At the Back Fence Issue #262

April 30, 2007 

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Guidelines for Writing Literary Fiction

Ah romance writers’ guidelines. Have you read any lately? Here are the Avon Guidelines for Historical Romance:


(100,000 words/approximately 400 ms. pages)

A man and a woman meet–she’s like no other woman’s he’s ever known. She tantalizes him in ways he never thought possible…and he’ll stop at nothing to make her his–forever.

At Avon, we’re seeking deliciously romantic historical novels for all parts of the list — Avon Romance, Avon Treasure and Avon Superleader. These are love stories set primarily in Great Britain and the United States before 1900, and they are filled with all the promise–and passion–that Avon readers expect.

Pretty restrictive, huh? No wonder people say that romance is a formula!

By contrast the Harlequin American Romance Guidelines include these tips:

American Romance features fast-paced, heartwarming stories about the pursuit of love, marriage and family in America today. They’re set in small towns and big cities, on ranches and in the wilderness, from Texas to Alaska—everywhere people live and love. We’re looking for energetic writing and well-constructed plots based on contemporary, credible, appealing characters.

Energetic? How restrictive can you get?

But is there really no formula for writing literary fiction? Well, ah yes…Everybody who reads literary fiction knows there are rules, but nobody has the nerve to acknowledge them. I don’t know about you, but the next time someone tells me that there is no formula for writing literary fiction, I am going to ask them how much of it they have read lately!

I love all kinds of books, including modern literature. But COME’ON!!!! No formula? When is the last time anyone read a literary fiction book with a truly happy ending? Can you read ten literary fiction books in a row and not fall into one focused on some kind of abuse? When was the last time you read a literary fiction book by an African American author that, outside of the race and culture of the characters, had nothing whatsoever to do with race?

Never one to shirk my duty to point out that the emperor might need a sweater made of actual cloth I decided it was time somebody wrote down what everyone who reads modern fiction already knows…the Guidelines for Writing Literary Fiction…written the way literary publishers would write them if they were being honest. (Note to new literary fiction authors: as in all genres some talented writers break a few guidelines (William Styron, Tom Wolf, John Irving) but virtually no one breaks all of them.)

  • If possible the book should be written by a man and have a male voice, a white male voice. Women and minorities will be published but with the exception of a few designated hitters, they will not be eligible for the big prizes and kudos. If the narrator is African American she should sound like one and, if possible, write something historical. Writing about slavery is good but anything set prior to 1950 is okay. For example, an AA female writer who wishes to write a book about a female black lawyer in Boston involved in a major civil suit, should make sure the suit has something to do with being African American. Otherwise, she should forget about literary fiction and write romance or Chick Lit. If a female author is white she should write the way John Updike would write if he were a woman.
  • Lead characters must have a fair amount of angst but should be largely unaware of their impotence in solving their problems. They should be out of touch with their feelings, except for anger and boredom. Anger is really good. Pages and pages of ranting by crazy male characters are a real sign of literary achievement so don’t hold back (see The Terrorist by John Updike)!
  • Relations between people, including children and parents, husbands and wives, neighbors etc. should be fairly sterile. Characters may be depressed. They should have difficulty communicating emotion. They should keep secrets from one another and live lives of quiet desperation (as Thoreau would say). Problems between parents and adult children should remain largely unresolved as everyone but Dr. Phil knows they are unsolvable.
  • Whenever possible the writer should interrupt the action with pointless observations about some aspect of the minutia of modern life.
  • Personal problems that would be shocking to most readers should be described in matter-of-fact terms. A sexual predator, for example, should be described in such a way that the reader knows that the writer is not judging him. Victims of predators must be permanently scarred. If there has been violence, such as a murder, it should be graphically described in a detached but nauseating way. (For an example of a sexual predator who fits well into this genre see Sabbath’s Theater by Phillip Roth. Winner of the National Book Award.)
  • Characters should generally be well educated but, if they are not, they should be from rural communities, especially those in the South. Southerners should be quoted in dialect whenever possible, especially if they are poor and white and when the book is told in the first person (see The New Yorker fiction).
  • If characters reveal their political beliefs they should be fundamentally liberal unless they are evil and selfish. Evil selfish characters are urged to look fondly back to the Reagan years, or, if they are British, the Thatcher years (see The New Yorker).
  • Coming of age stories are especially welcome particularly when the narrator has suffered terrible abuse—sexual is good, an addicted parent works but so does verbal abuse (see Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison).
  • A nice touch is adding a ghost or some kind of inexplicable thinking on the part of a character so that the reader is not completely sure of what is going on. This is very literary and few readers are willing to admit it when they are confused (see Beloved by Toni Morrison and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel).
  • Midlife crisis is another good one, especially if the character is male and living in Westchester or Connecticut (see Roth and Updike) .
  • Adultery should be described as a kind of rite of passage and the author should not make judgment calls, unless the adulterer is a woman.
  • The male protagonist may commit as much adultery as necessary to make him feel isolated and pointless. His partner, a single female many years his junior, should be lonely, emotional, demanding and ungrateful for her lucky shot at having sex with a miserable, married, middle-aged man who lives in the suburbs.
  • The novel should not have a plot. The lead character(s) should have vague problems which evolve slowly throughout the novel. There is no need to solve these problems.
  • If your character falls in love, it should be clear to the reader that he or she is probably being mislead by some character flaw, loneliness or personal problem stemming from childhood. A married middle aged man is probably having a crisis—not falling in love. In fact, the reader should not be able to determine why the character loves this person whom he says he loves. This way the end of the relationship, which will come at the conclusion, will be more logical than the pairing itself.
  • In literary historical novels with male protagonists, a nice touch is to have the handsome, otherwise admirable male lead fall in love with a twelve or thirteen year old girl (see The March by E.L Doctrow).
  • If the characters are of age, single and truly love each other, kill one of them (see Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier).
  • If the book ends with a wedding, it should preferably be to someone the lead character was not in love with during the story and the character should not be deliriously happy (see Girl with Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier) .
  • The book’s ending is critical. If the story is a real love story one of the lead characters must either die, go back to his spouse or break off the relationship to “find himself/herself.” If the book is very depressing and contains a group of characters who are completely unable to handle their lives, and have no insight into their problems—a multiple murder by a major character who has, up until this point, appeared to be a good person, is an excellent ending. Make sure it is revolting and shocking (see The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton).
  • An easy to read compelling style is discouraged. Writers are urged to consider passive voice, verbs of being and long sentences (see The Corrections by Jonathan Franz).
  • On completing the book, the reader should have a satisfied feeling of accomplishment. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is value. He or she will be able to say he enjoyed the book, but will probably not be able to explain why without reading a review. He or she can feel fully satisfied in recommending it to a book club.

Questions To Consider:

What do you think of the conventions of the various genres? Is literary fiction a genre?

How much literary fiction, if any, do you read?

What authors and books can you think of that conform with Robin’s Guidelines for Literary Fiction? What authors and books can you think of that break her Guidelines for Literary Fiction?

When did literary fiction begin to conform to the formula that Robin describes? Why and how do you think that happed?

How predictable is literary fiction? Would it be more fun to read if it were less predictable? Give some examples.

If romance novels were to become more “literary,” what would that mean?

Speaking of romance novels, what are the conventions of romance novels? Which are you glad exist…which do you wish would go away?

Do more and more romance novels read alike to you these days? If so, when did that happen, and does it have to do more with you having read so many, or changes in publishing?

How predictable are romances…and how glad are you that they are?

What authors and books break the mold as far as romance novels? Did you like them, and if you did, is the pushing the envelope factor the reason why?

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)