They make sense, you know that. They follow a sequence, they build up your plot, they convey just enough meaning without going overboard.
Except that they’re just…sentences. Of the sort a middle-grade student could compose.
Where’s the literary part of it?
As literary fiction writers, we tend to be more snobbish than most about how our writing is perceived. Is the theme weighty enough? Is the language sufficiently sophisticated? Are the characters as rounded as real people would be? Is there at least one eloquently written description of scenery or weather? (Admit it, part of us will never rest unless have that.) And that’s important because that’s what literary fiction is largely about. We leave it to purveyors of genre fiction (which can be a problematic term, as I’ll discuss in a later post) to write the simple thrillers and romances and horrors where language is just the medium and not a participant on its own.
Problem is, too much emphasis on keeping prose literary can make us hyper-critical of ourselves. We’ll start refusing to pass sentences that don’t look as though they’ve come straight out of a Nabokov novel, and we’ll waste nights on end trying to craft the perfect simile while ignoring the rest of the story. As you can imagine, that doesn’t make for much progress. And guess what? It’s a completely unnecessary approach that’s actually stopping you from being the best writer you can be. As someone who’s lived long enough with this approach and successfully come out of it, here’s some no-BS advice on how to not get hung up on whether your writing’s literary enough.
Remind yourself that too much of anything isn’t good
Think about an action movie, maybe one starring a dangerous beast that’s on the rampage. The thrill scenes are the high points of the film – the moments that make us draw our breath in sharply or even scream out loud. But guess what makes those thrill scenes so effective (apart from good execution)? The quiet scenes. The scenes where the main characters have paused to smoke a cigarette, or where the underlying romance angle is explored a little more. These interludes between the high points are what provided the much-needed contrast (and an opportunity for us to breathe easy for a bit). If every single scene featured the beast bursting out of a wall or chewing a character in half, it would very quickly lose its shock value.
Stories work in a similar way – yes, even the literary ones. If every single sentence is elaborately crafted, pretty soon you become inured to their beauty. You might even find yourself skimming through the rest of the story or stopping altogether, because it’s too much input. (I’ve lost count of how many paragraphs and chapters of supposedly ‘great’ novels I’ve skipped because of their density.) You wouldn’t want to be known as that writer whom no one ever reads in full, would you? Well, then.
Pace your elaborate pieces out for max effect
Ornate writing has its own place, and an important one. The right simile or adjective can lend an otherwise dull act or character its own colour and give your reader a reason to pause and approve. And quite apart from overcrowding your story, you should give your ornate writing some space to stand out so that readers can linger over it (as you want them to!) without missing anything important immediately after. So if you’ve used a top-notch simile in one paragraph, feel free to make the next few lines a little less, well, extraordinary. It might pinch at the time, but your readers will thank you.
Try not to include literary stuff for the sake of it
Advice like this might seem to go against the very grain of what literary fiction is like. It’s literary because it delves into little details and ways of seeing things! But if you stop to think, tricks like work best when they have some connect with the rest of the story or with the author’s voice.
Let’s take Charles Dickens, for instance. He has chapters in every novel that are basically commentaries on the setting of the book or the kind of people in it. Most writers, however famous, wouldn’t be able to get away with that much commentary. But with Charles Dickens you never feel like it’s just rambling for three reasons. One – he talks about themes and facts that have a direct bearing on the plot. Two – he is known for his ironic depictions of working-class England, which is where most of his novels take place. Three – the writing’s so damn good you can’t get enough of it.
To use literary tricks to the best of their advantage, use a few of them and use them consistently throughout your piece. So for instance, instead of just one rhetorical question here and there, you can use a series of rhetorical questions to drive the plot forward at crucial moments. Something like this, maybe – But what is hope? Is hope what we feed ourselves to sleep better at night? Is hope what sustains the notion that things always right themselves somehow? Is it hope that the housekeeper felt when she received the news of her father’s sickness? Is it hope that propelled her to ask for a week’s leave off to go tend to him up north? Is it hope that made the daughter of the house choose the pink silk over the blue gingham that night when she saw through her bedroom window that Mr Morley had come back? Is it hope that inspired the son of the house to make holiday plans for next month despite having only a month to live? (I actually enjoyed writing that.)
Go ahead and write some genre fiction
You know what’s messed up about the world of literary fiction? It’s so damn snooty. It goes on and on about social significance and linguistic devices and whatnot and treats the plot itself – the heart of the matter – as almost incidental. Hollow vessels, I like to call stories like that – all noise. I couldn’t care less about how accurate the author’s portrayal of the antebellum South is or how inspiring the underlying anti-nationalist sentiment is if the story doesn’t engage me. I say raise the middle finger at prigs who can’t see beyond trickery and write your story however you want. I used to be hung up for months about writing detective fiction until I re-read some Agatha Christie novels and reminded myself that one doesn’t earn the title ‘Queen of Crime’ for nothing. That’s when I started my own murder mystery story, and it’s currently one of my most promising drafts. If genre fiction is what you feel like conveying your story through, go ahead and do it. Being authentic has no substitute, even in literature.
How do you deal with your writing being not literary enough? Are you open to being more frugal with the literary tricks, or can you not see yourself writing anything that’s less than Joycean? Lots of approaches, lots of solutions. Let me know what works for you in the comments below.