As you may already know, for this November’s National Novel Writing Month I will mostly be writing a work of literary fiction.
I was originally going to do a graphic novel, but if I stick with that there’s no point signing up because I won’t reach NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 word target even if I take the whole month off work and do nothing but write and draw. And given that NaNo is one of the main reasons 12 books in 12 months happened, it seems churlish to ignore it this time round.
So I’ve switched, and now the graphic novel is going to happen in December and will probably be a three panel strip about Santa or something. Well, actually it’s more likely to involve a series of cartoons about me trying to write 12 books in 12 months… But I digress.
A couple of folk have asked me, “hey Ali, what do you mean by literary fiction? Surely the word ‘literary’ derives from the Latin ‘litterārius’ simply meaning ‘of or used in writing’? Are not all your books then literary fiction, as they are written down?”
In a word, NO. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 pounds, dollars or yen. Just stay there at the start of the board and let me explain.
Literary Fiction is the sort of thing that turns up on lists of ‘books everybody ought to read,’ but when you ask around nobody ever has. It contains poetic prose and profound themes. It expects the reader to fully invest, and teases said reader by taking two pages to describe one smell, and developing characterisation so slowly that by the end of the book the hero or heroine is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery partially hidden in shadow.
Essentially we’re talking the type of thing that gets nominated for the Man Booker prize, the sort of prose one can objectively recognise as being beautifully crafted without having any actual desire to read it. Literary Fiction makes you work, dammit. You need to commit yourself totally; this isn’t the sort of book you can read on the bus (unless you’re monumentally good at blocking out distractions), this is a book that demands quiet and candles. And a good reading light; the candles are just for ambience.
These books tend to be enormous, because if something is worth saying beautifully then it must worth taking a torturously long time to say it. So in that respect it’s the perfect genre for NaNoWriMo, whose paltry 50k target is probably less than half of a proper litfic volume.
Now, I realise at this point I am coming off as someone with little to no time for this most worthy area of fiction, but that isn’t really true. I find some authors who write dense, wordy prose completely immersing – Margaret Atwood, for instance, or Isabel Allende. You might argue Allende writes magical realism rather than literary fiction, but given her prose and her commentary on politics and culture I feel her books are often pretty literary in content and style.
Both writers develop their characters in a readable manner, although they are pretty opposite in how they go about it – Allende works with passion and emotion, whilst Atwood is often quite isolated and detached. And crucially for me, I never feel like either of them is forgoing story in favour of showing off their mad flowery language skillz. However, they also have their profound themes to work with – often the changing role of women in their home countries.
I do not yet have my profound theme.
In a lot of literary fiction, people write about cultural differences and journeys. The only Booker winner I’ve actually read, The Inheritance of Loss by Indian author Kiran Desai, has two main characters – a girl who has grown up in India with a very English upbringing from a grandfather who thinks that is the only way to get ahead, and a boy who goes to America to make his fortune as an illegal immigrant and finds out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The author alternates between the two and tells you a lot about opposing cultural and religious views. It’s very good, although I found it a little hard going in places.
Meanwhile one of my friends, who has a First in English and a couple of MLitts for her trouble, informs me that LGBT and Mental Health themes are big at the moment if I want to ride the zeitgeist. The literary world is screaming out for a novel about a gay Jamaican schizophrenic, she argued, but I fear a straight Scottish girl with no health issues to speak of might not be the best person to do it. Not without extensive research, at any rate, and time is of the essence here.
In conclusion, I am in a pickle. It turns out I am an entirely superficial person without a smidge of profundity, for I am completely lacking in ideas for this book. That and these sort of novels are generally the product of years and years of work, and I have not put in the mulling time. This is a pain, as I would really like to plan it a bit before the end of October to give myself the best possible chance of completing NaNo again.
If anyone has any thoughts, please don’t be a stranger!