Update and Literary fiction

28 Sep

So, apologies for my lack of posting.  I just (finally!) finished my introductory week for my Masters which was incredibly full-on.  I came out of each pre-sessional with a headache from all the information thrown at us, stuff that I hadn’t looked at in years.. formulae, weird looking squiggles, concepts that I vaguely recalled but had been stored in some inaccessible corner of my mind…

With all of this going on, I haven’t been able to look over my draft properly but now this week is out of the way, my schedule is much more manageable – instead of 7 days a week, I have to go in two or three times a week so I’m able to schedule my writing around my studying.

But, more importantly, let’s talk about reading and writing:

This year I’ve tried to explore fiction I wouldn’t normally choose to read as I think it’s always helpful to have an idea of the general publishing market, to get a feel for what is in demand.  I’d always thought of myself before as a fan of literary fiction but as I thought about this type of fiction I love so much, I found it incredibly difficult to define.

Firstly I think the term ‘literary fiction’ can sound very pretentious, as though only fiction that falls in this elusive category is of literary merit.  I don’t think this is fair either: the prose of some genre fiction can be just as effective in some cases and sometimes more so than flowery, overly poetic language.

What exactly makes literary fiction so different from pure genre fiction?  For me, I concluded it was largely to do with characterisation.  Part of the joy of reading is to immerse yourself completely in a character, to care about the character or characters or if not about the characters, to be drawn towards the characterisation because it perhaps explores some repressed part of our own self.  Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, Mrs de Winter in Rebecca,  Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women… three-dimensional captivating characters whose contemplations on life are often astute and reveal some sort of truth of the internal struggles people often go through.

However, while I think characterisation is of huge importance in literary fiction, I don’t agree with those that say there need be no emphasis on the plot.  I think plot is incredibly important; however, a mesmerising plot doesn’t need to be some high-octane, fast-paced tornado.  It can slowly unwind but it is not completely trivial.  Too often literary writers can weigh the page with conflicted internal monologues, deep musings, text laden with imagery, symbolism etc… an effortlessness, a light writerly touch should be achieved in strong fiction so prose doesn’t appear to laboured but of course, this is easier said than done.  I should know – having read the first few chapters of my draft, I have winced in embarrassment at the majority of my sentences!

Perhaps we should follow the example of writers of non-literary fiction.  I’m in the middle of reading ‘Life, Death and Vanilla Slices’ by comedienne, writer, general TV person, Jenny Eclair, and I’m really enjoying it.  It’s great picking books up at the library, you end up reading stuff you’d heard of but would never have thought about buying.  The novel isn’t something I’d have picked up last year, being rather cynical of “celebrity” writers but Eclair writes with sharp observation and wit.  The plot is surprisingly dark, touching and full of excellent black humour.   I’ve come to realise that basically I was a snob BUT my ingrained snobbish tendencies, which never fail to amaze me, are slowly but surely getting eradicated as I am determined to continue to give new genres and new authors a chance.


Literary fiction authors should make sure there is a plot that isn’t completely inane; rather, that it serves a purpose and acts to genuinely move the story along, rather than leaving things to stagnate.   That’s incredibly frustrating for the reader and ultimately unsatisfactory.  It can be overly emotionally exhausting (and somewhat annoying) to wade through paragraph after paragraph of the ramblings of a neurotic protagonist without any progress, contrast or a smattering of light relief.

After I finish reading through the draft, I’ll work on the plot of my story to strengthen it and tighten any loose ends so it’s not a rambling incoherent mess but a story that achieves a balance between characterisation and plot, both of which will inform the other.  Introspection in a novel is good and something I love reading and writing, but without movement, it’s so easy for the story to result in stagnation.  And this is something I repeatedly make the mistake of doing in my own work which I sometimes overload with lines and lines of internal discourse that would probably make any reader fall asleep!  So this is something I definitely need to work on.  And as everything in life, moderation is key.

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