Monday, May 11, 2020

Let’s Get Literary: A How-to Guide

Annamaria on Monday

Our guest today is Robin Uncapher, my long-time friend.  We met when Robin was a training manager at major New York City bank, and I was a consultant.  Ordinarily, I did not find personal friends among my clients; Robin was only one of three—all women with whom I had a great deal in common. For Robin and me, a major connection began with books.  Of late—in lockdown, we have been keeping each other sane with periodic long phone conversations, during one of which we discovered a new penchant we share.  An anti-snobbery passion when it comes to genre fiction.  Robin’s focus is on romance novels, about which she writes reviews and essays. 
As with mystery novels, romance fiction often is the target of that unfair accusation: it is formulaic.  Robin resents that notion.  As do I.  Her response: The following analysis.  It will help anyone who aspires to impress graduates of the School of Literary Toffee Noses.  I give you Robin’s debunking of the pretentious notion that literary fiction is an art apart.  Her words include how-to instructions!

Hi Everyone:
Thanks, Annamaria for that great intro.  When Annamaria and I met, I was still a literary snob.  My reading list came from the New York TimesWashington Post or similar. Then, in the late 90s I started reading romance and mysteries.  What a surprise.
Eventually I had changed my mind so much that I regularly contributed to a column, At the Back Fence, at All About Romance, a review site for romance novels.   A New York Times Book Section post had suggested that romance novels were all the same because they were written according to strict writers’ guidelines.  In response, I sat down and wrote a list of guidelines for literary fiction.  They were mostly what everybody knew, and nobody was willing to say.  See what you think of it…


Is there really no formula for writing literary fiction? Well, ah yes…Everybody who reads literary fiction knows there are rules, but nobody has the nerve to acknowledge them. I don’t know about you, but the next time someone tells me that there is no formula for writing literary fiction, I am going to ask them how much of it they have read lately!
I love all kinds of books, including modern literature. But COME’ON!!!! No formula? When is the last time anyone read a literary fiction book with a truly happy ending? Can you read ten literary fiction books in a row and not fall into one focused on some kind of abuse? When was the last time you read a literary fiction book by an African American author that, outside of the race and culture of the characters, had nothing whatsoever to do with race?
Never one to shirk my duty to point out that the emperor might need a sweater made of actual cloth I decided it was time somebody wrote down what everyone who reads modern fiction already knows…the Guidelines for Writing Literary Fiction…written the way literary publishers would write them if they were being honest. (Note to new literary fiction authors: as in all genres some talented writers break a few guidelines (William Styron, Tom Wolf, John Irving) but virtually no one breaks all of them.)

  • If possible, the book should be written by a man and have a male voice, a white male voice. Women and minorities will be published but with the exception of a few designated hitters, they will not be eligible for the big prizes and kudos. If the narrator is African American, she should sound like one and, if possible, write something historical. Writing about slavery is good but anything set prior to 1950 is okay. For example, an AA female writer who wishes to write a book about a female black lawyer in Boston involved in a major civil suit, should make sure the suit has something to do with being African American. Otherwise, she should forget about literary fiction and write romance or Chick Lit. If a female author is white, she should write the way John Updike would write if he were a woman.
  • Lead characters must have a fair amount of angst but should be largely unaware of their impotence in solving their problems. They should be out of touch with their feelings, except for anger and boredom. Anger is really good. Pages and pages of ranting by crazy male characters are a real sign of literary achievement so don’t hold back (see The Terrorist by John Updike)!
  • Relations between people, including children and parents, husbands and wives, neighbors etc. should be fairly sterile. Characters may be depressed. They should have difficulty communicating emotion. They should keep secrets from one another and live lives of quiet desperation (as Thoreau would say). Problems between parents and adult children should remain largely unresolved as everyone but Dr. Phil knows they are unsolvable.
  • Whenever possible the writer should interrupt the action with pointless observations about some aspect of the minutia of modern life.
  • Personal problems that would be shocking to most readers should be described in matter-of-fact terms. A sexual predator, for example, should be described in such a way that the reader knows that the writer is not judging him. Victims of predators must be permanently scarred. If there has been violence, such as a murder, it should be graphically described in a detached but nauseating way. (For an example of a sexual predator who fits well into this genre see Sabbath’s Theater by Phillip Roth. Winner of the National Book Award.)

  • Characters should generally be well educated but, if they are not, they should be from rural communities, especially those in the South. Southerners should be quoted in dialect whenever possible, especially if they are poor and white and when the book is told in the first person (see The New Yorker fiction).
  • If characters reveal their political beliefs, they should be fundamentally liberal unless they are evil and selfish. Evil selfish characters are urged to look fondly back to the Reagan years, or, if they are British, the Thatcher years (see The New Yorker).
  • Coming of age stories are especially welcome particularly when the narrator has suffered terrible abuse—sexual is good, an addicted parent works but so does verbal abuse (see Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison).
  • A nice touch is adding a ghost or some kind of inexplicable thinking on the part of a character so that the reader is not completely sure of what is going on. This is very literary, and few readers are willing to admit it when they are confused (see Beloved by Toni Morrison and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel).
  • Midlife crisis is another good one, especially if the character is male and living in Westchester or Connecticut (see Roth and Updike).

  • Adultery should be described as a kind of rite of passage and the author should not make judgment calls, unless the adulterer is a woman.
  • The male protagonist may commit as much adultery as necessary to make him feel isolated and pointless. His partner, a single female many years his junior, should be lonely, emotional, demanding and ungrateful for her lucky shot at having sex with a miserable, married, middle-aged man who lives in the suburbs.
  • The novel should not have a plot. The lead character(s) should have vague problems which evolve slowly throughout the novel. There is no need to solve these problems.
  • If your character falls in love, it should be clear to the reader that he or she is probably being misled by some character flaw, loneliness or personal problem stemming from childhood. A married middle-aged man is probably having a crisis—not falling in love. In fact, the reader should not be able to determine why the character loves this person whom he says he loves. This way the end of the relationship, which will come at the conclusion, will be more logical than the pairing itself.
  • In literary historical novels with male protagonists, a nice touch is to have the handsome, otherwise admirable male lead fall in love with a twelve or thirteen year old girl (see The March by E.L Doctorow).

  • If the characters are of age, single and truly love each other, kill one of them (see Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier).
  • If the book ends with a wedding, it should preferably be to someone the lead character was not in love with during the story and the character should not be deliriously happy (see Girl with Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.
  • The book’s ending is critical. If the story is a real love story one of the lead characters must either die, go back to his spouse or break off the relationship to “find himself/herself.” If the book is very depressing and contains a group of characters who are completely unable to handle their lives and have no insight into their problems—a multiple murder by a major character who has, up until this point, appeared to be a good person, is an excellent ending. Make sure it is revolting and shocking (see The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton).
  • An easy to read compelling style is discouraged. Writers are urged to consider passive voice, verbs of being and long sentences (see The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen).
  • On completing the book, readers should have a satisfied feeling of accomplishment. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is value. They will be able to say they enjoyed the book, but will probably not be able to explain why without reading a review. They can feel fully satisfied in recommending it to a book club.

Note: A version of this essay was first published on the All About Romance website.


  1. It would be interesting to have a - preferably heated - counter argument. You won't get it from me! Thanks, Robin.

    1. Thank you, Michael! My biggest problem in having this argument is that only people who read mysteries and romance novels appear to have also read literary fiction. The crowd that disagrees with me depends on arguments like "everybody knows" and "look at the covers." Rather odd arguments for readers, yes?

  2. Before I started working on this with you, Robin, it never would have occurred to me to write like John Irving if he was a woman. But yesterday I began to think that, now that my hair has turned gray, I have begun to look like John Irving if he was a woman. I wonder: could I, a lowly genre writer, get more respect as a novelist if I try to pass myself off as the female John Irving?

    1. Annamaria, You underestimate yourself! I think you can pull it off if you insert female bears into the stories and have your most beloved characters undergo unexpected horrible accidents or pursue incest. Maybe the leads could discover they are actually brother and sister? Or they are in love with a bear?

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  4. Hilarious, and very close to the bone.

  5. I loved this post, Robin. It captures perfectly the attitudes I've run across in some "mixed" literary/mystery/romance events. It also applies to the world of folk music, where some fans are known to yell out when an artist performing in a club deviates from the original lyrics--at least that's what I was told by a venue's owner (in Northhampton, MA) who referred to them as "folk-nazis."