More than any genre fiction, the literary novel demands
by D. J. Herda
When I was younger, I thought every novel was a literary novel. I believed that every work of fiction was as fully developed as it could possibly be and that every writer's goal was to see that it got that way.
Today, I know better. Not necessarily because I'm so much wiser. More so that I'm simply more experienced.
In essence, at 54 years of age, after writing now for more than four decades, I am a literary novel. Or, rather, I would be if I were any type of novel at all--much more so than I could have been when I was, say, 20, 30, or 40. Do you see what I'm getting at?
A literary novel is a well developed read. It features full, rich characters (who have lived full, rich lives, albeit not necessarily long ones) who virtually crackle with emotions--and not merely one or two, but the whole riveting gamut of them. By creating fully developed, rich characters, we give the readers of our literary works something to dig their teeth into.
The same is true with the setting of a literary novel--both the time and the place. A literary novel paints a broad canvas of setting, and then it moves in to fill in the details even more completely--adding the rocks and stones and pebbles and sometimes even the most minute grains of sand that all go into making up the literary novel's tableau.
Whereas a genre novel can (and usually does) get away with a paragraph or two about the setting of the story unfolding, a literary novel requires passage after passage of intimate details. What does the landscape look like today as compared to fifty or a hundred or even a thousand years ago? How are the characters who inhabit the literary novel alike, how are they different, and how, in the end, did they get that way to begin with?
What makes the people in a literary novel tick? What makes the setting work for or against the characters effectively? Why did Melville set Moby Dick almost entirely aboard a ship, while Hawthorne set The House of Seven Gables on land? The answers to those questions are the very things that the literary novel portends.
The reason for all this attention to detail in a literary novel is simple. The literary novel reader wants to know as much as possible about the characters and the place they inhabit and how they relate to one another and about their history (and their family's history) and how the characters of today vary from their ancestors. Think of the typical literary novel reader (my God, is there such a thing?) as meticulous. This is the same kind of anal-retentive human being who sorts table salt by the size of its grains. Throw out some information in a literary novel, and the reader immediately reacts by raising a dozen questions, all of which he expects to have answered in full by the novel's end.
Contrast that with the reader of the typical modern genre novel (detective, romance, sci-fi, etc.), in which the main character is developed just enough to advance the story line and keep the reader wondering what's going to happen next. (That's always a big part of the genre novel--a continuing string of unfolding events, usually unexpectedly and almost always right in the path of the main character.) A typical genre novel reader is about as far from anal-retentive as one human being can possibly get. Table salt? You'll find it in the genre-novel reader's home in the same five-gallon bucket as he stores the rock salt, pellet salt, and block salt for feeding to the brood mares. Throw out some information in a genre novel, and the reader immediately wants to see some action.
There is some room for crossover, of course. A literary novel often has its share of action, but almost always it is considerably less action than in the typical genre novel. The reader doesn't need to learn about the characters in a literary novel by observing how they react to dramatic, exciting, or even life-threatening events; the reader learns through the writer's fleshing-out of the characters' thoughts and emotions and through the painting of each elaborately detailed scene.
Is the literary novel more difficult to write than the genre novel? It is if you buy into the premise that it's much more difficult and time-consuming getting to know everything one can possibly know about a person--both inside and out--than it is to receive a cursory introduction to someone and then move quickly on.
And that's exactly the challenge facing the writer of a literary novel: how to relay a voluminous amount of information about the novel's characters in the relatively short space of a few hundred pages. More demanding, yet, is to do so without boring the reader to death.
And that, in a nutshell, is why so few writers are up to tackling the beast. It's much easier to create a work of fiction that moves and excites and inspires in the reader familiar and exalted feelings than it is to create a work of fiction that leads the reader to a greater sense of personal understanding of the human condition that surrounds him. That is where the true genius of a Herman Melville or a Nathanial Hawthorne or even a Phillip Roth shines brightest.
So, the next time you toy with tackling that literary novel that's been bouncing around the back of your brain for eons, better give it some serious thought. Are you up to the task? Ready for the demands? Prepared for the rigors? If so, the literary world awaits. Just remember: do it right ... or don't do it at all.