Writing Excuses 12.5: Literary Fiction
Key Points: Literary is a modifier, that can apply to mainstream, science fiction and fantasy, or other genres. Literary means quality of form, marked style. Genre is a set of tropes and archetypes that readers are familiar with. Literary fiction pays attention to some aspect of the craft and tries to do something new with it. Windowpane prose, that is transparent, or stained glass windows? Embrace your style of writing, whether that’s transparent windowpanes or stained glass.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode Five.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Literary Fiction.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] I figured, since we have someone with a PhD in creative writing on the podcast, showing us all up, we would ask Mary Anne to talk with us about writing literary fiction.
[Mary Anne] So, I have a little bit of a problem with the term literary fiction…
[Brandon] Uh, oh.
[Mary Anne] And I always have. Because I think it… I think of literary as a modifier that can be applied to mainstream fiction, it can be applied to science fiction and fantasy. I absolutely think there is literary science fiction, literary fantasy. So I tend to use mainstream fiction for the non-genre version.
[Brandon] That is a very reasonable way to look at it. My goodness.
[Mary Anne] It works very well.
[Wesley] How do you define literary fiction, then?
[Mary Anne] Well, I looked up the word literary, the definition, that I think is a pretty good one, “Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form.” I think that quality of form is important.
[Wesley] Quality of form.
[Mary Anne] Or, another secondary definition, “Associated with literary works or other formal writing. Having a marked style, intended to create a particular emotional affect.” I think that marked style is also worth paying attention to. I don’t know that I think either of those definitions is complete. They’re good starting points. I think literary… Writers who are trying to be literary are paying attention to language, forms, structure. It’s important to them.
[Mary] So, authors, for me, that would be Ursula Le Guin…
[Mary Anne] So, in genre, definitely Ursula K. Le Guin obviously pays attention to that.
[Mary] N. K. Jemison.
[Mary Anne] N. K. Jemison. I did my bachelors thesis on Samuel Delaney. I think he’s…
[Mary Anne] One of the masters. So I actually think most of them are paying some attention. It’s perhaps a question of emphasis. Like for some writers, maybe that’s not the most important thing for them. They are more engaged with… I don’t know. With…
[Brandon] We’ll talk about that. Before we get into kind of those specifics, though, I wanted to mention this kind of schism that exists between what… The popular fiction and the literary fiction or the mainstream fiction as you would define it. Kind of there’s some sort of antagonism there. Do you have any thoughts on that?
[Mary Anne] So… I mean, again, I think we get… These terms can be a little slippery, right? Because… So there’s mainstream fiction, there’s popular fiction, there’s commercial fiction. These all mean somewhat different things, I think. Because something can be a mainstream non-genre work without necessarily aiming towards a broad commercial market.
[Mary Anne] Right? So I would say, like, for example, if you look at a lot of these small press works that are trying to do literary fiction, they’re often not trying to be commercial. Right?
[Wesley] Why are they called mainstream, then?
[Mary Anne] They’re called mainstream because they are non-genre.
[Wesley] No, we’ve gotta have terms and definitions that we agree to.
[Mary Anne] And if you’re getting into genre, then it’s questionable, Well, what is genre? Genre is a set of tropes that the readers are going to be familiar with. Then we can start getting into things like archetypes. Right, and the way that genre often uses archetypes and plays with them and is almost reliant… Genre is almost reliant on the readers being familiar with those in a way that mainstream fiction doesn’t.
[Brandon] Right. I mentioned this kind of this little bit of division… I say little bit. It can be very passionate at times. I went through a graduate program in creative writing. Many of my professors would say, “You cannot write science fiction or fantasy in these classes.” Which was a bit like a smack to the face to me. They’re like, “You cannot write what is your identity and your passion in this class.”
[Mary Anne] Can I defend them slightly?
[Brandon] Yes. I… Yeah, go for it.
[Mary Anne] Just as a tiny defense… I have great sympathy for this, because I went through the same thing in my Masters program. My advisor was like, “I don’t want to read your science fiction and fantasy.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Well, I don’t read it. I don’t know how to critique it.” So the first thing I said to her, “That’s fine. Critique my character, my plot, my structure. Critique the aspects of it that you can. Ignore the science fiction and fantasy part.” She actually, to her credit, was willing to do that. We were able to work together. That was great.
[Brandon] I’ve heard that one before. I feel sympathy for that.
[Mary Anne] But then, the other thing I would say in defense is… This is going to sound bad, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. I do find that my students who are just starting to write science fiction and fantasy are often writing really formulaic, really derivative work. I think that is… It’s, I think, a really natural first step, you love the tropes, you love the wizard, the dragon, the whatever else and you want to cram them in there, but I think that’s what the mainstream lit teachers are responding to.
[Wesley] I mean, I’ve always viewed it as they looked down upon genre.
[Mary Anne] But they don’t look down upon genre that is done really well. They actually love some of it.
[Mary] Although they do tend to then classify that as literary or experimental.
[Mary Anne] They do. They reclassify it. That’s true.
[Mary] It’s not… This is anything that we see all over the place. Like with puppetry, we get people who are like, “Oh, I don’t want to see a puppet show. But I’ll totally watch Avenue Q.” I’m like, “That’s a puppet show.” “Well, I don’t watch puppets…”
[Brandon] I won’t watch a puppet show, but I’ll go to Return of the Jedi.
[Mary] Big old puppet show, big old puppet show. So one of the things that I was actually hoping I could get you to talk about a little bit is a story that you told us during one of the breaks about an experience that you had where you were writing science fiction and told that your literary fiction was better. It seems like it circles around exactly that point that you were just talking about.
[Mary Anne] I think that’s exactly right. I fell into the same thing that students often fall into. So this is, during my MFA program, halfway through it, I went to do Clarion. I was so excited. I was at Clarion West in 97, and I took… Week four was taught by two editors from Tor. They had read the stories I’d submitted so far, which were kind of borderline slipstreamy stories. They said to me, “We just think that your mainstream writing is much better than your genre writing, and we think your heart is really with mainstream lit.” I went back to my room and I cried. Because all I wanted was to be a science fiction and fantasy writer. But they… That actually… I kind of went home and I was like, “All right. I’m going to do mainstream lit.” I wrote that for 10 years. I think I needed to, just for me personally. Because at that point, in 97, when I tried to write genre, I wrote the most generic dragons, and the most generic wizards. It really was like a bad copy of a bad copy of a bad copy of Tolkien.
[Wesley] But don’t we all start out that way? I mean, when we’re… I’m sure, every writer at one point is we write what we read, what we know. We start out with dragons and magical swords and everything. I guess the question I have about that…
[Mary Anne] But the tropes are so powerful. I think this is… Like, at least I, and I think a lot of my student, run into more trouble when we try to do genre.
[Brandon] I want to cut and cap this. Because I really want to get into how… What we can learn from literary fiction. I don’t want to spend the whole podcast discussing this. I think those listening can have arguments about this. But that’s not what we’re doing right now. We want to learn from Mary Anne and take some of this and make our writing better. Because I sincerely believe we can learn from literary fiction. I think it is trying to do something different. I don’t think what we do is less valuable or valid. It’s the making that this is good, this is bad, that I don’t like. What I do like is saying, “Look. We are trying something and it’s really cool. And we are trying something that’s really cool. What can we learn from each other?” So let’s talk about that.
[Mary] I completely agree with that. Part of why I’m like, “Yes, tell us all of your tricks,” is I had a student in one of my short story intensives. I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer. My workshops are geared toward science fiction and fantasy writers. Most of my students are. I had this one student who was a literary writer. She’s been published, and has never read science fiction or fantasy before. She brought this sense of place to her fiction that was unlike anything that I was getting out of the other students. One of the things that she said was that she tended to approach her settings as a character. Which was not something that I do. So there were these scenes that to me felt like, “Well, when are we going to get to the character and the conflict?” But the character was the setting. Once I kind of understood that that’s what was happening, I started to see ways that that could be applied to other types of fiction. And that I had seen that in science fiction and fantasy, but not been able to put a finger on “Oh, that’s what’s happening right here, and that’s why this is working.”
[Wesley] That’s very cool, actually.
[Brandon] That is super cool. I’ve had students like that, too, that just bring something fresh and interesting. We don’t have time in one podcast to cover the depth that is literary fiction, but I was hoping to get a few pointers on where to start. Perhaps we could start with some recommendations you have, including our book of the week and any other books you think that… A writer’s like, “Yeah, I want to learn some of this.” Who are the masters, in your opinion, of genre literary fiction?
[Mary Anne] So… I was… I’ve been thinking about this. It was very hard to choose. My favorite author probably is Samuel Delaney. I did my bachelors thesis on him. I love his work. Dhalgren is a tour de force. It is very experimental. When you open the book, the first paragraph starts, “to wound the autumnal city. So howled out, and the in-dark answered with wind. All you know, I know…” I mean, it doesn’t look like prose. It looks like a poem, right? But it’s in paragraphs. As you go into it, there are characters and there is this city. There’s a setting that you are struggling with, this dystopian world. It’s just… It’s stunning. It’s a kind of a big dense book. If you wanted to dip into something smaller, he has excellent short stories, excellent short novels. Dhalgren is kind of the capstone of his early career. That’s my main recommendation, but I also… Because we are recording this in December 2016, I also have to mention that we’ve just had an election, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is feeling very timely right now. She’s one of those authors who is usually thought of as a mainstream lit person, but she wrote this dystopian novel which was made into a movie, which is also excellent. Where the United States has been taken over by a fundamentalist Christian sect, and women have lost basically all of their rights, including the right to read. So…
[Brandon] And if you want to see some interesting parallels between the conversations we’re having here, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood have had dialogues and discourses and interviews with one another, as Ursula Le Guin is a genre writer with literary styling, and Margaret Atwood is a mainstream writer, literary writer, with some genre influences. The two of them have discussed the differences and their definitions and things.
[Mary Anne] Right. And Le Guin, I’m pretty sure, she’s been published in the New Yorker. So she crosses over, George Saunders crosses over, Michael Chabon crosses over, right? There are these people who show up in both.
[Brandon] So, other than reading literary fiction, can you define for us, in… I don’t know if this is possible, but… What it is that someone who’s reading literary fiction is looking for? What are they trying to taste?
[Mary Anne] This actually gets back, I think, to this idea of things being commercial, popular, derivative. Like… Okay. So when I go to a bookstore and I see a dragon on the cover, I want to buy the book. Right? Because there’s something familiar that I know I love and I just… In fact, I at one point picked up one dragon book in an airport, started reading it, got like three quarters of the way through and realized I had read it before, but I hadn’t realized it. Because they were so… It was such the standard box of here is a dragon story. I think that is kind of in opposition to what literary fiction is trying to do, which is mostly to try and pay attention to some aspect of the craft and do something new. Do something interesting. Maybe that’s going to be about character or style or form. It could be if you are trying to push one of those boundaries, I think you are doing literary work.
[Mary] One of the things that someone said to me, who reads primarily literary fiction, said that what she was looking for when she picked up literary fiction was a book that made her work, and that challenged her, and that reshaped the way she thought. Which was interesting, because for me, in science fiction and fantasy prose, what we talk about so often is having effortless prose that someone does not have to work to follow what’s going on. That they… We do… Are looking for those moments of changing the way we think, but we aren’t looking for them…
[Brandon] With the prose specifically.
[Wesley] Invisible prose.
[Brandon] I had a professor who once described the difference between the two as, using my windowpane metaphor, he said, “Literary, the windowpane is a beautiful work of art in itself. It is a stained glass window.” That yes, you can see the story through it, but the way the stained glass window changes what’s on the other side, and the way you change perspective to see what’s out there, is a huge part of the experience. Not every literary fiction is trying to do this specific thing, but that’s one way to look at it. Whereas a lot of genre fiction, or genre… I’m using the wrong terms. A lot of commercial fiction, popular fiction, whatever is trying to make that windowpane as invisible as possible.
[Mary Anne] I want to talk about Bujold in this context, because I find her fascinating. I would love to be able to write like her. I feel like the Miles Vorkorsigan books are windowpane fiction, she’s not trying to do any literary pyrotechnics, nothing fancy in terms of the prose. But she is reaching kind of a height… I mean, there’s a reason why her work wins award after award after award. Right? She’s writing popular commercial work that is incredibly emotionally true, resonant. The characters are very alive. So there’s… I think of her as an exemplar of what popular fiction can achieve.
[Brandon] This is why I love Nora Jemison, N. K. Jemison. Because I feel like… some writers like her. Pat Rothfuss to an extent, although I think he’s on the popular side, borrowing some, and I think she’s on the literary side, approaching doing more conventional some things. But when you look at it, it’s a sort of thing that you’re just enjoying the story. But occasionally, you stop and say, “Wait.” Then you go read the paragraphs again, and you say, “Oh, wow.” Like there’s these people who can… Are chameleon. They can do both at the same time. Tolkien was actually like this. If you read Tolkien out loud, Tolkien is just this beautiful lyrical poetic work of art, but it’s also about stealing a cup from a dragon and all of these things that is really cool from a genre standpoint. So there’s some who do this.
[Mary Anne] Le Guin points out in Steering the Craft, there’s this one tiny little piece in Tolkien where the hobbits are going on their adventure and he slips for a moment into the point of view of a fox. He gives you this little bit of the fox looking at the hobbits and then going back to his own business. It’s this beautiful moment of indirect narration that he just… You know that he could do all the fancy stuff if he wanted to, and he’s choosing not to.
[Wesley] There’s a more recent work, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni.
[Mary] Ah, beautiful.
[Wesley] It’s basically, it’s categorized as a literary book, almost. But it’s really a really sweet story about this golem and this jinn and this friendship that they have. So it’s completely genre, but it’s written in a style that is completely literary.
[Mary] I… That also puts me in mind of Jo Walton, who I think is another person who’s very much… And one of the things about Jo, aside from just the lyrical beauty of her prose, is that a lot of her books are really thought experiments. It’s like what would happen if someone actually tried to set up Plato’s Republic? And that they are…
[Mary Anne] Cory Doctorow, too.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. Likewise.
[Brandon] Cory does a lot of this stuff.
[Mary Anne] I mean, in a very political way.
[Brandon] So, I’m going to call it here. But I will use my powers as director to add just a little footnote at the end. It is okay to embrace your style of writing. I am a windowpane writer. I can enjoy a stained glass window writers, but, for me, I’ve stylistically chosen a certain thing. I want to do it really well. The thing that Mary Anne said that I really love is that… And I think some professors lose sight of this… Is that you can challenge with more than just the prose. You can challenge, as Kurt Vonnegut did, with the themes. You can challenge… You can take your genre, and you’re like, “I want to write dragon books. I want to write really fun dragon books. I want to write them in a way that stands out.” That you can push in that direction. You can learn from literary fiction how to do that better, I feel. This is not… We don’t have to be antagonistic, as we so often are. I think we can all learn from each other a lot better. I’m really glad and excited to have you on the podcast this season, Mary Anne, because I really feel like you’re somebody who has been in both camps…
[Brandon] And can like cross the aisle, right. In a way that’s going to be really good for our listeners. I’m going to let Wes, because he didn’t get to talk as much on this one… Sorry, Wesley.
[Wesley] I am not literary.
[Brandon] I’m not either. So it’s okay. Let’s go ahead and let you give us a writing prompt.
[Wesley] Okay. So, I actually read this on a website yesterday. Creeped me out. So here it is. You drive your spouse to the airport and watch her fly away on a business trip. Then you drive home. Go back to your house, and find her working on the computer. Go.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.