What Exactly Does Literary Mean Anyway?

In genre fiction, the suspense comes from withholding information about the plot. Literary fiction builds suspense through character development.

Many people use the term “Literary” to mean, “Not what you write, you hack!!” As in, “Oh I like reading, but, I don’t like that genre stuff that you write. I like more literary work.” Ha!

Alternatively, many genre writers will define Literary as boring, pretentious, or “university writing”. Double-Ha!

Recently, I was giving a presentation to a local high school class, based on Ben Bova’s story recipe. I was careful to use the word “recipe” (which implies that the artful combination of ingredients is essential to the outcome), rather than the word “formula” (which implies the results are guaranteed). Still, the question came up: “Yes this recipe thingy might apply to genre stories, but what about, you know, literary work.”

Well. So. Hmm. Right. And what exactly does literary mean? I have talked in the past about how science fiction is a vague genre when you get right down to it. Literary as a genre may be even more vague. In desperation, I defined literary as a measurement of quality. That is, a work is literary if it is especially well-done or effective.

This seems right, until you start to explore what the word effective might mean. Effective for what? And who is the judge?

For example if you are looking for a shoot-em-up adventure, and you get an old man, in a boat, for sixty-plus days, that is not effective. So you can’t measure quality, if you don’t know what a reader’s ideal story is. That means that using the word “Literary” to describe a measurement of quality is wrong.

Luckily, at a recent writing conference, a very smart and articulate person defined literary in this way.

  • In genre fiction, the suspense comes from withholding information about the plot. Genre fiction has an interesting plot, with strong characters.
  • In literary fiction, the suspense comes from character development, and interpersonal conflict. In many cases, the endpoint of the plot is delivered early in the literary work (sometimes on the first page).

I could hear the [click] in everyone’s mind in the audience. That definition seems exactly right to me, and when something seems right, it’s as if I’ve always known it.

So we may say that if you shine your authorial spotlight on the plot, you may be writing a genre piece. If you shine your spotlight on characterization (and give away your plot entirely) then you may be writing a literary piece.

Copyright  2018  E.C. Stever  – Posts on the 7th and 21st of each month

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