Literary Fiction Raises the Bar

Dr. Dennis Hensley

The discipline required to write literary fiction has sharpened my overall craftsmanship so that it has enhanced my entire career as a fiction writer, both commercially and academically.

Commercial genre fiction is primarily entertainment, designed to provide laughter, tears, surprise, shock, or fear. However, literary fiction strives to go deeper, making the reader assess a social ill (racial prejudice, child abuse), a moral dilemma (abortion, capital punishment), a political establishment (dictatorship, apartheid or an ethical quandary (human experimentation for drug testing). The mission of the literary work is not necessarily to provide an answer, just to cause the reader to examine his or her stance on an issue. Readers find themselves asking, How would I act in such a situation?

Consider two books similar in concept but vastly different in impact. Albert Payson Terhune’s novel Lad, A Dog is about a 9 year old girl and her dog Lad, who does everything from save the girl from being bitten by a snake to helping her no longer need a wheelchair. Readers cry all through the book. This novel has never gone out of print in 90 years. However, it certainly espouses no grand cause, nor does it require deep thinking. It’s solely an emotional experience.

Conversely, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild also tells the story of a dog, Buck, but in a way that challenges the minds and hearts of readers. London exposes scenes of animal cruelty, raping of natural wild lands, uncontrolled human greed, and racial disharmony between native Indians and invading white men. Is it entertaining? Incredibly so, with sled dog races, Indian attacks, wolf fights, blinding snowstorms, and quests for gold. But is it also thought-provoking? Ah, yes, to the point of being required reading in high schools and colleges for eleven decades. Its plot bothers readers, forces them to assess man’s role within nature, and compels them to judge man’s greedy desires as opposed to his capacity for magnanimity.

Tip number one: get a list of literary classics and invest time in Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, Kipling, Hemingway, Twain, Welty…and Jack London.

Tip two: talk about great books and explore their themes, scenes, and characters.

Tip three: seek teachers who can explain the use of color, number, object and name symbolism; flashbacks and flash forwards; plots and subplots; mood, tone, and setting; theme and message; and three-dimensional character development.

Tip four: start to incorporate these literary writing techniques into your own stories.

It’s not “highbrow” stuff. It’s masterful storytelling.

Dr. Dennis E. Hensley holds a Ph.D. in literature and linguistics. He directs the professional writing major at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and is the author of more than 50 books, and 3,000 articles. He will be a keynote speaker at this year’s Writing for the Soul conference, February 10 – 13, 2011, at the Grand Hyatt in Denver, Colorado.

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