Intro to Literary Fiction: A Native American Writer’s Reasoning Toward Episodic Novel Writing & Unfamiliar Terms in Familiar Terrain

“What do you write?” Have you heard that question before? For literary writers this question is like a grain of dirt on the ass cheek of a wild hog running through the brush in the Ozark Hills. Every time I go to answer the question I know what’s going to follow. It’s going to be another question, with a quizzical expression on the questioner’s face, asking me, “What’s literary fiction?”

I wish I could say, “Literary Fiction,” and folks would go, “Okay, that’s cool,” and then we could both go our separate ways. But that’s never happened, and likely never will. In recent years, I’ve heard the term “adult fiction” being used more often. Maybe it’s because we get less confusion and less hassle so we’ve started to lean on it. It’s kinda like when I call to-go from a restaurant and the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t hear my name right. I’ll say, “Oscar” and they’ll say back, “Austin?” I’ll do this three times and then give up, saying, “Yes, Austin.” At some point, literary writers get tired of trying to explain ourselves.

I’ve also started to name writers and for the most part I’ll say Louise Erdrich, but I’ve also said Toni Morrison’s name, to give folks a reference point–in search of someone they may have heard of. Typically, I name writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel. But the average person on the street doesn’t follow those lists so often I’m left without a quick reference.

I’ve searched on the internet. There’s “serious fiction,” but I think that’s more confusing than literary fiction. Adult fiction makes sense. It’s a little more to the point, but most genres could be considered adult fiction. While literary fiction fills the shelves in bookstores for some reason there is little to no clarity on the genre. How can such a popular form of fiction have such a vague understanding?

“However, we should not be judged by our lowest common denominators. And also you should not fall prey to the fallacious thinking that literary fiction is literary and all other genres are genre. Literary fiction is a genre, and I will fight to the death anyone who denies this very self-evident truth.” —Patrick Rothfuss

Then there’s the response I get from writers of other genres. Some folks think literary fiction writers are stuck up and look down on genre, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I love genre fiction and read across several genres like horror, fantasy, and noir. I think literary writers tend to be more serious in our personalities and that might come off as being disinterested. I can only speak for myself so I’ll say that I am a serious person and I tend to be drawn to more serious issues. There’s a part of me that feels obligated to attempt to fix societal issues, like I need to do my part to make life better for people of color. But in no way do I think genre fiction is less than literary fiction. If not for genre fiction I wouldn’t have fallen in love with writing in the first place.

So I’ve come up with a description of literary fiction. Just to appease myself and my frustration in the pursuit of an explanation. Here it is: An introspective study of the human condition that explores sociopolitical issues. More serious than genre fiction, it purposefully blurs the lines between hero and villain to focus on character driven plot. In addition, it seeks to disrupt formulaic writing.

It’s long. I can’t say this to someone on the street. But it knocks the dirt off the wild hog’s ass, so I’m gonna keep it. I think people need to understand what they’re getting into before they start reading a novel. My debut, CALLING FOR A BLANKET DANCE, is about Native communities, culture, and identity, but it’s also about how Indigenous families confront toxic behavior. It’s about the conflict between Indigenous matriarchy and Western patriarchy. What happens when these two ideologies clash? The main character, Ever Geimausaddle, becomes a battle ground. He’s caught between two contending forces and he must make a choice. And if he does transform, what will it look like? The only way I could do this story justice was to wrap it in the genre I hold dear: Literary Fiction.

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