Literature or fiction?

man on shelvesLately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a novel rise above the level of merely well-written fiction to become a literary work.

A novel can consist of technically flawless writing, but be as bland as a piece of white toast. So it must tell a good story. It’s also true that a novel can convey an engaging story in a mechanically accurate manner without the writing rising to a high literary quality. So the writing must surpass grammatical accuracy and correct construction to demonstrate literary skill. But literary skill does not consist of simply inserting techniques like simile and metaphor. Some of the worst writing I’ve read abounds with vivid and original similes. Literary techniques are counter-productive, however, when they become obvious and distract the reader.

I know a good book when I read one. And reading great literature is probably the best way to begin recognizing good literature. But I want to go much further in learning how to recognize and write literary work. Is this a skill that can be taught or is it simply intuitive?

Recently I’ve participated in some interesting chats on literary subjects, but I’d like to expand the conversation. Would you like to weigh in? What aspects do you believe lift writing to a literary level? Feel free to comment.

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4 thoughts on “Literature or fiction?

  1. This is an interesting question, Glenda.
    To my mind, literature builds an engaging story upon a foundation of intellectual and spiritual depth. The story should provoke the reader to look past the circumstances of the situation portrayed and consider the forces at work behind it as well as possible long-term effects of the events.
    Can we be taught to write that way? I don’t know, but I aspire to learn it. As you suggest, reading good literature is the starting point. An old adage says, I have grown taller from walking among the trees, and I think that’s true here.

    1. Good point, Y, that a good story needs to be built “upon a foundation of intellectual and spiritual depth.” The reader should have a sense of a sub-story. This may tie in with the reader being able to trust the author as conveying truth in this fictional account.

  2. I tell my students that, when you explore the text for that “other” conversation (i.e. not just the story itself, but bigger issues and ideas that are
    in play) you will find it (although not always overtly) in a work of literature. If you don’t, it’s not.

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