Not Just Literary Fiction

The morning’s foray onto Twitter included a tweet by Penguin-Random linking to this article,,  about how reading fiction increases readers’ understanding of other people.   Although I agree that reading fiction from childhood on up does tend to increase understanding and awareness,  I don’t agree with this kind of article (it’s not the first such to show up in the past few years) because it implies that only one kind of fiction–“literary fiction”–contributes to the effect, and it contains a slam at “plot-driven” and “genre” fiction.   Worse, some of its examples of literary fiction were written as commercial, genre fiction (L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for example, or Judy Blume’s Blubber) and not as plot-free literary fiction.

All fiction depends on three critical components in order to work as fiction.  Aristotle laid them out 2000+ years ago in his Poetics, and though he was talking about Greek drama, the principles work for all varieties of fiction.   1. Characters that interest the reader/viewer.  2. Plots that the characters inhabit and that satisfy the inborn desire for story organization.  3. Motivation that connects the characters to the plot.

Plots should move because of character motivation leading to character action.   Characters should act because something in the plot grabs their attention and motivates them to act.  Motivation should arise *from the characters themselves* in response to both external and internal influences: present situation + memory, experience, thought, emotion.   The pure externals (setting, events external to the characters) are necessary but not sufficient to create a story.  Failures in Character (boring, unbelievable)  or Plot (boring, unbelievable) or Motivation (incomprehensible) ruin a story.

Not all genre fiction is “plot-driven” but all commercial fiction has a plot.   Properly, “plot-driven” should apply only to those stories in which the motivational connection between character and plot is tenuous or missing.   The writer thought up a cool series of events and didn’t figure out why the characters would do any of the eighty exciting but unlikely things they did.   Not all literary fiction is “character-driven” (sometimes it’s “ideology-driven,” with characters reduced to caricatures to make the point.)   Sometimes a work labeled “character-driven” is basically a character-study, not a story.  The most satisfying fiction, from the reader’s point of view, has the plot and the characters and the motivations in balance…and it does not matter whether that balance occurs in a mystery, a thriller, a romance, a historical, a science fiction, an epic fantasy…it matters that the basic requirements of Story are all in there and in reasonable balance.   You simply cannot have a good story without all three components.

So–what kinds of stories can help “make us human?”  Many kinds, because readers are varied: age, culture, place in their society, personality, etc.   The eight-year-old extrovert will learn one thing from a story; the eight-year-old introvert will learn something else from the same story…because of their different past experiences and their different personalities.   Books intended for children often include that culture’s intention for children: they include, in their story (if they’re good) and didactic info-dump (if they’re not so good) the values and behaviors they want children to learn.   By the time I was in junior high, teachers and librarians were already denigrating horse stories as “mere self-indulgence for girls”…but in fact the better ones had much more in them than that.   Marguerite Henry and Dorothy Lyons were two of my favorite writers, and in both the social and economic and even political milieu in which the story occurred was laid out–the protagonists (child or adult, boy or girl) were embedded in, and reacting to, a variety of settings.  Though well-written, these were not “literary fiction” (very literate, but not literary in the current sense) –they were commercial genre books, and yes, they had plots.  And characters.   And motivation that a young reader could see and feel and understand.

Children who read a lot move from “And then what happened?” to “Why did he/she/they do that?”  often with the help of an adult reader who asks that question and then doesn’t answer it.   “Why?” is the question that opens motivation, and it’s a question children naturally ask if they’re not squashed by impatient adults…and they ask it not just about factual topics, but about human behavior.  “Why is Daddy mad?”  “Why don’t you like Mr. So-and-so?”   “Why did that lady yell at us?”  “Why can’t Grandma come on the hike with us?”  So getting them to read for the “why” isn’t hard, and the books’ answers for the “whys” of stories are what connects them to better understanding human behavior.  Not because all books are right about why a character did something, but because enough books are close enough to a reader’s understanding for them to notice when it is right.  And for them to begin to see parallels between a book and their own situation–and then the situations of others.

The temptation for teachers, librarians, and people who write serious essays from a literary perspective  is to make a line between “serious” and “frivolous” reading, and try to argue that everyone should read these books, by these writers, instead of wandering around finding books that speak to them.  (Something good librarians can help with, I hasten to add.)   C. S. Lewis, back in the early 20th century, dealt with that brilliantly in one of his essays on reading.   Readers come into any book like a traveler into a new town.  For some, it will be the perfect place to observe and learn–for others, it won’t be.  No one book is necessary; no one book is useless…because readers are different.   The easiest way to drive children away from books is to load them down with books they don’t enjoy and insist they get “the hidden message” out of them.

And reading is important.   Although drama can connect character to motivation to plot, drama is much more visual (not a bad thing in itself) and “seen from outside.”  The character’s appearance and behavior are clear, but access to thoughts and motivations comes either through dialogue or inference.  Those most adept at “reading” a movie or TV show already have a pretty good understanding of human behavior.   Reading allows the reader into the character’s head, to view the motivational vector calculus directly in the character’s thoughts and emotions.  Internal conflicts can be laid bare, then considered and stirred around in the reader’s mind, compared with the reader’s experience, whatever it may be.

So I wish the false dichotomies between “literary” and “genre,” and between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” would vanish from discussions about books.   If you want to “become human” by reading fiction, just read fiction.  Read lots of fiction.   Read lots of kinds of fiction by lots of kinds of writers.   Writers of other races, from other places, of different ages (their own) and other eras.    And read books you enjoy.  I still haven’t read Moby Dick and probably never will.   My loss, yes, but then my gain was time to read other books.



3 thoughts on “Not Just Literary Fiction

  1. I hate labelling books – whether as literary (in whose opinion?) or Genres – too many don’t fit in one genre (even if I understood what some genre and sub-genre are supposed to be). There’s a lot to be said for encouraging wide ranging reading – when young I devoured many books. Some that people raved over I couldn’t get – my father always loved Conrad – left me cold – but I read and still do many genres. Some I read and re-read and get more each time, some I romp through, some I get part way and you know that’s as far as it goes – (example recently where I got about 70% through and realised I just don’t care what happens to these people, don’t find the story compelling and no-one that I care about). No I don’t just read things with happy endings, but books or ‘literary folk’ who lecture me rather than engaging me don’t work.

  2. Loved this post. I’m in a book group with women who “don’t read science fiction” and we just finished a “literary” novel set during the Checnyan war that none of us liked. We couldn’t relate to the characters and did not find them engaging, the plot was all over the map, and it was just bleak and dreary. And it has a bazillion 5 star reviews on Goodreads. Sigh. Several of them didn’t like “The Fifth Season” by N. K. Jemison. As far as I was concerned, Jemison did a fantastic job of creating a world as bleak as Chechnya but gave us a main character who was struggling as much as anyone in the “literary” novel but at the same time was a character I cared about. In future I’ll have to be more careful about how I describe my recommendations I guess.

    1. Susan: Jemison has literary chops and is considered to be on that end of SF, but yes. Very talented, very effective, while still giving readers someone to care about.

      Caryn: Thank you!

      Patricia N: Ah, you noticed (G). It was not ever going to be an easy relationship. I’m still not sure exactly why, but I do know that culture (Slotter Key’s relative informality v. Cascadian extreme formality), age and each culture’s assumptions about age, and experience, both military & civilian, had a lot to do with it.

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