Ah, Literary Fiction. The hallowed pedestal of writing. These are the books you would read in a University English class, as opposed to picking up from the pop-culture section of the shelves. They are Novels full of depth, gravitas, and insights on the human experience. Oh and metaphors.
Literary Fiction is all about the new and dizzying heights that evocative writing can bring to the reader. Does this shining beacon of literature have clichés? You bet it does.
Here are five of the tropes that have snaked their way into literary fiction, each accompanied by a book recommendation that uses it well as opposed to falling into the trope trap.
1. Eye color indicates everything you need to know about the character.
Why even bother to describe the rest of them? If they have crystal blue eyes we know they’re pure and innocent and waif-like.
Cold blue eyes mean they’re the villain or have something to hide. Green or hazel eyes equals quirky, unique fairy. Gray eyes denote the bad guy or someone with a closed off, steely personality. And the brown-eyed character in the story must be practical, earthy, someone you can trust.
If the author mentions something like silver or purple eyes you’ve probably wandered into a thicket of fanfiction.
Book recommendation: Pond by Claire-Lousie Bennett
2. Dysfunctional Family Saga.
“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” says Leo Tolstoy. He wasn’t around to see the genre of Literary Fiction become a thing, or he would have known that every unhappy family will end up in the fiction section.
The parents will have issues. Someone will be an alcoholic. One or more of the kids may be flirting with drugs. The ones that seem to have it together have NOTHING together, not really. No one will have a healthy sexual relationship. Devastating accusations will be thrown that will seems to shatter the family beyond repair. Kooky Aunt Betty will be kooky. Food will be cooked and eaten in tense silence.
Basically, everyone is a hot mess.
Book recommendation: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas.
3. Childhood Memories (with bonus body of water).
What would literary fiction be without childhood memories? A lot shorter, that’s what it would be.
If it was an unhappy childhood, the character will be contemplating how they have changed and grown and somehow still can’t get away from the memories. If it was a happy childhood, the character will be wishing their life was as simple now.
Either way, they can’t win. And something about water just jerks these people back. Ponds, creeks, rivers, definitely the ocean. All of these characters grew up by water somehow and something life altering and suitable for flashbacks happened there.
What about people who grew up in the middle of the desert? No childhood memories for them until they move near some water.
Book recommendation: Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra. What says childhood memories more than a book written in the format of a multiple-choice test?
4. Someone Died. That’s the Plot.
We know who, because we read the book description, the only question remaining to be answered is what that death will mean for all of the characters in the novel.
Is the main character a crusty old retired (cop/professor/meerkat wrangler)? His wife or lover died and he will spend the book reflecting on her until he has an epiphany when he breaks a cup or drives by a barking dog or something. Is the novel about a family? (See #2 above).
The quirky, probably hazel-eyed grandma or great-aunt died and left the family with a strange bequest that is going to impel our dysfunctional family to make many startling self-discoveries.
Book recommendation: The Red Car: A Novel by Marcy Dermansky.
5. The Title is a Metaphor.
And 99% of the time it will include the word ‘The’.
Anyway, once you have read the novel and taken all of the darts the author throws your way, what with all the deaths and the needle-sharp prose, you close the book and consider the lessons it taught you.
And right there on the cover glares that title, the one that seemed vague and incomprehensible but somehow pretty when you bought the book. And it turns out that title was a metaphor. The settings were a metaphor. The main character’s love of coca cola was a metaphor. Even the stinky socks dropped on the floor symbolized something.
This is Literary fiction. Everything is a metaphor.
Book recommendation: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell.
6. Adverbs and Adjectives and Alliteration, oh My!
This genre is all about the descriptive language remember. Purple prose or perish. If thrillers are the modern minimalist end of fiction then the gilded, Gothic slot is definitely filled by literary fiction. In the quest for evocative language, some of the authors include… just a tad too much.
In this genre, more than any other, you are judged by your writing and it takes some real talent to walk that line between gripping prose and dripping adjectives.
Book recommendation: The Past: A Novel by Tessa Hadley
7. Killing Off The Mentor.
Is someone in the book the heart and soul of a group? The one who keeps the other characters human when everything around them has gone wrong? Perhaps… the dearly loved older mentor?
Hello, my name is The Author. Prepare for that character to die. At the most emotionally destructive moment, when the author needs to make it clear that they can seduce you into loving a character enough to care whether they live or die, they will be killed off.
Book recommendation: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead