About Writers, writing technique

The Weight of Fiction


‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’. (David Hare, playwright).

Hare doesn’t elaborate, but it isn’t hard to see what he means. ‘Literary fiction’ is where anything that isn’t obviously in any other genre gets shoved. Literary fiction is perceived as more profound, harder to read, but ultimately more rewarding than genre fiction. As the Dactyl Foundation puts it, ‘The subject of the work is engaged with something that might be called weighty, questioning how we think, how we make meaning, why things happen the way they do, how we decide what’s right or wrong, or musing over what might have been.’ The consequence of such weightiness is that literary fiction sells less well than genre fiction and even fewer writers make any money out of it. To label a book ‘literary’ will have many a reader running in the opposite direction, because what can a ‘weighty’ book be but heavy going?

When I started out writing, I had literary aspirations. I still do in fact, if by that you mean books that don’t fit into other marketing categories. I have several such WIPs on the back burner, but in the meantime, having decided a while back to write books which would, I hoped, be more commercial, I’ve opted for crime.

Why not romance or science fiction? I don’t remember giving the matter any thought – the choice was almost instinctive. If I look for a reason now, I’d say it was Ten Little Niggers (published in the US, for obvious reasons, as And Then There Were None, but I read the UK’s 1963 Fontana edition, and still see the cover in my mind – the UK title wasn’t changed till 1986). Christie’s novel had it all: claustrophobic setting, relentless succession of deaths, gradual elimination of suspects until, utterly bamboozled, I cried out, ‘So who was it? It’s not possible!’ – only to discover that not only was it possible, but the murderer (and Agatha) had fooled me all along. Inevitably, having read that book, it would never occur to me to write a novel called Leonora in Love or Glitch in the Galaxy.

I take issue, however, with the Dactyl Foundation’s pronouncement. There’s no reason why genre fiction, whether crime or any other, shouldn’t also question how we think or decide what’s right or wrong. Consider these excerpts from top crime writers’ analyses of their favourite crime novels:

Val McDermid on Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Heights: ‘Although Hill’s roots were firmly in the traditional English detective novel, he brought to it an ambivalence and ambiguity that allowed him to display the complexities of contemporary life.’

Sophie Hannah on Agatha Christie’s The Hollow: ‘As well as being a perfectly constructed mystery, it’s a gripping, acutely observed story about a group of people, their ambitions, loves and regrets.’

SJ Watson on Daphné du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘A dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, […] but more importantly, this is an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t, and the secrets told to preserve it.’

Susie Steiner on Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution: ‘What stays in the mind is the Peak District community of Scarsdale, the investigator as outsider trying to permeate its secrets. And the sheer quality of the writing.’

Jacob Ross on Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park: ‘A crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character. Renko confirms this for me every time. It is an incredible feat of character portrayal.’

Other choices in the list speak for themselves: Crime and Punishment, Bleak House, The Moonstone… What is striking is the stress on factors other than plot, such as character, mood, and setting. Proof, surely, that a good crime novel is about a lot more than a detective solving a murder.

The same is true, I’m sure, of any genre. Literariness and weightiness are two different things, and for all the supposed profundity it implies, the label ‘literary’ is more of a burden than an accolade. David Hare is right to be depressed.



19 thoughts on “The Weight of Fiction

  1. Thanks, Curtis. Once again, you direct attention to something I had only thought I understood.
    In a world demanding quick answers, I assumed genre classifications helped readers find stories similar to others they have enjoyed reading. And marketing people used them to target audiences. I hadn’t thought much about a classification beyond genre. Literary? How does that help me to find a book or help an author to find me?

    I’ll bet Mimi has some insight into this. Her upcoming opus, “Sly,” is literary. Yes, it is about the historical adventures of a talking cat. But despite the incredible depth of research depicted, it isn’t historical fiction. And Sly’s involvement in the lives of once real characters and events, doesn’t make it fantasy.
    Think Gulliver’s Travels. It’s literary. Mimi’s telling us something beyond genre.

    Liked by 5 people

    • mimispeike says:

      Thanks, GD. I’ve confused you with my newest project. Sly is a talking cat. Marcelline Mulot (rhymes with Monroe) is the talking mouse.

      I will have something to say about literary fiction, but I have to think a bit first.

      With Sly I explain in great detail how he came to talk. With MM you have to take it on faith. I hope that’s not a dealbreaker.

      Hmmm. Maybe I’m just imaging she’s talking to me. That would answer a lot of questions, but would be a whole different story, wouldn’t it?

      A dog talking in Sly gave an editor big problems. She said “Sly talks to people, fine. How does he talk to dogs?” Yikes, lady!

      I replied to that with my last chapter (to the full book) ‘Sheeesh!’ I have it posted on my website. The brief comment does double duty. It’s also a look-ahead at the rest of the series.

      Liked by 5 people

  2. Curtis, I agree with your premise. I write science fiction. (Why? That’s where my fantasies have always taken me.) I write light-hearted tales with a sassy heroine who’s a singer. But I try to convey a few “serious” messages as well. I tackle sci fi tropes, such as why an alien civilization would never stage a hostile invasion. Why, despite the infinite diversity of life, the races we’d want to be in contact with have many similarities to us. Why races can’t just keep getting more and more intelligent. Why too much genetic tinkering is deadly. Why an AI race is eventually self-defeating. Why “hard sci fi” limits itself by assuming we’ll never advance our physics beyond what we now know–or think we know.
    And–I make my impossibilities plausible.

    Liked by 5 people

      • The AI beings
        in all their smarts and power
        if unchecked, can outperform any blood and muscle and brain species,
        can improve themselves without limit,
        can solve all problems.
        Then what?

        Power corrupts.
        Absolute power is boring.
        Perfection also is boring.
        Abundance, having it all, is boring.
        Boredom = stagnation = death.

        Limited power, strife and competition,
        imperfection, striving after unreachable perfection,
        gives you something to do,
        something to tell stories about
        something to brag about.

        Striving against unbeatable odds
        with the sure knowledge that you will ultimately lose
        — that is enlivening.
        Something is left for the next generation.
        Thus do limited mortal races outlast their immortal cousins.

        Liked by 6 people

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. All those topics you list are intriguing indeed! I think sci-fi is very well placed to explore some fundamental issues like that. And as you say, the main point is plausibility, which is true also of crime novels. Few of them are strictly realistic, but they do have to be plausible.

      Liked by 6 people

      • “And as you say, the main point is plausibility, which is true also of crime novels. Few of them are strictly realistic, but they do have to be plausible.”
        Serious fantasy writers seem to make their worlds plausible through consistency. What happens may by itself be implausible, but it always happens the same way every time and the illusion of reality takes over. I write hard sci-fi, meaning the fiction is added in a way that does not implausibly contradict what is already known to science. Both, fantasy and sci-fi, often add realism to their worlds through the “humanity” of their characters. Even if Glorkilina has three arms, holding Glork close makes them both feel better.

        I think many readers enjoy good sci-fi detective stories. Just add a “what-if.”
        What if time travel is invented in the future -it would by definition also exist now and there could plausibly be a time-traveling detective hunting criminals in my neighborhood.
        Or what if murders could be predicted? Think Steven Spielberg’s movie, Minority Report. And there is always the inspiring Philip K. Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” made into the cops & androids movie, Blade Runner.
        Yup, we do need more stories like those.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I suppose my thing is Literary, because of the intricacy of the telling. I didn’t set out to write literary, I’ve just tried to write my story, answer all the questions that occur to me in the process, and follow wherever my people take me. I would be pleased if readers are misled into thinking it’s not literary long enough for them to get hooked by my nonsense.

    The key to any story is characterization. It can be shorthand characterization, fleshed out with dazzling dialogue and description (Tobacco Road) or it can be Pedal-to-the-metal personality (Tomcat Murr and any number of things I love). I would go so far as to say I read for characterization, and for style. Plot is a distant third.

    That’s the way I write. I’ve been accused of having no plot. (“When is something going to happen?”) I am able to tell you that Tristram Shandy, another of my favorite books, is one bit of business after another, no story arc to speak of. (OK, I’m only a quarter of the way in, that might change, but I doubt it from what I see so far). It was the blockbuster hit of its day.

    I’m trying to ease readers into my–a bit, not overmuch–difficult story with my paper dolls. Will that work? Damned if I know, but I’m having fun with it.

    A story worth my time is a story with characters that come alive, who are as complex in their actions and reactions as any living person. That line about ‘I want to give the reader space to understand the story through their own perspective’? Not for me. I have more imagination than fifty run-of-the-mill readers. I want them to have my take on it all.

    I tell my stories to myself. I see possibilities for divine absurdity, much of it tangential to the plot, but then, I have no plot, so it doesn’t matter, doesn’t stop me for a tenth of a second. There is great freedom in having no plot. I’ve invented a plot to shut up the complainers (the whole Virgin Mary thing came out of those slams), but it’s still not a genuine plot. It’s only a framework to hang my every idea on.

    I need to see a real world in which life goes on in a way I can understand. We all have our quirks and our peeves. Show me some (let’s call it) humanity, even in your most alien alien, or you lose me in short order.

    The mystery series that I adored in my early twenties, with Lord Peter Whimsy, I read every one of them, I should reread one or two to see if I still adore them, after decades of writing. I would learn something from that, I believe.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Characterisation, style, plot in that order – I’m fully with you there, Mimi. Obviously in a mystery novel, plot has to be solid as well, but a book stands or falls by the depth and complexity of its characters. And the freedom in being free of plot completely, like you (or Sterne in Tristram Shandy) is surely exhilarating.

      Liked by 5 people

    • Speaking of humanity in aliens, here are a couple of things I learned about my aliens as I was writing the stories:
      – You know how most of our robots are humanoid? The alien’s robots are built on their body plan.
      – You know how many people here expect the advanced aliens to show up on Earth and solve all our problems for us? My heroine is marooned on an alien world, and they expect her to solve their problems
      – As advanced as their technology is, they grapple with the same issues humans do.

      Liked by 6 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I don’t think it’s helpful to calculate your approach (too difficult/literary/whatever?). Write the best story you can, period. Answer the questions you feel need to be answered. Raise questions that may not even occur to most readers and you’ll do yourself, and them, a big favor.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. I have to disagree with David Hare that the two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction.” Reading it has shaped my life in profound ways, including moments of sheer exhilaration and joy. The same holds true for writing it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I fully agree, Liz – mine too! And I’m sure when it comes to content, Hare agrees as well. But I think he’s talking more about the perception of it than the actual content. It’s unfortunate that it’s become opposed to genre fiction and that colours the way marketers and the general public think of it. A shame because as you say, there’s so much there that is not just profound but entertaining and enjoyable.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. One of the 6 senses of the word [literary] listed by Dictionary.com is
            preferring books to actual experience; bookish
    That sense came to mind when I saw the phrase [literary fiction] here. Would rather say [general], tho that still does sound bland.  Maybe a little defiance (as in [genre-free]) would be good.  Categories?  We don’t need no stinkin’ categories!

    Liked by 1 person

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