The world of literary fiction took a hit in the early months of 2012 with the deaths of three prominent Southern writers–William Gay, Harry Crews and Lewis Nordan. Never heard of them? Neither had I until I began to take writing
classes and attend writers’ conferences.
That’s when I began to understand the difference between literary fiction and other kinds of novels and short stories. Just what is the difference? It’s easier to explain what literary fiction isn’t than what it is.
If a book is one you’d absentmindedly pick up to take to the beach or on an airplane trip or to read after a long day at work, chances are it’s not literary fiction. Think Danielle Steele. James Patterson. Janet Evanovich. Tom Clancy.
Popular, mainstream, commercial fiction that tends to be plot-driven and that’s written primarily to entertain. It’s relaxing. Quick. Fun. If a book can be classified as spy fiction, romance, mystery, chick lit, horror, or thriller, chances are it’s not literary.
On the flip side, fiction that is critically acclaimed, complex, serious, thought-provoking, and multi-layered is generally considered literary. The focus is less on plot than on character. The pacing is often slow and the writing lyrical. The subject matter of literary fiction is usually dark and frequently depressing.
Its intent is to uncover for the reader universal life truths through exploration of internal rather than external conflicts. Heavy stuff, in other words.
Three of its best practitioners have left us.
William Gay, who died in February, was a native of Hohenwald, Tennessee and the only one of these writers I ever met in person. He walked into a Cookeville Creative Writers Association conference several years ago looking more like a person who lived in his car than a keynote speaker. Unshaved. Uncombed. Rumpled.
Which more or less characterized his entire life. “I’ve always worked under cover,” he said. “Until I was almost fifty years old, I was an intellectual passing as a construction worker. Now (after publication of two novels and numerous short stories), I’m a construction worker passing as an academic.”
Gay’s fiction includes “The Long Home,” “Provinces of Night,” “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” and “Twilight,” not to be confused with the vampire novel of the same name. Please.
Harry Crews, who died in March, was born into grinding poverty in south Georgia and suffered a childhood that’s the stuff nightmares are made of. The Sears and Roebuck catalog was his only escape. “When I was a boy, things were so awful in my house that I’d fantasize about people in the catalog because they all looked so good and clean and perfect,” he said. “Those are the people I first wrote stories about.”
Crews taught writing at the University of Florida for thirty years. Largely unknown outside literary circles, his bewildering and often brutal body of work earned him a near-cultish following among a certain cadre of readers. Most recommend his 1978 memoir “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place” as a good way to jump in.
Last but certainly not least is Lewis Nordan, who died in April. Like
Faulkner, Nordan set most of his stories in a fictional town in his native
Mississippi. His works tend to be comic tales of country boys coming of age in a world where the grotesque lurks around every corner. Nordan lived not far from where Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who allegedly made a pass at a white woman, was murdered in 1955. That tragedy is the basis for “Wolf Whistle,” perhaps his most well-known novel.
So there you have it. A few places to start if you want to dive into the world of literary fiction, by some of its finest writers, on your trip to the beach this summer.
(May 20, 2012)