A Literary Fiction How-To

A word, if I may. I’ve tried to avoid adding commentary, disclaimers, etc to old stuff, but I’ll make an exception here. I’m a fan of Banville; I love The Sea. He’s maybe the best stylist around, and I spit on those who dislike his difficult words. I don’t think that comes across here. It’s a cheap piece, but there are some okay funnies, so it stays.

Even though Fantasy is harder, because you have to make up more stuff and draw maps, and Chicklit is a sod because there aren’t that many synonyms for ‘shoe’, the Literary Novel remains the genre that wins a writer respect. If you write an LN, people will listen to your opinion. You can simply say ‘that Bowyer’s a twat’, and people will discuss it at dinner-parties.

The best person at writing LNs is John Banville. You can tell because critics use words like ‘Nabokovian’ and ‘lustrous’ when they write about him. Here is a simple, foolproof guide to writing a literary novel, using Banville’s latest, The Sea, as illustrative matter.

All literary novels are sensitive reflections on memory and identity. They can, at a pinch, ‘be deeply concerned with’ (‘about’) sex, death, or history, but try to make sure you’ve still got memory and identity covered. The Sea deals with memory, identity and death. In fact, it’s a sensitive reflection on them.

2.Your narrator must be unreliable.
You won’t need a plot for your LN – plots are vulgar – but make sure there’s an unreliable narrator. He should unwittingly reveal things about himself, skew the facts of the story and forget things. Banville’s narrators even unreliably admit their own unreliability. Nice!

3. Hazy Character motivation
We’ve established you don’t need a plot; you can also have people doing stuff for no particular reason. This is because book groups are an important demographic for the LN, and they need something to argue about. Or because the unknowability of motivation is central to our experience of others. Who can tell?

4. Dimly meaningful names.
The narrator of The Sea is wrapped up with a family called the Graces. Hello! Religious subtext, perhaps? A moment of divinity in a corrupt world? Mrs. Grace is figured as a Goddess, Mr. Grace as a satyr – a dark confluence of the Christian and pagan? Or simply a reference to Are You Being Served?

5. Hard words
Remember, you’re aiming for a prose style that’ll be called ‘sensuous’ or ‘lyrical’. Why not use the word ‘flocculent’? Banville takes it for a spin here and in a couple of other novels. It means ‘like tufts of wool’.

There are some other rules – unrevealed mysteries, confusing similes, self-reference – which we may return to, but this should start you off. Get writing, and eventually you’ll pick up the Booker, and you can sell your shopping lists to an American university for millions. Good luck!