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Why Literary Fiction Isn’t Boring

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New.

Have you ever wanted to savor a meal because you’ve never tasted anything so good? Well, if you’re new to literary fiction, or can never seem to “get into it,” this is how you should try approaching it.

Think of the book as a meal with intricate scents, flavors and textures that you can’t quite recognize unless you spend a little more time with it, and give it some undivided attention. Because, trust me, sitting down a little longer than usual, to enjoy your meal, can be liberating, especially if accompanied by a great glass of red.

(Getting specific: Agents explain what they want to get RIGHT NOW.)

 

If guest columnist Jessica Bell could choose only one creative
mentor, she’d give the role to Euterpe, the Greek muse of music
and lyrics. And not because she currently lives in Greece, either.
The Australian-native author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist
has her roots firmly planted in music, and admits inspiration often
stems from lyrics she’s written. She is the Co-Publishing Editor of
the acclaimed Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the
Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop with Chuck Sambuchino
of Writer’s Digest. Her debut collection of poems, Twisted Velvet Chains
and novel, String Bridge, are available at all fine booksellers.
Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Sensory information is, more often than not, a huge focus in literary works. Literary fiction, unfortunately, gets a bad wrap for all the description it uses. This makes me sad because I adore it. I never used to. Until I realized how much there is to appreciate.

I’m convinced that some people think literary fiction is boring because they have the wrong expectations. Most literary works are not heavy on plot. It exists, but it is not usually the main focus. Primarily, the focus is on character and theme. So you cannot expect to pick up a literary novel and become so caught up in the story that you can’t bear to put it down. But so what? Each reading experience should be different, and inspire you in different ways. They should trigger questions, stimulate learning curves and general intrigue for the new. So, before you dismiss the idea of picking up another literary novel, because you didn’t get the thrilling ride of the last suspense you read, try taking a different approach.

(What types of novel beginnings get an agent or editor to keep reading?)

Try to focus on smaller elements rather than the book as a whole. Allow yourself to not finish the book “this week” because you’ve signed up to the Goodreads Book Challenge and need to reach your self-inflicted magic number. Give yourself that extra week to read a literary novel and you’ll discover the abundant beauty and importance of unique phrasing, character development, theme and symbolism, and how all these elements can effortlessly blend together to create a masterpiece; to create an atmosphere rarely found in the commercial works that can be gobbled up in one sitting. Focusing on these things is going to make your writing better. And you can learn to entwine, even if in the smallest of doses, a little more magic into your prose. And you never know, by not reading something for the storyline, you may actually start to enjoy a book that lacks the pace you’re used to. If you give your brain the opportunity to accept the difference, you give it room to enjoy the difference, too.

Take this amazing line from Marilynne Robinson’s, Housekeeping, which is well-known among my peers, as my most favorite book of all time:

“It was the kind of loneliness that made clocks seem
slow and loud and made voices sound like voices across water.”

Isn’t this just so beautiful?

Read it again. Slowly. Out loud. Now, feel it. What senses does this conjure? Can you hear the loud and slow clock ticking? Its echo crossing a flat lake trying to reach the disappearing voices of loved ones you wished existed? The still and stifling warm air at dusk? Your heartbeat in your ears? The emptiness in your chest? The melancholia you can’t seem to place? An amazing comparison to loneliness, don’t you think? The clocks, the voices, the loudness of heartache. *sigh* …

You can do this in your work. By reading a bit more literary fiction, you can discover small beauties like this one. You can then practice taking someone’s breath away in your own writing. Give your manuscript that extra touch of character, of magic, of prose so well crafted that others will wish they could write like you. Now … wouldn’t that be an amazing accomplishment? To write a page turner that makes a reader’s mouth water as well?

Tell me, do you read literary fiction? Why/Why not? If you’ve given up on literary fiction in the past, do you think you might like to give it another shot?

(How to project your future platform abilities when talking with an agent.)

 

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50 Responses to Why Literary Fiction Isn’t Boring

  1. Sapna says:

    Read ‘God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy and ‘The Gathering’ by Anne Enright, That was enough for me! Funnily though, Jane Austen finds a place among my favourite authors: maybe because her themes of romance and marriage coincide with the romantic fiction I read; or because girls are girls, whether in the 17th century or 21st. I also love ‘Man-Eater of Malgudi’ by R.K. Narayan for its potrayal of themes but then it also has a bit of a plot. And all Jane Austen books have a conclusive ending. I can’t stand books that have zero plot. sorry. that’s just not me. But, hey, combine literary fiction with plot and I’ll love them even more than page-turning American paperbacks.

  2. sonialal says:

    “…made voices sound like voices across water.” -> interesting metaphor for loneliness, but I not sure what it means.

    Okay, so, I had to read a lot of literary type books for school, but truthfully, most of the did bore me. Characters and all. There were some I liked (The Lover by Marguerite Duras! It was really, really good) but for the most part, I didn’t like them.

    You mention The Handmaid’s Tale up there somewhere, but that was a book I couldn’t get into. Tried, failed.

  3. pacanime says:

    The odd thing about editors is that they tend to cut the extra trimming out of writing by habit. They always use the reasoning that if it doesn’t help move the plot along, then it shouldn’t be there. I’ve had editors cut out extra descriptive scenes for that reason. I suppose they know what they’re doing, but the story you get in the end, isn’t the one you wrote in the beginning.

  4. My friends who write genre fiction (and sell) try to coach me, by pointing out that I don’t have an action scene on the first page, or my hero doesn’t vanquish anything, or that my ending doesn’t show how everything ended. It leaves them wondering, they say. And this is bad why? I ask. And when I go orgasmic about a book that contains “the abundant beauty and importance of unique phrasing, character development, theme and symbolism” and shows me “how all these elements can effortlessly blend together to create a masterpiece”, they slip their eyes at each other and pityingly shrug.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love genre fiction the way I love Junior Mints — and that’s how long they last. When I’m truly hungry, I reach for literary, old or new. It’s not just about “sounding” literary with description and ideas. It’s about sharing the feeling of what makes us human.

  5. This was a great article. I do love literary fiction. Actually, I like fiction in general, family sagas, coming of age novels, mysteries. But literary fiction is special, and I like it probably most of all for a well-turned phrase, a poetic insight. It’s a very different reading experience indeed, and not at all boring. (To me, anyway.)

  6. obasink says:

    Nice article, I love the depth and duty of the literary fiction. I enjoy reading science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc, but what I have carried, kept with me and read over and over again are the literary fictions.

  7. schwa says:

    I agree with that. One guy in my critique group keeps telling me he wants me to write what the main character is thinking in every scene. I keep wanting to say, “Can’t you tell from the subtext? It’s pretty obvious.” Subtlety is key in literary fiction, I keep telling him.

  8. phoenixgirl says:

    I just started reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I have a bazillion friends telling me how awesome the whole series is. It’s killing me getting through the detailed descriptions. I want to like it more than I am, but I do find myself saying “who cares?” a lot. In the novel I am writing, I have been told by a few of my critique group members that I don’t have enough description. I don’t think authors need to treat their audiences as idiots with no imagination and have to describe every little detail, but at the same time readers DO need to see the story in their minds. Finding the balance of description and telling the story is not easy.

  9. Claude Nougat says:

    Jessica, this is such a wonderful post and the comments too! I’m so glad somebody doesn’t think literary fiction is boring! I would just like to add to what you said a couple of things:
    (1) plot is important in literary fiction – just as important as in a thriller, but the difference is this: the plot derives from the characters in literary fiction, not the other way around.
    (2) lengthy descriptions are unfortunately associated with literary fiction probably as a result of History: after all the classics – I mean 19th century writers from Dickens to Balzac to Tolstoy – all wrote for a more leisurely society that enjoyed long, subtle descriptions.

    And the classics are those we most associate with “literary”. But it’s a misconception. Just think of, for example, Bulgakov: in the Master and Marguerite, there are very few descriptions and it’s fast paced. Of course, it doesn’t fit into the fantasy genre (even though there’s a devil about…) and it raises deep social issues – so it’s exquisitely literary and nothing else. The new kind of literary: few descriptions, fast paced, highly imaginative plot, it’s the sort of book you can’t forget – it raises issues, it makes you think!

    That’s what makes a work really literary – otherwise it merely pretends to be literary, simply because it doesn’t “fit” into any genre. I guess what I’m trying to say that it is not enough to move away from formulaic plots and characters (which characterize genre) to qualify as literary. It requires more than breaking the rules, it requires making your reader dream and think!

    • Jessica Bell says:

      I could not agree with you more, Claude! Thank you very much for posting this comment!

    • Sapna says:

      Problem with thriller- plot gets full attention and characters are secondary
      Problem with literary fiction- characters are primary and plot goes for a toss

      According to me, a good book needs- great characters, dynamic relationships between the characters and the problems arising from them, and at least some plot, however small, should be derived from these dynamics.

      Two great characters contemplating over a sunset through the whole book doesn’t make my idea of a good novel. Yes, there should be background themes, subtlety, emotions and contemplation. But they shouldn’t overpower the book so much so that it starts appearing like a documentary film or a work of non-fiction.

      Yes, classics suited the leisurely society of the 19 th century; today’s audience wants depth+entertainment. Let’s face it: No one has the time anymore. We want themes and issues to be fused with plots. It is possible: One of the most popular series of the 21st century, Harry Potter has more themes than you can imagine- so many deep themes and issues, in fact, that you begin to wonder why it is called a children’s series. It also happens to be highly entertaining!

  10. Jessica Bell says:

    “To draw a line between face paced plot and literary fiction isn’t very fair.” That is absolutely correct. And if we try to blur that line, I think literary fiction might find a home in more readers’ hearts. In addition, literary fiction doesn’t always mean delicious descriptions and weighty words. Take, Raymond Carver, for instance. His work was literary, but minimalist. Take, Room, by Emma Donoghue. This could also be classed as literary fiction. But it is written from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who doesn’t have much of a vocabulary, so overly descriptive prose is impossible. There are all sorts of literary works out there that don’t fit into the pigeon hole many readers slot it into.

  11. Cat York says:

    I agree with above commenter. I appreciate a skillfully structured sentence as much as anyone. I don’t mind detail, and I can get lost in a book and read slowly if I feel the pace is right for it. One of my favorite books is “A Prayer for Owen Meany” took me months to read, but I ate up the Hunger Games in three days. There’s a difference, but the idea is the same: there has to be a story in there. Tolstoy/Irving/Austen (and contemporaries like Pullman and Martin) – they have stories to tell. I’m in when I feel there’s a direction. To draw a line between face paced plot and literary fiction isn’t very fair. I was in for Anna Karenina from page one to the end, and that’s a plot that takes time to unfold, but it kept me turning pages and hanging on every sentence. Now I know if I’m going to devote a large amount of my time to reading a thick novel, I want to it have more than just delicious descriptions and weighty words. I need a good story. I feel that’s a fair request.

  12. DPUSA says:

    What annoys me about some literary authors is they feel that if they dump in a truckload of details, their story will magically sound more literary. Sorry, it makes it more tedious.

    Also, using obscure details that people have never heard of, much less are able to pronounce, pulls one out of the story. Do we really need to know the name of every single gear shift in some piece of farm equipment? If it’s not related to the plot, keep it moving.

    Some literary writers have no clue what tension is, nor how a scene functions. You don’t have to do scene with a lot of dialogue, you can do it with prose and have it be just as stunning.

    And as far as Marilynne Robinson is concerned, I’ll be honest. I’ve tried and tried and tried with her books, because she teaches at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she’s supposed to be great, whatever! Time and time again, I have dropped the book because it was just SLOW.

    And honestly, I’m tired of people telling me I’m defensive because I think writers like Julie Hecht are BORING, or because I find Mariylnne Robinson TEDIOUS, or that Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon makes no sense. Same with Jhumpra Lahiri. While she’s moody, I can’t get through her stories.

    But yet take a look at George R.R. Martin … on Amazon alone he has 2,000 reviews on the first of a seven-book sequel. 2,000 is more than the print run for most literary fiction novels. There’s a problem. When literary fiction abides by plot, knows how to manipulate scenes, etc., the feeling is unmatched. But sadly so much of the literary fiction published today misses that mark by a mile.

    On the brighter side, I am enjoying Tolstoy and Richard Bausch.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      I’m glad you said “some” literary writers because I might have had to hunt you down ;) I do agree that sometimes writers go overboard in their descriptions, but as I said above, at the end of the day it all comes down to taste and not everybody has to like everything. Thanks for reading and being so honest!

  13. severineyung says:

    I love literary fiction! My favorite one ever is “The Mill on the Floss” by George Eliot. The characterization of the protagonist is just the most amazing thing I’ve ever read–it is so emotionally and psychologically complex! The word choices are so well calculated to generate the exact emotional responses from me too–I just love Victorian prose.

    However, I recently got into that trend of trying to read books as quickly as possible, so I got really impatient with “Middlemarch” (yup, George Eliot again.) But soon after, I got myself to enjoy the book again by making myself slow down and read the sentences almost word by word, in my head, to listen to their tune, rhythm, and punch. I also enjoy reading about the strange psychologies of the characters Eliot depicts.

    So I’m really glad you wrote this article. It reminds me to look not for the plot–what happens next, but to look for beautiful language, characterization (this is my personal favorite), and themes and symbols.

    I have to admit, I don’t pay enough attention to themes, symbols, imagery, and how they all link up to create a piece of art. If I did, I would probably derive even more joy from my literary fiction reading.

    Thanks for this inspiring article!

  14. Chaline says:

    I prefer reading a book with weightier prose. However, it can be overdone. Nothing makes me put down a book faster than overwrought descriptions that somehow reveal more about the writer than anything. else. The writer’s work must blend. Too much “literary” sticks out like, well, a thesaurus.

  15. schwa says:

    I write literary fiction and I’ve discovered it is a mistake to join writing critique groups with people who don’t get it. They will not understand your piece and will take all the art out of your work with their philistine suggestions.

    • nhemyers says:

      Wow! A kindred spirit! You should write to me since I have that problem too. The most popular genre is, sigh. fantasy and some of it is so unreal!

      I do love the beauty of literary descriptions. But a literary novel is not just beautiful words; it’s the depth given to the story, the angle from which the story is approached…

    • Jessica Bell says:

      Yes, I used to have that problem too. But then I found a couple of wonderful writer’s who “got” me, and it’s been bliss ever since! :)

  16. xjimh says:

    Why literary fiction is boring, to me at least: There is no plot! Nothing happens! It goes nowhere! Sorry, I was brought up on genre fiction like Science Fiction, Fantasy, the occasional murder mystery, and I just can’t stand literary fiction. I write, too, and it’s all genre work.

    I don’t object to nice descriptions, as long as it’s there to supplement the plot (oops, there’s that p-word again). But if nothing happens, I will probably just put the book down and never pick it up again. I forced myself to go all the way through “Pride and Prejudice” and it convinced me of only one thing … Janet Evanovitch is a far better writer than Jane Austen.

    James Hartley

    • Jessica Bell says:

      I think you’ll find, though, that there are literary fiction books out there that do utilize plot and have just as much as a hook as any genre fiction piece of work. It all really depends on the writer. Literary fiction doesn’t only mean the classics. There are plenty of modern literary works out there. Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance. That is science fiction, with a very strong plot, but written in a literary style. (On another note, I prefer not to think of literary as a genre, it’s more of a style of writing and can be applied to any type of story.) I do agree with you that some descriptions get too much. But there is an audience for it. Not everybody has to like everything, right?

  17. gouldgit says:

    I’m sorry to be the Grammar Nazi today, but I thought for sure someone else would catch this by now. The term “bad wrap leapt out at me in the email newsletter. I thought it would be corrected here, but it hasn’t been and none of the other commenters have pointed it out.

    Bad Writer’s Digest, bad! ;) Fifty lines on Bart Simpson’s chalkboard!

  18. peden101 says:

    Jessica: My first novel in progress is a crime mystery with a lot of psychological journeys by ordinary people that get caught up in a dramatic, life-changing event. I have found that even though I am pretty convincing writing fast-paced drama/action (murder, rape, conspiracy), I can’t resist weaving emotional character examination into the story, and with both I tend to lean toward literary wordplay, phrases, vivid descriptions that evoke feelings. I’m concerned I may lose both the reader looking for basic, formulaic storytelling and the reader, like you, that relishes a magically-turned sentence. What’s your take on this conundrum?

    • Jessica Bell says:

      My take is that you write what is in your heart for the time being, and maybe later on you can analyse if it needs any tweaking. There is always going to be someone out there who loves a bit of both (like me!). And in the beginning, this was MY conundrum exactly. I rewrote String Bridge SEVEN times over a period of five years, trying to target it to a particular audience, and the more I thought about that, the more flat and unauthentic everything became. Rejection rejection and more rejection. Then I was lucky enough to find my publisher, who saw something in me, and said, “Well, I can’t publish it like this, but if you’re willing to rewrite it from a completely honest place like I know you’re capable of, and forget about ‘the rules’, I think this will be a beautiful book. Please submit it to me again when you’re done.” I did exactly that. And being honest and true to myself got me a publishing contract. Never ever EVER underestimate the power of passion. If you’ve got it in you, others will recognise it too. Good luck!

    • tjmuta says:

      I realize I’m not Jessica, but I’ll see if I can help. One of my personal favorites is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which, in case you don’t know, is about a murderer and his struggle with his actions, as well as his efforts to evade the police. The story follows much the same line you’re treading now, but good ol’ Fyodor really took a literary angle and expounded upon his character Raskolnikov’s struggle with his action; however, there is of course the police’s efforts and a touch of a love story. In the end, it’s a compelling novel that suggests so much about human nature that it begs its reader to turn the page in an intrepid discovery of not only story, but of the character on the pages and the one that turns them. If I were in your position, I would follow what Jessica Bell said, and write for you; if you want it to be a 450 page novel like Fyodor, then put as much philosophy as you like; if you want to appeal to the markets and go for, say, 300 pages, then just put in enough to make the reader savor the little bits of wisdom that you’ve fed them.

  19. Carol says:

    I love literary fiction and aspire to write it. You’ve touched an important point, Chuck. It must be read slowly. Every day demands often cause me to devour books as fast as possible. When I do that to literary fiction, my first response is to not like the book. But the problem is me, not the book. When I force myself to slow down and read these books again, I discover the treasures I missed. Marilyn Robinson’s GILEAD is another good example.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      Carol, you’re absolutely right. Sometimes it is us and our impatience that hinders the reading experience. All Marilynne’s books have inspired me to become a better writer. I think we can learn a lot from taking the time out to appreciate her work.

  20. Tammy Denton says:

    I love Literary Fiction. Yes, I capitalized it because it deserves that distinction. I love a story that lingers long after the last page. I find myself wondering what those characters are doing now. Literary Fiction turns those characters into family members.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      Yes, that’s exactly how I end up feeling about them. Of course, it depends how well the book is written. There are always going to be “bad” books out there. But one person’s trash is another’s treasure, yes?

  21. pkhrezo says:

    Jessica does such a good job of this too. I love literary fiction because it gives me a chance to take my time with the story and enjoy the characters. And that sentence is gorgeous. That’s what fine writing is all about.

  22. KarenLange says:

    I’ve not read any in a while, but I’m thinking I need to. Thanks for the enlightenment and encouragement, Jessica!

  23. I read and write literary fiction. I can’t honestly say that I am an avid reader but I do get in my share of very great written stories from time to time. I have also learned that literary fiction does get a very unnecessary bad rap, which I have never understood. My personal opinion is that I would rather read fiction than nonfiction. I think we have enough reality in the world that is aired on the daily news and the COUNTLESS reality television shows… (Yawns)… BORING!

    At least fiction puts me into the life of someone who is actually not real and it gives me great pleasure to be able to escape from all of this disappointing and BORING reality that everyone seems to be more interested in.

    As a male writer, I have learned that many of the literary agents who claim to be interested in representing literary fiction writers are leaning more towards women fiction writers more than male fiction writers. I find this to be very sexiest as well as disappointing. So, in today’s world – it’s either women fiction or nonfiction.

  24. Natalie Aguirre says:

    I’ll be honest that I don’t read much literary fiction. I tend to like more paranormal, fantasy, & dystopian books, which are more plot driven. But I agree that some of them are probably really good. And I loved classics like Jane Eyre in high school. Thanks for inspiring me to try another literary book soon.

  25. leightmoore says:

    Great post, and you’re so right about what makes literary fiction unique. It’s the type of writing you savor, but unfortunately, that’s also part of the problem for modern readers, I think. Lack of time, distractions, short attention spans, etc., hurt this gorgeous genre. Here’s hoping the pendulum swings back. I love getting lost in well-written literary fiction. Like yours! :o)

    P.S.
    Love that excerpt.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      Aw, thank you, Leigh. I’m hoping the pendulum swings back too. I’m also hoping that more literary writers start to blend in a bit more plot into their work so that people who DO think it’s boring might begin to change their minds.

  26. LK Hunsaker says:

    Hi Jessica, Housekeeping is also at the top of my favorites list, along with her other novels. I’ve been reading literary fiction since my early teen years when they were assigned in English class and almost everyone groaned. I loved to be able to sit around the house and read a book and say, “I’m doing homework.” It felt like I was cheating in some way. I think too many learn to hate literary fiction in school when it’s forced because they think they aren’t supposed to like it. It’s homework, after all. That’s sad.

    I try to mix literary elements such as social issues and innuendos to make reader pause and think within my stories that have more plot to hold modern reader interest. It doesn’t work well with those who expect straight plot and “get to the point” stories, but for some, it opens new doors and hooks them. Yes, it’s very possible to combine the two.

  27. Theresa says:

    I’ll read anything, except maybe horror and romance. (Had a stomach for horror, which I’ve lost over the years.) While I don’t read a lot of literary fiction, those books tend to stick with me longer and be my favorites. My husband only reads literary fiction.

  28. I love literary fiction because the numerous literary devices can be used to create a whole new level of depth in a work. By use of tone, symbolism, foreshadowing, deconstruction, and other devices, an author can essentially make a book not only a story, but a puzzle to be solved. It doesn’t get better than that….

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