I went through a phase right after high school when I thought the only books worth reading were classics and nonfiction.
In hindsight, this position seems extreme to me, but my reasoning wasn’t completely flawed. I was beginning to want more from my reading life than just to be entertained. Classics required a certain amount of mental effort, and nonfiction gave me practical tips that could improve my life.
Both prompted me to think about things that matter. And the modern fiction I was reading just…didn’t.
You see, the only contemporary fiction I had access to at the time were Christian romance novels. These books were entertaining, and they were great if I just wanted to relax and escape from real life for a few hours.
But these novels required no mental effort from me.
The plots were predictable, the characters stereotypical, the language not particularly complex, and—most importantly—the books didn’t bring up issues that matter, that are actually significant in real life.
So I concluded that modern fiction was just not thought-provoking enough for me and decided that classics and nonfiction were the way to go.
Fortunately, before I condemned all modern fiction as irredeemable, I stumbled upon literary fiction.
What is literary fiction?
It turns out there are modern fiction books that address things that matter. These books are sometimes called literary fiction to distinguish them from “popular” or “genre” fiction.
Popular fiction is the kind of book that fits into a clear category. These are books that are “romances” or “Westerns” (or “Western romances”) or “mysteries” or “thrillers.” They may be well-written, entertaining books, but in my experience, these books are very predictable:
- The plot generally follows a pattern. In the Christian romance novel, for instance, the guy and the girl meet, they fall in love, their relationship is challenged in some way, but by the end they get married or engaged. End of story.
- The characters are generally pretty flat. The heroines in Christian romance novels are usually “sweet” or occasionally “spunky.” The heroes are usually this perfect combination of “manly” and “sensitive,” or maybe they become sensitive because of the girl. They’re not usually deep, complex, and unpredictable the way real people are.
- The book usually doesn’t have a theme, a central topic that addresses a significant human issue.
Is there anything wrong with popular fiction? Nope. I’ve read quite a lot of it that I enjoy. In the long run, however, popular fiction isn’t designed to help me think about things that matter. These types of books are meant to help us escape from reality.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, helps us think about reality differently. These books can be just as entertaining as popular fiction, but they also challenge us to look at things from a perspective we might not have considered before. They can inspire us, move us, and even change our lives.
The books I like to read
For the most part, I judge novels based on 4 characteristics:
1. Strong plot
I don’t want novels that are cliched and predictable: I want them to be as unexpected and complex as real life. At the very least, I need to see the characters face a problem of some sort that they need to overcome. They need to face multiple obstacles along the way, and the stakes need to be significant enough that I care what happens.
2. Well-rounded characters
I’m not a fan of stereotypes, and I don’t like characters who lack unique personalities. I want the characters in the novels I read to be believable. They need to have motivations that aren’t completely straightforward, emotions that are messy, and goals that sometimes conflict with their values. They don’t always need to be relatable or even likable, but they need to be real.
3. Good writing
A sure way to make me a fan of a novel is to write beautifully–extra points if there are a couple of quotable lines, and a guaranteed positive review if the book sounds lovely all the way through. In my favorite novels, the author puts words to a concept I’m familiar with but have never described. I also get an irrational amount of joy from being able to picture exactly what the author is trying to describe based on one or two well-crafted lines.
4. Things that matter
If a book has the first three characteristics, I rate it a solid 4.5/5, but to earn 5 stars, the book has to make me think about something of lasting importance. In the best books, the entire novel contributes to this topic that matters, as though it were a thread running through the entire story. Maybe it focuses on the meaning of true love, or the potential significance of seemingly insignificant moments, or the need for intentionality in the way we choose to live our lives.
Whatever topic they address, the best novels are fun to read, use language well, and make me think of something that really matters. These books stick with me in the weeks, months, and even years after I read them, and often, they shape who I am and how I look at the world.
That’s why I love literary fiction.
What do you look for in the books you read?