Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It is possible I do not really write "literary fiction"

I have staunchly resisted the conclusion in the title for a long time. I have a Master's degree in English (not "English Light"--I specifically sought an M.A. instead of an M.F.A. because I took literature so effing seriously). I haven't read every work in the canon, but I've read a lot. I scored high on my Lit GRE. I know freaking THEORY, for Christ's sake. I must write lit fic.

If we're just using the definition of lit fic provided by the almighty and infallible Wikipedia, then maybe I am writing--or trying to write--literary fiction:
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.
I hope that what I'm writing is doing that. But then again, a lot of works that aren't really thought to be "literary fiction" do that. There's no shortage of political and social commentary in Harry Potter, as well as exploration of the individual against a (sometimes surprisingly dark) human reality.

In practice, "literary fiction" isn't synonymous with "good fiction," and this is where I have been kidding myself. Writing is considered lit fic if it tends, in an oft-quoted line from James Joyce, to not simply be "about" something, but to be the thing itself. It does not simply use words to make a story that is about something, the words themselves, and the form they take, becomes the story.

Not all that is called lit fic is Ulysses, of course. One literary agent wrote about a "sweet spot" that publishing companies like it lit fic, a sweet spot that has at least enough of a plot to keep readers reading, but also has enough smart stuff to make it different from reading pulp. It's meant to appeal to good readers.

By any standard, I am a good reader, but I wanted nothing to do with writing for a long time. One reason, I think, was because I read so much literary fiction in college, and felt that #1: something must be wrong with me, because I didn't like a lot of it and didn't even "get" some of it, and #2: I couldn't write like that.

I started writing again after five years of reading "young adult" literature with my son. We've read a lot of the books you'd expect (although he's very young for some of these, not being ten yet). Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, the Tolkien canon, Lemony Snicket, that kind of thing. None of these are great books in the sense that they do anything new and unusual with language. In fact, in some of them, the language is a little bit unimaginative, and in the Percy Jackson series, it's just pretty bad. But that doesn't mean there wasn't greatness in these books. There was "a focus on the individual to explore some larger part of the human condition."

I try to write stories that are full of merit and maybe greatness, but I am not a virtuoso with language. Not that I can't hit a beautiful note here and there, but I'm kind of a puncher with words rather than a graceful pugilist. I take a Hercules approach--I prefer to progress by brute force when I can, and I only use my head if I get to a point where I have to.

But I wonder if trying to get published by journals that specialize in "literary fiction" isn't a losing proposal for me. I'm not sure I write it. I might be doing myself a disservice by insisting that because I think what I write is "good" that it is "literary fiction."

Accepting this would greatly alter my "game plan." I've been trying to publish short stories with the hope of accruing enough credits to find someone to take a novel. But if I drop the whole idea of writing literary fiction, I could skip right ahead to the novel. Commercial fiction doesn't require a long understudy period in short fiction for journals like lit fic does. 

When I took up writing again, the short story was a way to improve how I wrote and to gain credits. I think I have done enough of the first that if I really am not writing lit fic, I could just stop caring about the second.

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