Part of
Margot Finke's of Writing for Children


. . .Defining Literary Fiction

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Kelly Milner Halls

It is hard to explain literary fiction. But your Sacramento definition isn't so far off the mark. It does tend to be character driven. But the thing that makes it "literary" is a thread of recognizable universal truth or humanity. In children's literature, a good example is OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse and A SINGLE SHARD by Linda Sue Parks are two of my favorites. But even THE GIVER would likely qualify. In adult literature, Flannery O'Connor is one of the key authors taught in college level literature classes. Joyce Carol Oates' adult work is often considered literary. It tends to be less "popular" or less "commercial" than books with huge print runs like the works of Danielle Steele or SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS titles.

Does that make sense? My beef with "literary fiction" and the people who button hole books is the dismissal of some very gifted writers because they have popular appeal. But that's another discussion. : ) Hope this helps you understand the genre a little better.



Harold Underdown - The Purple Crayon

I don't think that the plot vs. character driven distinction really holds water. Literary fiction is quality fiction--the stuff that in our world wins Newberys, gets listed in the ALA Notables, and gets good reviews in The Horn Book. It's usually contrasted with popular or commercial fiction, which is often published in paperback, not reviewed, and bought by children and teens rather than libraries and schools.

I'm grossly oversimplifying, but I think you get the idea. In the real world, of course, the two categories overlap.

If you want to read more about this, I discuss it at more length in my Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, which you should be able to find in your local library.


Bev Cooke

Oh dear. Watch out for a soapboax coming up.

Harold's definitions are good ones, and do check out his articles on them.
I think the idea of "character driven" vs. "plot driven" is a bit of a
misnomer - what people mean by it is that the character you write about
solves the story problem or conflict in their own peculiar way, and that
there is an inner conflict to match, reflect and may be caused by the
outer conflict, or vice versa. You don't have an outline of the story,
or know what happens until you start writing and the characters actually
begin interacting on the page.

Plot driven means that the character, whoever they may be, moves through
a series of pre-planned convolutions to a pre-determined outcome. The
outcomes are determined by you, not by the character's interactions on
the page.

In my experience what actually happens is a combination of both - as you
write the story, your knowledge of the character, and their personality
affects whatever the story arc and problem are - even if you know how
the story has to come out at the end. This is borne out by reading a lot
of other writers on the subject - everybody has some idea of where the
story is going, even if they never write it down as an outline, but the
best writers let their characters dictate what the exact shape and feel
of the outcome.

As for literary fiction - for me, that's the best writing I can do,
using all the techniques I've learned and been taught over the course
of my writing life. It's considering what the theme is before I write,
but being open to whatever happens in the first draft and honing and
refining to bring out either the original theme, or a stronger one if
that happens during the book. It's looking to see what universal ideas
I'm trying to express, and how I can do that through symbolism, metaphor
and motif. It's being careful in the naming of the characters, to
express through name what and who they are. But most important, for me,
it's making sure that none of those things override the story itself,
and that the characters are real, believable and human, and their
problems are real, human and balanced against the rest of their lives.
My character may have a major moral choice to make, but she still has to
get to class on time, do her homework, try not to fight with her little
sister too much, and be polite to her mom and dad. She still has a life
to live, in other words, and that has to be shown in balance with the
problem she's grappling with in a realistic and believable way.
In some ways, it's a very indirect approach to writing - the theme,
the motifs and the symbolism should be underlying the book. They're
there and you feel their effects in that the book seems 'thicker' or
more layered than a similar book, but they aren't front and centre, they
don't have neon signs pointing to them saying "Theme here!" "Oh, look an
extended metaphor that links to the theme!". If you look for it, you can
find it but if you don't 'get' it consciously, you lose nothing, and the
read is still as good as if you did see all that I put there.

I hope this helps. And sorry for the soapbox, if that's what it was.
Actually it wasn't, I was very good and didn't go off on my usual
literary vs. commercial rant.