“Literary” is a type of book many people admire, but it’s not a genre that people necessarily seek. It’s even hard to call it a genre the way “mystery,” “romance,” and “paranormal” might be. Books that appear on Amazon’s literary best seller list, for example, reveal how widely defined “literary” really is.
For instance, this week, number one is Paula Hawkin’s novel, The Girl on the Train, a psychological thriller along the lines of Gone Girl. Yet it’s also under “literary” in three spots in the Top Ten, for Hardcover, Kindle, and Audio versions.
Also on the list is Elizabeth Hall’s Miramont’s Ghost, a ghost story partly set in France in 1884 and in present day Colorado. Tan Twan Eng’s A Gift of Rain is sixth on the list and it takes place at the end of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, focusing on a young man caught in a web of wartime loyalties and deceits. It neatly fits into historical fiction. It’s also “literary.”
These join the list with Harper Lee’s soon-to-be-released Go Set a Watchman, a sequel to To Kill at Mockingbird, definitely literary. Still, in my mind, what all the novels here share is good writing, and they’re stories about interesting, even ordinary people.
I wrote my two collections of short stories and my first two novels without any thought of genre or being “literary.” All my stories simply revolve around some huge problem that comes to an otherwise ordinary person. I put pressure on my characters and then look to see what they do. As one of my mentors, playwright Robert E. Lee, co-writer of Inherit the Wind, said “plot is nothing more than following what interesting people do.” When it came time to market my first books, they were marketed as “literary.”
However, my last two novels are crime books. I fully understood I was writing in a genre. I didn’t study the genre to be a copycat and fit some steely paradigm. I do read the genre, though. A mystery novel, at its core, has to have a murder and a mystery about who did it. There have to be dead ends. Still, that didn’t stop me from making my protagonist, Patton Burch, in A Death in Vegas, an interesting man.
Patton runs a beneficial bug business for organic gardeners, and when the gorgeous and smart model he hired to be a lady bug for his booth at a Las Vegas convention turns up dead in his hotel room, and the police focus on him, he breaks off to solve the mystery and clear his name. I knew going in, I had to have surprises, but there’s something about the way I see the world—it’s absurdity—that still slips in. If writing rich characters and coming up with certain truths about life is literary, then that’s what I’m still doing, but within the mystery genre.
I have to say, when I was in the MFA writing program at USC—and then later I taught there—we never focused on “literary” or any genre, for that matter. We just focused on writing stories. Of course, in hindsight, I think it could be helpful to aspiring writers to understand genre and what they’re writing so if they’re aiming for certain readers, you can meet their expectations while meeting your own.
If you’re as an eclectic reader as I am, then you’ll have similar tastes in what you think of as a good novel. Off the top of my head, I’ve loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the non-linear Pulitzer Prize winning story of a group of intersecting characters, including a record producer. I thoroughly enjoyed and recently taught in my English class The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which takes place in Iraq and is a different story than the one I’m writing. I also love rereading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, a detective novel, which my wife is reading now. All can be considered literary.
Shelly Lowenkopf in his fabulous The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, which offers an understanding of hundreds of terms that writers use, defines “literary story” as “a prose narrative written to discover a feeling, intent, or meaning; an exercise of the writer’s curiosity to see where the problem will lead and whence the solution—if any—will come; a prose narrative in which the writer knows the conclusion or believes the provisional conclusion is, in fact, the conclusion, then retraces in order to clarify the obstacle.”
I can guarantee few if any writers start out writing a novel saying, “Let me figure out an ending and then I’ll retrace it to clarify the obstacle.” Such a definition is more of what an agent, publisher, or critic might think in trying to analyze a story. In fact, Lowenkopf dives into what a writer often does, which is begin the literary story “with a dramatic construct located beyond his ability to see an easy way out.” A literary story, he says, “is a contract made by the writer not to write anything safe.”
I love that point because with anything I ever write, even if I create a detailed outline (and I do so for novels), I’m never sure if my story will work. Will it meet my initial hopes for it? I write many drafts until it works. Surprises happen as I write, so that I have to dive back into my outline and change things. My outlines have their own lives. They are not etched with a chisel in granite.
I know some book reviewers in the future might try to figure out the path I’ve taken to what I write and publish. For instance, the novel I’m now writing is a first-person war novel that takes place in Iraq in 2007, and how does that fit in with my other novels? I’ll let readers figure it out.
My novels include a protagonist who is a film producer, another who’s a top quantum physicist, one who is a graduate student writing a dissertation on playwright David Mamet, and now in A Death in Vegas, my beneficial bug guy.
All I can say is to jump in and hold on for an experience. If that’s literary, that’s what I do. I love doing it--a perfect declaration today for Valentine's Day. Happy Valentine's Day.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.