Updated: Sep 4, 2020
I must be careful with this topic because it strikes a nerve with the great literary fiction types, the self-proclaimed wise-above-all pedagogues who delight in reeling from their pious tongues the sanctimonious idiom:
“Literary fiction is about people. Commercial fiction is about events.”
It is known in the writing business that the majority of international awards go to the literary fiction authors, while the majority of book sales revenues go to the commercial fiction authors. This is easy to understand because few people want to pick up a story that takes forever to read, and giving awards to what few people can get through is good job security. What is literary fiction? In the art world, that would be the room at the exhibition hall with the abstract paintings. They’re pretty, but require considerable commitment to glean anything from.
Those who enjoy literary fiction do it for the arrangement of beautiful words and the immersive effect of page-long paragraphs. Whether there's plot anywhere to be found is inconsequential. Literary fiction is poetry without the rhyming. If you’re a hundred pages into a novel when you realize nothing has happened, you are reading a literary novel. Or a very bad commercial one. If you sit down to write a novel that starts with the main character too stressed to eat breakfast so she heads out for a morning jog, and three hundred pages later she returns from her jog, you have written a literary novel. What is at the heart of literary fiction? I believe it is the expert use of a mechanism I have named the meander. It is a way of turning a ten-word sentence into a fifteen-page rumination without having to write a participle of storyline. I shall demonstrate the technique here. Our new friend, the jogger, stumbles over a crack in the sidewalk. A commercial fiction writer would describe the event with some variation of the following:
“Damn,” she said, scowling and gripping her leg for a few steps. “Why don’t they fix the sidewalks?”
A literary writer would write the event thusly:
“Damn,” she said, scowling and gripping her leg for a few steps. This was the third time this week she had tripped. Her ex-boyfriend, Vaughn, used to complain about the high taxes going to the wrong people until she got so sick of hearing about that from him she had to let him go. But her father used to say the same thing, and she was not disturbed by his complaints. Maybe it was time to give Vaughn a call. Besides, after dropping Vaughn she had dated Frederick and Gerald. They were attractive enough but did not keep her interest even though Gerald’s cat was a hoot. Spinkles, Gerald called the feline. Mrs. Rather, her teacher back in the tenth grade, used to tell her she could judge her boyfriends’ worth by how creatively they named their pets. This advice worked well until Marcos came along, who had named his dog Oblivion because the dog’s mind always seemed to be somewhere else. And Marcos used to play the electronic game Oblivion, which she did not understand but thought the game’s male characters were cute. This surprised her because they looked like they hadn’t bathed in weeks, and she liked neat men. Not perfect specimens, but how could they take care of others if they let themselves go? [Five pages later...] “Why don’t they fix the sidewalks?”
I am not exaggerating! In fact, literary fiction fans would read this passage and say, “What’s wrong with that?” To substantiate my point, I provide below several real-life examples. I will feature only famous novels that have won prestigious awards. Because of copyright laws, I cannot show any text from the novels to support my case. I do not provide the following material to criticize because these successful novels are enjoyed by actual people. My only intent is to demonstrate a word-count-expansion technique they use in common. People who love the effects of this technique enjoy reading literary fiction. There is nothing wrong with this so long as you have enough spare time in your life. Moby Dick (Herman Melville) – Listed here are the names of the first few chapters: 1) Loomings, 2) The Carpet-Bag, 3) The Spouter-Inn, 4) The Counterpane, 5) Breakfast, 6) The Street, 7) The Chapel, 8) The Pulpit, 9) The Sermon. These chapters comprise the first forty-two pages of the novel. Chapter 68 is entitled, The Blanket, Chapter 80, The Nut, Chapter 97 is The Lamp, and Chapter 127, The Deck. Little content in these chapters is storyline. Rather, they are description, scene, and development of character, mood, and theme. What an extraordinary setup! Note that the main character does not set foot on a sailing ship until around page fifty-eight. Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson) – On page 49, the two sisters (main characters) walk down the stairs to find their Aunt Sylvie sitting at the kitchen table. Five and a half pages later, Sylvie asks the girls, “What would you like for breakfast?” That's right! And you thought my jogging example was an exaggeration. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) – I began reading this novel with great interest because I had heard so much about it all my life. By page four I became confused. The point of view passed from person to person, sometimes paragraphs at a time. There seemed to be nothing going on. I “got” the message by about page six. When I reached about page sixty I realized I had no idea what was going on. I wondered if I hadn’t purchased the actual novel, but a documentary or a follow-up dissertation about the story. So, I fired the book. A year later I picked it up again, and with increased determination started again from the beginning. It was tough, but this time I made it through until the end. There are just a lot of words in the novel for such a small story. Hyperion (Dan Simmons) – I had multiple friends and relatives tell me I was nobody until I read Hyperion. I bought the book and started reading. The story soon divided into seven massive, unrelated stories, one for each of the seven central characters of the novel. Instead of the author organically weaving his characters into a single storyline, one at a time, he created whole chapters (seven of them)--the majority of the book--in the form of gigantic info dumps. (If I so much as add a single paragraph of “backstory” about a character in my stories, my fans write scathing criticisms about how I’ve “artificially filled in” a side character.) In fact, when I read Hyperion, I felt progressively bitter as the pages turned, feeling that the author had in reality written seven unrelated short stories and then after the fact got the ingenious idea to paste them into a single novel.
The link here directs you to a delightful video created by Wendover Productions. The video masterfully employs the meander technique to provide information about each of the 50 United States.
To further emphasize my point, the meander technique is also used in music. Chordal resolutions are often delayed--or more dramatically, resolved to the wrong chord--to increase and lengthen the intensity of the sound. A good example of postponing relief is during the musical score of the recent Wonder Woman movie during the No Man's Land scene. Listen to the link here, between 47 seconds and 2:09 minutes. Full relief does not come until 2:21 with expert use of the French horn. This is a long time to wait! In the movie, the poor woman is out there on the battlefield getting shot at all by herself. If she's experiencing great tension, then you should be also.
All this begs the question: What level of description and introspection is appropriate in a story? Answer: only that which forwards the storyline. It's as simple as that. But what if there is no storyline (a la literary fiction)? Now my head hurts. I could go on with more examples, but then I could be accused of meandering. And I must first finish reading War and Peace. That will take me another four months.