fiction.” But what is it exactly? And how do you know if you’re reading it?
Some people think there’s no such thing as literary fiction, that it’s just a fancy pedigree it likes to give itself so that it can pretend to be superior to genre fiction, the stuff for the masses.
I don’t agree. I say there are definite and distinct differences to literary fiction. And as a service to y’all, I thought I’d outline what they are, as I see them:
In literary fiction…
1. The novel is set in exotic or rarely-visited places
Or at least chic and artsy. Literary fiction never happens in Orlando, Florida or Hoboken, New Jersey. You’re either dealing with somewhere far-off (preferably in the Eastern or Southern Hemisphere), very small-town America, or, if it is a largish-place, somewhere hip like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon. New York City, particularly SoHo, is excepted, since 1) that’s an unusual or iconic place unto itself, and 2) most of your literary fiction writers live there in the first place.
2. People in literary fiction are ethnic, and have unusual names
Forget Harry, Sue, Mike, and Kathy. Literary fiction characters are named Orsi, Hassan, Yukiko, Blue, Phandango and Yesim. If there is someone named Herb, he’s a foil, he’s square, and he’s not the hero.
3. No one has an ordinary day job
Literary fiction characters almost never have day jobs. People are always artists, writers, musicians, poets, or, if they must have a job, function as museum curators, liberal arts professors or antique-store cashiers. No one ever works in a mundane place such as a bank, an insurance office, or a land title company. There may be an occasional working-class hero who’s a plumber or food-truck vendor, but he’s looking towards bigger and better things, such as when his 900-page first novel is published or his indie band breaks out.
4. Everyone has had a convoluted or unconventional childhood
No one in literary fiction ever grew up in suburban neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs and shopping malls—unless the purpose is to show how unhappy they were there. (This is especially true of novels set in the 1950s.) Lit fic characters were raised in obscure towns or on fishing boats or in far-off foreign lands (never Milan or Paris). They had two mothers and no fathers. Or vice versa. Or they were home-tutored by some eccentric. They were separated from their sibling at six and not reunited with them till many years later. They grew up on a natural foods co-op or in a village in Somalia. Preferably war-ravaged.
5. Everyone in literary fiction lives a cool retro-life
iPads and iPhones and digital streaming? No way! People in literary fiction go to old-fashioned movie theaters to watch Casablanca and Bergman. They listen to Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday—on vinyl, naturally. They drive old Volvos and wear threads from thrift stores. Everyone has a guitar, but no one plays Guitar Hero. And get this, they still write letters to people. On paper. Sure they have email and texting, but they check it once in the whole novel, not every five minutes while they’re driving, the way your friends do.
6. Literary fiction characters read literary fiction novels
The people in these worlds routinely name-drop authors like Haruki Murakami, Thomas Pynchon, Zadie Smith and Philip Roth. Nobody reads Michael Crichton, Dan Brown or James Patterson. Stephenie Meyer? Diana Gabaldon? Who are they? You wonder how those authors have sold so many books in real life.
7. Literary fiction characters never worry about money
They are artists and poets, baristas and natural food co-op cashiers. Yet they never worry about money. I mean really worry. Sure there’s a La Boheme quality to their poverty, but somehow there’s no handwringing that that part-time bookstore job doesn’t come with medical and dental insurance.
8. They have a dark secret in their past
Long-lost love. Incest. Death of a parent they never knew. A secret document in the attic. Responsibility for someone’s early demise. There’s always something hinted at on page one that isn’t completely revealed till the last chapter. And they spend most of the novel naval-gazing incessantly, reflecting on every trivial moment of their lives since pre-school.
9. No humor allowed—unless it’s ironic/sardonic
Literary fiction is not out-and-out funny. The tone must always be thoughtful, serious and somber. Keepers of the literary flame seem to forget that a bearded Englishman who is considered the greatest writer ever wrote farcical “low-brow” comedies for common people, and that these are among his most beloved works. Sure, there are lit fic stories that purport to be comic, usually in a sarcastic or snarky way. Someone will always hasten to mention A Confederacy of Dunces. The defense rests.
10. They’re in “relationship transition”
Their boyfriend (sorry, it’s almost always a boyfriend) left them. Or died, after a horrid illness or freak accident. Or their spouse has divorced them. There are never nuclear families unless they are really, really FUBAR. Someone appears in the story to comfort them, but it’s always doomed and never lasts.
11. They don’t watch TV
Everyone in the real world is glued to Kitchen Nightmares, American Idol and The Big Bang Theory. People in lit fic never fill up their spare time perusing such drivel. They occasionally may flip on CNN, but only to learn about some big event overseas that’s affecting one of the story’s characters, ie, that civil war in Somalia. They do read The New York Times, however. Religiously.
12. The book has deckled edges
It’s either literary fiction or an American history book. Often the dust jacket looks artificially-aged too. And I just love that look. So sue me.