“He had a hangdog expression, except if you hanged a dog, it would look happier than he did.” Take that sentence for style and throw in a killer who hasn’t been caught yet, and you’ve started a detective novel. Those kinds of stories have been around a while. Wilkie Collins, a friend of Charles Dickens, was a popular writer of novels (The Woman in White, The Moonstone) telling stories that we’d probably put in the detective or mystery category now. It took time for the genre of detective novels to develop, but now detectives are behind every shadowy lamp post.
There are a number of types of literature that we have names for: westerns, romance novels, horror stories, spy novels, fantasy, science fiction. And so on. Not all literature fits into these kinds of descriptions, not by a long shot, baby, and you know that if you read. But these categories of writing are so common you can go to a bookstore (while they still exist), ask for spy novels, and maybe find an entire section with just that.
As to why we have these categories, instead of just taking each book by itself for what it is—wise of you to ask, but that’s more of a psychological or philosophical question. Maybe we’re lazy. Maybe we like to know what we’re getting so we can enjoy more of it. Maybe creating categories suits our desire to put the world into categories, so that it will make sense. Because it sure doesn’t make sense in its natural state.
If you write a novel, or short story if you’re the brief type, and want to publish it, you can look in books (while they still exist) or online to see what publishers and literary agents are looking for. When you start to investigate this, you will often find lists of categories that people do, or most definitely do not, want, and if you send the wrong thing, you’ve wasted your time, your precious hopes, and possibly your money.
One of the category names—I’m not making this up—is called “literary fiction”. Now you might think that fiction and literature are the same thing. Maybe, but the phrase “literary fiction” is in common use, though it may be harder to define than what makes a cowboy novel, other than the hat.
I think of literary fiction as having at least two elements: (1) a focus on characters, trying to make them distinctive and interesting, such as Benedict and Miramar, from my last novel—simply sparkling, fascinating characters; (2) a focus on style in the writing, so that part of the pleasure in reading is enjoying the way the book is written, as the author, a veritable magician of moonshine, slides tears of whiskey down a preacher’s face, teaches the face of Washington on a dollar to smirk in a gambler’s pocket, and faces a motorcycle gang with the cool indifference of a house cat, until the reader is drunk on the pearls and peony blossoms of prose.
I’ll name a few writers who I think are in the literary fiction category: Amy Tan, Isabelle Allende, Ann Patchett, Kate Atkinson, Milan Kundera, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens. These are some of the people who inspire and provoke me, who make me want to write just like them, except in my own way. When I go agent begging, which I do from time to time, I look for those agents who are willing to represent literary fiction, in addition to things they can actually sell.
Recently here in Georgia I frittered away entire handfuls of time looking for a fiction critique group, until I finally joined one over in Athens, a mere 45-minute drive from here. I was enthused to finally locate a group, as I had more trouble than I was supposed to while looking in Atlanta. I found groups that were too far away, or they were focused on science fiction or poetry, or they wouldn’t reply to email, damn them. Always something.
It has been my experience that it takes time to get accustomed to a writing group, and it takes them time to get accustomed to a new writer. I admit I also felt a little cranky with the apparent attitude that I needed to be taught how to write (such as several explanations—who would need more than one?—of the banal phrase “show, don’t tell”). In fairness, though, people there don’t know me. They don’t know what my experience is, assuming one could not judge ability by the piece I submitted. They were honestly trying to help me.
Of greater concern is the fact that more than one person told me “don’t do X” and I sat quietly thinking I’ve just spent the last few days reading Isabelle Allende, and she is doing exactly what you say not to do. No one in this group seems to read literary fiction, and no one writes it, except for one person who wasn’t there. I’ve only been critiqued by the group once, but from that single experience, I had the impression that no one understood what I’m trying to do. Which is not to say I can’t use help.
I will give this group some time. I try hard to be open to criticism, because every needs it, even Shakespeare (Willie, that cannibal thing in “Titus Andronicus”, that could go). I want help with the writing, and I’m certainly going to write literary fiction, so I hope people in this group will give me criticism within the context of what I’m attempting. Otherwise I might have to hire a detective to locate another group.