Have you ever picked up a book and was just profoundly overwhelmed by the intelligent flow of the prose? Or maybe you picked it up, read the first paragraph, and had no idea what it was talking about. Maybe you did, but the style of prose was so high that it wiped your confidence off the face of the Earth.
There’s a chance that you have encountered a “literary work.”
Should you be afraid of them? Not at all! Literary fiction is by no means scary. If you’ve been to high school, you’ve read literature. Among the canon of classic literary novels include Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Frankenstein, A Tale of Two Cities, Native Son, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, etc. The list really goes on because there’s A LOT of literary novels. Literature doesn’t just include fiction, but since I focus on fiction, that’s what I’m going to talk about. Chances are you’ve read at least one of these mentioned, or more. I’ve read a lot of literature in high school and even more since I’m in undergrad, but if you haven’t read any of these, don’t sweat.
The next question that you may have asked is, “Why did I have to read these in high school? What makes them so important?”
Good question! Literature in general provides us with a sense of human existence and purpose through a language medium. These books are also meant to give students a different worldview than the one that they have now by reading an experience that is not their own.
For example, The Jungle gives readers an idea of what it’s like living in Chicago as an immigrant in the early 20th century. And when I say “early 20th century,” I really mean the very, very beginning. The book was published in 1906. And let me tell you, the book is NOT pretty because America in the early 20th century was NOT pretty. But through historical knowledge, the reader is able to grasp what it may have been like to be an immigrant in 1906. In some cases, parts of the The Jungle are even read in American history classes, most notably the meat factory scene.
Though the idea of grasping a certain view may be a bit difficult, that’s only one purpose of literary texts. Another reason for literature is for the writing itself.
I’m currently reading this book:
And this is literature. Zadie Smith is still alive (by the way), and this book was not published in the early twentieth century, rather it was published in 2000. This book is considered to be contemporary fiction, and it literature for the modern age. What makes this book different than Old Man’s War for example, is the prose. When I read White Teeth, I’m getting an experience that is wrapped inside the prose. When I read Old Man’s War, I’m getting a character experience that is driven by action. Literary fiction isn’t necessarily driven by action. In essence, it’s what you would call realistic fiction.
Now, how’s literary fiction different than mainstream fiction? Let me direct you to this article first:
This Huffington Post article is directed towards writers as well, eliminating the difference between literature and mainstream novels. Mainstream novels are driven by action, literary novels are driven by prose. Most of the time.
Now, if a novel isn’t realistic fiction, that doesn’t mean that it’s not literary. That’s when debates arise, fire ignites, and critics come out and breathe their wrath. I’m being a bit dramatic, but it can happen.
Whether your work is literary or not shouldn’t be your main concern. Write your story and change it how you wish when you believe that your story is told. Your decision to make it more literary or not is up to the story you want to tell.