Wednesday, May 10, 2023


Literary fiction, as I would define it, is fiction that is strongly informed by literary theory. It is connected, at least to some degree, to one ‘ism’ or another. Such schools of artistic theory first came to the fore in the Nineteenth Century, with Realists and Impressionists and Symbolists and all the rest, and have continued to the present day.

To be sure, theory has always played a role in the arts. Writers seize on new ideas and some are apt to formalize them. Others only note them, incorporating what they find of use. Poets and painters are more inclined to identify with and follow an ism, a school of theory, than novelists. Hemingway’s technique was certainly informed by the varied theorists of Modernism—and the Imagist poets, in particular—but his work is not generally regarded as literary fiction.

More broadly, we might say literary fiction focuses on concept. Concept is one leg of the tripod that supports all fiction, in conjunction with characterization and plot. Art in general in the Modern period (that is, since about 1910) has had a strong conceptual component. This has not always aided understanding—one sometimes feels the need of a guide book to ‘get’ both Picasso and Joyce.

To be sure, good art will be enjoyed without understanding. We needn’t know theories of light and color to appreciate Monet. Woolf’s stories are completely readable without any knowledge of the literary criticism of her time. But work that relies too heavily on concept—or on any leg of that tripod I erected—will not hold up.

Note that I do not mention style as a component of fiction. Style, I feel, is largely an expression of concept—indeed, in much work it is the most obvious expression of it. Flaubert’s Realism depends greatly on his language; his sometimes obsessive search for le mot juste, ‘the right word,’ is one mark of literary fiction. Some popular authors do not seem to care about this at all (at least, so far as I can tell).

What is typically labeled as literary fiction today tends to be ‘contemporary realism.’ Some would claim only such realism can qualify—most commonly academics, insulated in the writing programs of one college or another. Contemporary realism I would call a genre, genre being about subject matter. Literary fiction is not a genre; these days it serves primarily as a marketing category but we needn’t get into that, as it has nothing to do with actually writing.

I would posit that one can write literary fiction in any genre. It has nothing to do with the subject matter (except in the sense of the media being the message). I would also say its borders are, at best, nebulous. There is a gradation from fiction that is obviously not literary to that which is. There is no point in trying to fix any given book to a spot on that scale, but recognizing its existence might aid in our understanding of it.

Or, again, we can simply read and enjoy.

Stephen Brooke ©2023

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