Literary Fiction

Hey writers, a question:

Why do you write?

Or -

Why do you want to share your stories?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, vaguely, but it sharpened yesterday during my fiction studio. In order to classify a book we’re reading, my professor explained briefly the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction. The break down after discussion was ultimately this:

Literary fiction

1. Explores the human condition

2. Universal

3. Influenced or alludes to classic/influential writers

4. Higher level language and theme. Should have beautiful or meaty writing.

5. If it uses a type of genre (sci-fi, dystopian, etc), then the story is not dependent solely on that genre


1. Follows a formula

2. That it’s.

3. Nope, I’m serious, that’s pretty much what the class came up with. Mystery, detective, romance, sci-fi, fantasy… the distinction is a formula

The professor said, in contrast to “exploring the human condition,” that stories can also have the purpose to entertain or critique. She also explained that there is a lot of fiction that blurs the line between literary and genre, take for example Ursula Le Guin, who is both.

And that just made me really curious. What really makes us write? Is there a distinction between the drives of a literary writer and a genre writer? I’ve always thought that when it came down to it, all writers shared the basic creative need for self expression. Like, creativity is a form of zombie-ism that drives us to spread our experience with any victim that’s not fast enough. But the reasons aside from or on top of that might be more complicated than I thought.

For most beginning fiction writers, the phrase Write What You Know sounds like advice to produce thinly veiled autobiography. That’s what I heard in those four words, and judging from what many of my MFA classmates churned out back in the day, it’s what they heard, too.

It makes perfect sense; what subject could you know better than yourself? The bitter realization that comes later—if you’re lucky—is that just because something happened in real life does not necessarily mean it will work in a story.

Let me repeat that. Something that happened in real life will not necessarily work in a story.

—  Kate Southwood, “Write What You Know Is Not Good Advice”
Genre/commercial fiction vs. Literary fiction

Genre stories are made to showcase the genre. They generally feature static characters, whose purpose is to serve the story’s plot. There is little to no character development and they tend to be fast paced and “action-based” (not necessarily intense, fighting action; could be dramatic action like in romance/erotic novels).

Literary stories are made to showcase the theme. These stories generally feature dynamic characters; and in these stories, the plot serves to develop these characters, in turn, expounding on the story’s theme. Like many classic novels, these stories are often much more slowly paced, with a focus on introspection and social commentary (those boring stories we had to read in our English classes).

“She made herself stronger by fighting with the wind.”
–Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Red = Rage. Ocean = Longing. Literary =

Every so often I have this conversation at a school visit.  

After my presentation, a student drags a beleaguered English teacher to my side.  

STUDENT (always with a rather mocking tone): So, Maggie, when you put red curtains in a scene, does that mean that the characters are angry and stuff?
ENGLISH TEACHER: That’s not quite—
STUDENT: —Because we are supposed to analyze all of these books and I don’t think any of the writers actually put in an ocean in the scene just so that two hundred years later we could read it and think the ocean stands for longing.
ENGLISH TEACHER: Sometimes a literary device—
STUDENT: I think we’re just looking for stuff that isn’t there. The writer just put in an ocean because the book TAKES PLACE BY THE BEACH. And the rest was invented by evil English teachers.
ENGLISH TEACHER: If I were evil, I'd—
STUDENT: —So, you’re the writer: do red curtains mean anger?
ME: Curtains do make me angry.

And then I was at LeakyCon, sitting in on a panel called “Is YA Literature?” to find out if I was writing literature, and this (summarized) conversation happened:

The panelists have just been asked to define what is meant by literary fiction.  

SMART ADULT WRITER: All I know is, I know literary fiction when I see it.
SMART YA WRITER: I got a look at the guidelines for assigned school reading and they suggested it be a book with enough content to be analyzed. Enough depth to support multiple interpretations.
ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER: I think literary is a ridiculous term and value is assigned by our readers, right here, right now: do they like it or not? There’s no such thing as a good book or a bad book. There’s a book that matters to a reader.

I think you can talk in endless circles about what constitutes “literary” fiction and whether it’s good or bad or has no value or can be traded for a gallon of milk. And I also think you can talk in endless circles about whether or not there are “good” books and “bad” books and who gets to decide which is which. And if you do ever find an end to these circles, you can finish up with a indefatigable dessert course of the literary writing versus commercial writing debate.

So I’m instead going to talk about the one thing that interests me about fiction: getting into your head and moving stuff around. I am in the business of changing people’s moods and making them see scenes the way that I see them and feel things the way I want them to be felt. You may consider me Very Interested in learning everything I can about doing all that more effectively.

Sometimes, dear reader, this is going to mean making the curtains red.

Please know that I’m not much for literary writing for the sake of literary writing. I enjoy a nice turn of the phrase, sure. I do enjoy picking apart novels to see what makes them tick. But my academic pleasure runs out very quickly (now there is the least sexy sentence I’ve ever written). As a writer, I am delighted to be given literary prizes, but they aren’t on my list of goals. I’m chiefly interested literary devices insofar as they allow me to more effectively get inside your head and move around the furniture.

 And they do. Allow me to demonstrate.

Here are two paragraphs from one of my favorite sequences from The Dream Thieves*:

 *these are not spoilery, although they are from the middle of the book, so if you want to be totally uninformed on the action of Book 2, I suggest you wander to another corner of the Internet.

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Oh, I had such


for this party scene. I wanted the reader to see it just like I did. The all-encompassing luxury, warm and old and unquestioned. The complexity of the political world, the beauty of wealth, and the stagnation and corruption of old, unchallenged value systems. Adam, as my point-of-view character, is feeling and thinking about all of these things, and I wanted the reader to experience it with him.

I could have told the reader all of those things. Point blank. I could have gone with a barebones description of the driveway:

The circular driveway was packed with so many elegant vehicles that the valets had to turn cars away.

And then just had Adam muse in italics about his feelings on being there. But then you would only


it. You wouldn’t have


it. I wouldn’t really be getting into your head and moving things around unannounced. I’d be walking in, hanging up a mirror, then pointing and saying “there’s a mirror. It’s yours now.”

 Here’s another snippet from later:

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Okay, the curtains aren’t red. But the runner is purple. How noble!

Man, I was working hard in this little section. In reality, the hallway of the house is lush and content and established. But inside our two protagonists, trouble brews — you can see it in the mirror. The side table, on the outside of the glass, is


But the mirror-image of the tidy hallway is






. Again, I could’ve just told you: on the outside, the boys look foxy and orderly in suits, but on the inside, they are hot messes. But I don’t want you to know. I want you to feel. And our old friends, those countless literary devices of simile, metaphor, allusion, figurative language … that’s the way in. It’s not about fancy literary prizes. It’s not about seeming impenetrable or smart or high fallutin. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am trying to make you feel a story, that’s all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe in the literary/ commercial divide. And I don’t believe that literary is good or bad. I believe that good novel makes readers feel, and the more readers I can make feel, the more successful I will consider that book. I also believe that sometimes that means making the curtains red.    


“King Lear, done right, verges on unbearable. A portrait of cruelty, betrayal, male power become impotent male rage, the disintegration of the mind, all delivered one after another like steel boots to the spine,” says our critic Annalisa Quinn. 

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods: They kill us for their sport,” says one character.

So unbearable did audiences find it that for nearly 200 years it was performed with an altered ending, where Lear and his daughter live happily ever after.

But Edward St. Aubyn is good at swatting flies. An author whose books are brutal and exquisite novels of inheritance, wealth, families, and cruelty, he has never hesitated to inflict pain on his audiences, and the result here is a moving, brutal and apt adaptation of the play for the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

See her full review here.

– Petra


To coincide with the paperback publication of God Help the Child in April, we have redesigned Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison’s entire backlist. The covers were created in-house and aim to reflect the colour and energy of Morrison’s writing.

Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Sula are available now in Vintage paperback, with the rest of the series publishing over the next few months.