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Literary Fiction... and Magic Powers

On the writing boards we frequent, questions about YA literary fiction come up often. What's the definition? What's the difference between it and commercial?

Because I'm a literary YA author, I always feel inclined to jump in. Especially when I see writers claim all literary fiction is Depressing and Dense.


(Well, some of it is, but not all).

In fact, while I enjoy commercial fiction, my favorites are unvaryingly literary. I've spent a great deal of time thinking about it, and here's the result: my long-winded take on what makes literary literary, specifically when it comes to young adult lit.

The craft

Simply put, literary fiction takes longer to write than commercial. There's much more crafting involved, from paragraph flow to word choice. There's more attention paid to the sounds of sentences –the rhythm, the turns of phrase. I find that I wrestle with the cadence of a sentence as much as I do the words it contains. In fact, I'd say writing literary fiction resembles writing poetry as much as it does snappy commercial fiction.

The driving force
In general, commercial novels are plot-driven. Most, though not all, adult genre books fall into the commercial spectrum: horror, romance, SF, mysteries. When I mean genre, I mean the obvious genre books, not books with just some element of mystery or romance. Literary novels, however, are driven by character, introspection, transcendence (see below), and the prose itself. But plot is important too, especially with young adult literary fiction. While some adult literary fiction is famous for meandering endlessly, teens need their books to go somewhere.

The tools

Remember those literary devices you learned in high school? No, I don't mean alliteration. I mean symbolism—not just similes and metaphors, but also richer, deeper symbolism, involving setting and character, objects and actions, all of them interweaving and reflecting. Allegory. Irony. Allusion.

But here's the catch: in great literary fiction, these devices don't bash you over the head. They're subtle. They're masterful. They're ah-ha!

The tone

This might be the most difficult factor to describe. Not all literary fiction is depressing, but it does make us feel. There's more introspection. A slower pace. More description, more expository. An overall deeper feeling, which should be apparent from the very first pages, or even the first lines. An example:
"I'm dreaming of the boy in the tree and at the exact moment I'm about to hear the answer that I've been waiting for, the flashlights yank me out of what could have been one of those perfect moments of clarity people talk about for the rest of their lives."
–Melina Marchetta, Jellicoe Road

Just like that, she's got us pondering. Which brings me to…

The transcendence

While all books should entertain, quality literary fiction does more. That's what I mean by transcendence: the use of intricate characters, significant subject matter and resonant situations to say something about the human condition. I'm not talking morals, or thinly veiled messages. Good literary fiction makes you think. And think. And think.

For example, Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls doesn't show us the perils of eating disorders in a glib cause-and-effect scenario, like most teen "issue books" would (i.e., bad family, bad society, bad body image = bad disease). The questions Wintergirls raises are much more complex; not just about the disorder, its roots and repercussions, but about all the versions of ourselves clamoring inside our skins, the helpful, the harmful and the hopeless*. All this, written in Laurie's uniquely lyrical voice.

Here's the thing about YA literary.

It's different from adult literary. Not just the age of the protagonist—crack open Atonement or The God of Small Things or Blood Meridian alongside some of the books listed below, and you'll see the differences right away.

A key distinction is the pacing. Teenagers might tackle inches-thick literary classics in school, but when they're reading for fun, they're searching for actual story. In most cases, it's not a matter of reading level or capability. It's that they don't want to sift through the hundred-acre-woods to find the apple trees.

But if you ask me, that's what makes young adult literary fiction so fantastic. Nothing's better than a book that pulls us along while making us think, bound in a lyrical package. A book that enriches us and illuminates some part of life, simply through the manipulation of twenty-six letters.

Now that's a magic power.

A few popular literary, commercial, and line-straddling young adult novels:

Definitely Literary:
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Definitely Commerical:
Series like Gossip Girl, The Clique, Private, etc.
Meg Cabot's books
Series like Artemis Fowl and A Series of Unfortunate Events
Series like House of Night, Uglies, Blue Bloods, etc.

The catch: Like with most things, this categorization is more of a gradient. The majority of fiction falls somewhere between the two extremes.

Line Straddlers
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher


*You've got to watch out for that sneaky alliteration... slips in there sometimes
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. Great post, Kirsten.

    "Nothing's better than a book that pulls us along while making us think, bound in a lyrical package." -- I think this sums up very nicely what YA literary fiction is (and why I love it!). Well said! :)

  2. Very interesting post indeed - I'm going to be looking over the books I read as well as my own writing, and see where each one falls.

    And I loved A Certain Slant Of Light. Amazing book.

  3. Very well said. I think I am a line straddler in my personal tastes. I like a few of the frivolous, a few of the literary, and mostly the ones that sit on the fence. But to be fair, I read adult fiction, science fiction, non fiction, and memoirs as well.

  4. But...but I LOVE alliteration. :P

    w00t for commercial/literary YA!

  5. Hmm, that's interesting. While I enjoy adult literary fiction (I haven't read much/any YA literary fiction, as far as I know), I *most commonly* read line straddlers, based on that list.

    I would never buy most of the books listed on the "purely commercial" list, although I haven't read (and want to read) the Uglies series. But I really don't like purely superficial books. By which I don't mean that the characters or their development are superficial; more that the book or the writing is superficial. (I'm getting very confused with my is/are here.) I'm a little surprised that Uglies is under commercial when - from what I've heard about it - it seems to have some quite deep themes running through it. But as I say, I haven't read it, so I don't know.

    Anyway: very interesting and (obviously) thought-provoking post! I've always wanted to write literary fiction or line straddlers, I think; I love the subtle nuances you can weave into a book, the way you can use language, that so many writers don't seem to take advantage of.

  6. *clouds part and light shines down (cue chorus)*

    Now this is an full explanation that makes sense to me. Very nice post, Kirsten!

  7. Ruth said: I would never buy most of the books listed on the "purely commercial" list, although I haven't read (and want to read) the Uglies series.

    I was surprised about that as well. I have read the Uglies series and while it is science fiction for the younger, technology minded set, it DOES have deep themes running through it. And I guess I really did not think it was as superficial as the Gossip Girl type books. Not that I have actually read those but I imagine them to be somewhat like the show and I have seen a few episodes.

  8. Thanks, you guys. I guess I need to clarify that commercial definitely isn't synonymous with superficial. On the adult end, Dean Koontz is commercial for sure, but many of his books make you think -- though I'd never call them transcendent.

    In general, I'd say plot is the driving force behind most commercial books, while character development and that whole transcendence thing drives most literary books. The Uglies series has a message, but it's anything but subtle, and the books couldn't be more plot-driven; action dominates almost every page.

    Like with anything, most books fall into the gradient -- with Gossip Girls and Danielle Steel at one end, and Octavian Nothing and Ian McEwan at the other.

  9. I just updated my post to clarify a bit about "the driving force" behind literary versus commercial. Again, with Uglies, imagine if it were published as an adult book-- there'd be no question as to its commercial categorization. I'm not saying its status as SF/dystopian alone makes it commercial, though; Ray Bradbury, Margeret Atwood's The Handmaid's tale, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road are definitely literary.

  10. Loved this post Kirsten, especially because I'm beginning to develop a literary novel outline for my thesis. Sometimes the lines can be blurred, and it's nice to have input from others!

  11. Hope you don't mind, I quoted you on a blog post on my website. Great post btw.


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Item Reviewed: Literary Fiction... and Magic Powers Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard