Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

My last posts focused on the false division between science fiction and literary fiction, arguing that the two are often best when combined. If you don’t believe me, read Emily St. John Mandel. The author visited my creative writing class last week and read excerpts from Station Eleven to a packed auditorium. She said when she started out a decade ago, many editors rejected her first novel because it combined literary and genre fiction–she was all about crime back then.  Now publishers love those combinations: literary mystery, literary scifi, literary fantasy, literary romance.

The genre half of those phrases are fairly straight forward, but what exactly is “literary”?

It’s a tough term to define, especially after decades of misuse. Some still confine it to “narrative realism,” meaning stories that appear to take place in what appears to be our own world. Literary fiction certainly includes those stories, but it also includes stories set in other kinds of worlds. The question is how to get to a “literary” world? I need to steer my creative writing students down some clear paths. Those paths have a tendency to change every century or so, so it’s usually a good idea to include “contemporary” in any definition too.

Ultimately I don’t care where a story takes place–especially since all stories take place in fictional worlds, whether they superficially resemble ours or not. So rather than where, or even what (those fictional worlds can be peopled by gangsters or androids or talking hamster, it makes no difference to me), I just want to know how the story is told. That’s where “literary” resides.

But that’s still pretty vague, so I’ve been searching for fuller definitions.  John Gardner, for example, sets five standards for good art in On Becoming an Artist:

  1. Create a vivid and continuous dream;
  2. Demonstrate authorial generosity;
  3. Reveal intellectual and emotional significance;
  4. Be rendered with elegance and efficiency; and
  5. Exhibit an element of strangeness.

That’s not bad. Though when I’ve used it with my classes, I’ve had to admit that I have no idea what number 2 means. Kurt Vonnegut, in his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, lists eight rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Also not bad. Though I wouldn’t trust cockroaches to be your editor. The moment you communicate complete understanding to your reader, that’s called the last paragraph. Doesn’t matter if it’s also the first paragraph, or if you’re half way through your meticulously crafted plot outline–stop writing and let that projected ending resonate in your reader’s brain.

But I’m still not satisfied. So I’m drawing from nine more writers–including a playwright, a painter, and two cognitive psychologists–to round out the list.  The quotes are there’s, but the six categories are mine:

Psychological realism

David Corner Kidd and Emanuele Castano: “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned and warrant exploration.”


Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Sensory imagery

Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”


Georgia O’Keeffe: “Nothing is less than real than realism. Details are confusing. It is        only by selection that we get at the real meaning of things.”

Structural coherence

Anton Chekhov:  “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Edgar Allan Poe: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”

Stephen King: “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all these things that are not the story.”


Strunk and White: “Omit needless words.”

Stephen King: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”

Vladimir Nabokov:  “My pencils outlast their erasers.”


I don’t think the list is quite done–Gardner’s “strangeness” is missing, but I don’t quite know how to articulate what exactly that means yet (which might be the point).

Artist Richard Prince called art “a revolution that makes people feel good,” which seems important too, though so is curator Robert Storr’s counterpoint: “Good art makes you give something up.”

And are those both the same as Barbara Kruger’s definition: “art is the ability to show and tell what it means to be alive”?

But I may have to give Linda Weintraub the last word: “If art doesn’t sensitize us to something in the world, clarify our perceptions, make us aware of the decisions we have made, it’s entertainment.”



%d bloggers like this: