Writers often ask what makes a novel “literary.” Emphasis on character? On voice? On improbability of making a sale? Jay Parini called the literary novel one that teaches you how to read it as you go. Mark Twain hadn’t heard of the literary novel, but he did call a classic “something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” That’s about plot, or lack thereof.
Nathan Bransford’s blog on “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” observes that “Good literary fiction has a plot.” In fact, if you want people to buy your literary fiction, a plot is just the ticket.
For example, Ian McEwan’s Solar traces the dangerous consequences of the rivalry/incompetence intersection in academia. The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri) illustrates the life-changing consequences of every seemingly trivial decision about love or politics. Sara Gruen’s Ape House reveals who gets loved or rescued, while Janet Burroway’s Bridge of Sand follows who gets to survive the rotten hands that fate often deals.
Bransford’s blog offers this insightful distinction: “genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world.” In contrast, “literary fiction… requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot…and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.”
Let’s unpack that by differentiating not only the subtlety of the plot, but the distinction between plot and tension. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the plot consists of who gets married. The first romance novel! That observation probably outrages some and thrills others. But what differentiates Austen’s romance from others? It’s the source of tension, which comes less from the events that befall characters than the way characters learn and mature because of those events. The theme that “pride” or “prejudice” impede happiness matters at least as much those wedding bells.
What has this to do with your novel, literary or not?
- Every novel needs a plot, preferably one where each event causes the next.
- Every novel needs character decisions that produce clear consequences.
- Every novel needs tension—on every single page.
- Every novel needs characters forced to choose between unacceptable outcomes.
- Every novel needs tension from both what characters do and what they think.
- Every novel needs subplots interwoven with the central plot.
- Every novel needs a plot climaxing in a revelation about human nature.
Tip: The best novels integrate the best attributes of both genre and literary fiction.