Literary fiction breaks many of the publishing industry’s rules of genre novel writing. But is length the one rule that can’t be broken? Or does the style of storytelling matter more than any other factor in fiction writing?
Occasionally referred to as “serious literature,” literary fiction is the soul-searching yin to genre, or “commercial,” fiction’s pleasure-focused yang. In literary fiction, style (the writing) trumps substance (the plot and characters). But that’s not the reason it stands apart from commercial fiction in the Western literary canon.
Why isn’t literary fiction included in the commercial (or, by definition “easy to sell”) family of fiction? One word: money. Commercial fiction sells well, literary fiction does not. The reason literary fiction isn’t a big money-maker, according to Chuck Sambuchino, is simple: “Literary fiction has a harder time selling because it’s not easily defined, and sometimes the premise is not easily explained (or just isn’t that exciting).”
Fiction is simply storytelling. In commercial fiction, the “story” part of “storytelling” is the main focus. The plot runs the show, and that plot typically follows a traditional hero’s journey model — or, with increasing frequency in recent years, Hollywood’s three-act screenplay format. A commercial fiction story is told in plain, clear language; the style employed by the author functions solely in service to the plot. The goal of a genre novel is to entertain the reader. If the book is judged to be boring, it’s a failure.
In literary fiction, it’s the “telling” that’s the important part. Here, the plot serves the style. Structure is less important than compelling, precise, highly poetic language. The literary fiction novel’s raison d’être is to impart, not to entertain. What it seeks to impart varies, but usually it’s a theme, a social argument, or a mood. If readers find a literary fiction novel boring, the failure is considered to be theirs, not the book’s. They simply didn’t try hard enough (or have sufficient intellectual or cultural chops) to understand what the story sought to convey. Or, as novelist Annie Neugebauer states, “In commercial fiction, the protagonist does the work. In literary fiction, the reader does the work.”
Put crudely, commercial novels are captivating stories told simply, literary fiction novels are simple stories told captivatingly.
And that brings us to our next contender for world’s shortest novel, Joyce Carol Oates’ I Lock the Door Upon Myself, a book that exemplifies the question of whether literary fiction is exempt from the length guidelines and other conventions of genre fiction.
Published in 1990, this little novel has one of the best opening images of any book I’ve ever read. It doesn’t just begin in medias res, it begins mid-sentence.
…there on the river, the Chautauqua, in a sepia sun, the rowboat bucking the choppy waves with a look almost of gaiety, defiance. And in the boat the couple: the man, rowing, a black man, the woman a white woman whose face is too distant to be seen. … only when they are a mile above Tintern falls do people begin to shout in warning.”
Who are they? What brought them together, in a rowboat headed straight over a waterfall? The rest of the 98-page (approximately 23,000-word) story attempts to answer that question. Though ostensibly a very simple coming-of-age tale wedded to a love story, I Lock the Door Upon Myself presents itself not as a typical plot-driven genre story, but as an introspective work of literary fiction.
Writer E.M. Welsh refers to “the structureless structure of a literary novel” as one of the hallmarks of the genre, and for all its clear plot beats, there’s plenty of inward-focused “structurelessness” in I Lock the Door Upon Myself.
Set in the early 1900s in rural New York State, Oates’ narrative traces the life (including the supposed inner life) of Edith “Calla” Honeystone, as explored, gathered, guessed at and purely imagined by her granddaughter, who barely knew her. Calla grows up alienated from those around her, indifferent to social mores and manners. “She had to be disciplined, sometimes hourly, she was that kind of child. … Adults were infuriated by the child’s refusal to acknowledge them.”
By the time she becomes an adult, Calla’s alienation appears to be all-inclusive and immutable. The narrator imagines her thinking, “And so around me life took on the contour and texture of a dream, though I was not the dreamer.”
All of that changes when she meets an African American man named Tyrell Thompson. And soon, the two of them find themselves in a rowboat headed for certain death.
The cover of the book explicitly references Oates’ inspiration: Fernand Khnopff’s 1891 painting, I Lock My Door Upon Myself, which depicts a pale, dead-eyed, auburn-haired woman whose appearance is remarkably similar to the physical description Calla.
All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.
I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?
In Rossetti’s poem, the one who shall deliver the poet is God; in Oates’ narrative, the person who shall deliver Calla is the mysterious man in the rowboat. Though it’s tempting to see him as a figurative Charon rowing Calla towards literal death, the text presents Thompson, water douser and Calla’s secret lover, as a mere tool in the protagonist’s final act of rebellion against society before withdrawing completely from the world.
“She shut her door, she locked her door upon herself early in the winter of 1913 as soon as she’d sufficiently recovered from the trauma done to her body … the white woman who had nearly died with him at Tintern, plunging over the falls with him in a rowboat that had shattered about them like kindling.”
The narrator discovers that mystery of this story, in the end, is both profound and banal. “As I was growing up I heard of my mother’s mother the ‘crazy woman’ … the mystery of Calla Honeystone was a deep and abiding embarrassment.”
Final judgement: because of its simple story, multifaceted literary style, and complex use of language to convey layers upon layers of theme and mood, I Lock the Door Upon Myself is definitely literary fiction, and definitely a novel.
Next up: Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal.