Resonant stories have depth. Forgettable stories don’t. Literary fiction, for example, takes us deep into the lives of characters and creates complex stories that touch upon the human condition. A good literary novel may resonate with the reader long after the book is finished. Genre fiction, many will say, tends to stay on the surface of story and character, and while entertaining, may soon be forgotten. For me, the best stories successfully incorporate elements of literary fiction (heightened attention to language, powerful themes, complex characters, unique voice) without sacrificing those characteristics that genre readers enjoy (interesting plot developments, rising action, increasing tension). In a 2003 interview with Dave Weich, Dennis Lehane points out the necessity of achieving depth in fiction:
I say to my students right off the bat, if there’s not depth of language, if you don’t bring some sort of music to your prose, if that isn’t something you can put on the table, then please go do something else because it’s the only thing that separates literature from any other art form. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got left. Hollywood can beat us in the car chases and the explosions and the high drama. All we have is language and the depth of character, the ability to take you through a life, as opposed to suggesting it.
Much of genre fiction lacks the kind of depth Lehane demands from his students and is therefore considered unimportant. Those who dismiss genre fiction characterize it as plot-driven, populated with stereotypic characters, and devoid of artful prose. They say it merely provides entertainment and diversion (and cash for the author), that it is not serious writing, and does not matter to the serious reader. In order to understand this dismissal, it is first necessary to identify the differences between literary and genre styles of writing. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway provides us with an apt definition of literary fiction:
Mainstream refers to fiction that deals with subject matter with a broad appeal—situations and emotions common to and of interest to large numbers of readers in the culture for which it is intended. Mainstream fiction is literary fiction if its appeal is also lodged in the original, interesting, and illuminating use of the language; the term also implies a degree of care in the psychological exploration of its characters, and an attempt to shed light on the human condition.
In short, literary fiction has depth of story (shedding light on the human condition, which we might also call theme), depth of character (psychological explorations, implying complexity and contradiction), depth of insight (unique observations by the characters and/or the narrator), and quality of language (original, interesting, and illuminating). Burroway then characterizes genre fiction:
Literary fiction differs from genre fiction fundamentally in the fact that the former is character-driven, the latter plot-driven. There is a strong tendency—though it is not a binding rule—of genre fiction to imply that life is fair, and to let the hero or heroine, after a great struggle, win out in the end; and of literary fiction to posit that life is not fair, that triumph is partial, happiness tentative, and the heroine and hero are subject to mortality. Literary fiction also strives to reveal its meaning through the creation of unexpected or unusual characters, through patterns of action and turns of event that will surprise the reader. Genre fiction, on the other hand, tends to develop character stereotypes and set patterns of action that become part of the expectation, the demand, and the pleasure of the readers of that genre.
Burroway’s description is accurate, to some degree. A great deal of genre fiction is plot-driven and formulaic, but there are numerous crime novels, mysteries and thrillers that defy Burroway’s description. Yes, they are replete with tension, plot twists and violence, but they are also populated with well-drawn characters that make unique observations, speak with wit, and address the human condition. Character actions and reactions drive these stories and complicate plot. The writing is intelligent, even elegant in some cases, and all have an identifiable voice.
My literary goals are in line with this latter description. I write genre fiction, but I strive to add depth by offering complex characters, meaningful themes, heightened language, and unique insights. At the same time, I don’t want to bog down the forward progress of the story with too many internal ruminations, ornate passages of prose, or florid descriptions of setting. Therefore, I try to find the middle of the literary/genre spectrum, and I think (hope) I’ve done so. If you have similar goals for your writing, be sure to check back for future posts on this topic.
And finally: if you are an aspiring writer and you don’t already have Burroway’s book, you should get it. It is Fiction Writing 101 in print form.