There was an interesting piece on the Passive Voice from NPR about award winning literary books and their often poor sales. As always, the comments were excellent. Modern literary fiction came up, and I had to respond, part of which was my personal definition of literary fiction:
Literary fiction, ideally, is not a genre. It is a technique or method of writing…The literary technique focuses on character and themes. The plot arises from the character rather than the character acting within a plot.
This is a subject I’ve written on before; part of the reason why I write is to break down the false dialectic between literary and genre fiction. A literary work can be set in, say, the Italian Front of the First World War or New York City in the late 1980s. What matters is not the trappings (the war story or the dramatic social novel) but the technique of the story. Characters are driven by themselves to the greater or lesser extent. The technique is to write about characters and engage with common human experience and ideas. My novel Phoenix Operator is my attempt at exploring what life would be like for a CIA Phoenix Program assassin. The story is supposed to be entertaining and at the same time explore what a covert operative would have to grapple with in terms of maintaining friendships and romantic relationships (or being unable to). I tried to use the conventions of spy and war fiction to serve my purpose of character exploration.
Action and plot heavy books are great. I won’t thumb my nose at the Dresden Files. And even though Jim Butcher writes terrific, action-packed urban fantasy, there’s still a great deal of character development even though the plot is the driving force in the novels. Still, those novels are plot driven rather than character driven, which is not to say the characters are poorly rendered. Rather, the character development occurs in the context of the plot, rather than the character development as the plot.
Literary fiction does not have be cookie-cutter workshop type fiction, which often amounts to nothing more than banal, bourgeois autobiography. The worst example I can think of was Paris Review story I read which was essentially a homosexual pornographic story. I suffered through it, trying to find something in it. The only indications of actual conflict were some allusions to the narrator’s disapproving father. Given the rest of the story, I sympathized with the poorly defined antagonist. Unfortunately, this sort of story is all too common in so-called literary fiction, which is not literary at all. These stories are solipsistic; that is, the narrators often do not gain any sort of telos (knowledge) in the end. They read as unfinished because they usually are. They are travelogues as opposed to stories with conflict where the ultimate reward is knowledge.
Literary fiction can include romances, war stories, detective novels, or just about any other genre. Ideally, it is about ideas and human experience not a set of prescribed rules created by the MFA programs and the culture industry. Thankfully, writers and readers do not need them anymore.