Writing Literary Fiction?

Jun 10, 2018

Sometime back in the 2000's 'literary' became a dirty word.

My first book was published in 2004. My work was hailed as 'the opposite of chick lit' but that was a double-edged sword ... 

I didn't see myself as conforming to any genre. I had never considered genre at all. My first novel was a dark comedy, written in quite a light-hearted tone of voice entirely and purposely unsuited to the subject matter of a man trying to die with dignity. My second was, if you like, 'historical fiction', set in Belfast during The Troubles of 1979-1981. The third was another black comedy, concerning a hapless Englishman 'living the good life', a pharmaceuticals salesman selling anti-depressants to the African continent and enjoying sex with strangers. The fourth was a quainter comedy, an old man determined to claw his way back into the bosom of the family who do not want him.


It's 2010. I'd produced four novels, one every one and a half years. 

I went to see my agent. 'How about writing a psychological thriller?' She said.

(The arse had fallen out of the literary fiction genre as a market.)

I then spent five years badly writing a book in a genre which was not my delight. And every time I submitted it, I had it wrong. Of course it would have been cool if my agent had said - write what you really want to write. But she was right to consider sales, naturally. The market was constricting massively at the time with publishers being sold to groups and bookstores disappearing and 'lit fic' was a dodo. But, I wish my agent had said; hey, how about writing something utterly commercial, yeah? 

(You gotta sell books, writers, you gotta have readers. Get them reading your book by hook or by crook!)

In 2017, I decided to re-educate myself and my first stop was to return to the original enthusiasms. I put myself on a boot camp of my first loves (Chekhov, Carver, Coetzee) and shared the journey with other writers as we worked out what it was this thing called writing a book. This thing called love.

Yes, I make no excuses, it is a thing called love. This thing called love goes very well when you love your foul main character, in my case. A book like 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' almost writes itself. I advise my writers that if you have someone who behaves, ideally badly, in any given scene, sitting down to write them into any space - the Co-Op, the doctors, the departure lounge - becomes a daily joy. So that's one way to write a novel. (The Ninety Day Novel course is constructed to pace that heady infatuation.) That's how I wrote Becoming Strangers. I just knew Annemieke, for example, would screw up any ambience as soon as she poked her nose in it.

The other way, with a big cast and the world as we don't know it (historical, fantasy etc) is to plan and plot the hell out of a story, as I did for This Human Season. Get the structure, and write down the 10, then the 20, then the 30 things that have to happen to get to the end point of lucidity dawning on your 'avatar'. (The Classic course will give you those elements.)

In truth, the happy and successful completion of a book requires both, and - per last week's blog - a commitment to tone of voice. 

You can't fail if your character delights you, or you have an idea of what happens to change him or her and you can write down the steps to get there. The rest is detail.

But genre. How does that come into it at all? Writers are advised to 'name that genre in one' in their pitch letters to agents. 

But as the creator, you can change genre, you know, and if you're not selling that manuscript, probably you should. Honestly, if the book's flat  you have to shift genre of your writing or gender (of the protagonist.)

What does genre mean in that case? Well, tone really. 

Writing my latest book, a children's novel, I felt like I'd come home. Loving the characters was a big part of it, and knowing broadly what was going to happen a part of it too, but every day I surprised myself, thanks to the characters getting narky with each other. The tone is - homely. 'Fantasy' - where extraordinary, out-of-this-world things happen - requires (as I argued in last week's blog) the counterpoise in terms of tone of voice. The opposite. The more 'numinous' and outlandish, the cosier the tone of voice. Seriously, think Vonnegut.

The thing my writers have learnt in the last year, and we are now over 100 writing together, is that you can't write a genre (or employ a 'tone' of voice) you don't read and don't love.

The other big learning is this - good writing is not enough. It's minor. You need a story packing a question mark, a cor-blimey-you-what story.

Why was there ever such a thing as 'literary fiction'?

Matt Haig made a good point in a tweeted response to the news at the end of 2017 that Lit Fic was dead. 'The fact that 'literary fiction' defines itself against 'commercial fiction' might explain why it isn't doing well commercially.'  Tim Lott put another argument in The Guardian: that literary fiction authors should write better books. They have lost the plot quite literally, he said, 'they are devoted to voice and style at the expense of narrative drive and story, the devices that lure most of us into fiction and keep us reading.'

It's semantics really. Attach us by the heartstrings to someone, loveable or unlovable, with a problem and walk us in their shoes on thin ice, and we'll read.

Every year's popular hit does this, whether it's Eleanor or Ove. And that's when 'literary' becomes commercial.

'I think genre rules should be porous, if not nonexistent.' Kazuo Ishiguro. 

And the truth is, we know it's non-existent which is why there are so many terms like crossover, mash up, genre bending, genre swapping etc.

Of course, all fiction must be commercial.

For a masterclass in storytelling, we may sometimes have to turn on the television. 'A Very English Scandal' attached us to Norman Scott and Mrs Tish, and even to Jeremy Thorpe with his big problem, and it set the pair on ice so thin it was cracking. The tone of voice was vaudeville, a touch of genius.

Forget genre; write about people for people. I am deeply suspicious of writers who say they don't care if the book gets published. I doubt very much their book will be good if they start with such a mean-spirited ambition.

'I want my films to get audiences. I am not interested in making them just for myself.' Stephen Frears

Write a book you'd love to read, build on the best story you ever came across, tweak it, change gender, change genre. Make it hard for yourself. Finish every chapter thinking - shit oh dear how am I going to get them out of this mess?

Get readers; nab them from other 'genres' by any means necessary. Put a nervous wreck of a hero on a church roof in high heels and they will come.

PS. When you pitch the book do not use the unfashionable terms of 'literary fiction' or 'memoir'. Forget the whole memoir thing. Make it a novel, make it commercial.

When you say 'commercial' you mean people will want to read it enough to pay a couple of quid to do so. You deserve a couple of quid and they deserve a thumping good read in return. It is that simple.


Join Us For the Write of Your Life.

We take beginners and experienced authors all the way from an inkling of an idea to a finished novel in a year. 

Get started!

👍 Like this blog? Give it a thumbs up here