Think of the book as a meal with intricate scents, flavors and textures that you can’t quite recognize unless you spend a little more time with it, and give it a little more of your attention. Because, trust me, sitting down a little longer than usual, to enjoy your meal, can be liberating.
Sensory information is, more often than not, a huge focus in literary works. Literary fiction, unfortunately, gets a bad rap for all the description it uses. This makes me sad because I adore it. I never used to. But then I realized I wasn’t reading it for the right reasons.
I’m convinced that some people think it’s boring because their expectations are all wrong. Most literary works are not heavy on plot. It exists, but it is not usually the main focus. Primarily, the focus is on character and theme. So you cannot expect to pick up a literary novel and become so caught up in the story that you can’t bear to put it down. But so what? Each reading experience should be different, and should inspire you in different ways. So, before you dismiss the idea of reading another literary novel, because the last one you read was so boring you couldn’t keep your eyes open, try taking a different approach.
Try to focus on the small things, page by page, rather than the book as a whole. Allow yourself to not finish the book “this week” because you’ve signed up to the Goodreads Book Challenge and need to maintain your momentum. Life is not about numbers, folks. It’s about quality. Give yourself that extra week to read a literary novel and you’ll discover the abundant beauty and importance of unique phrasing, character development, theme and symbolism, and how all these elements can effortlessly blend together to create a masterpiece; to create an atmosphere rarely found in the commercial works that can be gobbled up in one sitting. Focusing on these things is going to make your writing better. And you can learn to entwine, even if in the smallest of doses, a little more magic into your prose. And you never know, by not focusing on the story line, you may find you’ll actually enjoy reading something that lacks the pace you’re used to. If you give your brain the opportunity to accept the difference, you give it room to enjoy the difference.
Take this amazing line from Marilynne Robinson’s, Housekeeping, which is well-known among my peers, as my most favorite book of all time:
“It was the kind of loneliness that made clocks seem slow and loud and made voices sound like voices across water.”
Isn’t this just so beautiful?
Read it again. Slowly. Out loud. Now, picture it. What other senses does this conjure? Can you hear the loud and slow clock ticking? Its echo crossing a flat lake trying to reach the disappearing voices of loved ones you wished existed? The still and stifling warm air at dusk? Your heartbeat in your ears? The emptiness in your chest? The melancholia you can’t seem to place? An amazing comparison to loneliness, don’t you think?
You can do this in your work. By reading a bit more literary fiction, you can discover small beauties like this one. You can then practice taking someone’s breath away in your own writing. Give your manuscript that extra touch of character, of magic, of prose so well crafted that others will wish they could write like you. Now … wouldn’t that just be an amazing accomplishment? To write a page turner that makes a reader’s mouth water too?
Tell me, do you read literary fiction? Why/Why not? If you’ve given up on literary fiction in the past, do you think you might like to give it another go now?
Note: This article was first published in Writer's Digest, March, 2012.