Today’s guest post comes from author and book reviewer Jeri Walker-Bickett, whom I came in contact with while searching around for book reviewers of my story collection, Amidst Traffic. She does an excellent job in distinguishing the different mindset and care required when reading literary (thought-provoking) fiction versus genre (entertainment) fiction. Here is some advice to those of you who are interested in reviewing books, especially the literary kind.
I’ve found that many readers who claim to enjoy literary fiction don’t always have a very good grasp of what literary fiction actually is. Read on for some sound and helpful advice.
All reading is not created equal, so it’s a given that reviewing literary fiction requires a different approach than reviewing genre fiction. In general, literary fiction can be described as serious or artistic. Genre fiction tends to dwell more on the action of a story. That’s not to say genre fiction never contains carefully crafted sentences and deeper themes, or that literary fiction can’t have a gripping plot.
Literary fiction places more emphasis on the thought processes that drive a character to act in a certain way. Some readers reviewing literary fiction will equate a focus on a character’s mindset as a slow read. The common lament, “But nothing happened!” often arises. Such reactions just go to show the different expectations readers have for what makes an engaging story. On the contrary, quite a lot happens in well-crafted literary fiction. It’s just not usually in-your-face action. Subtlety reigns supreme.
It also goes without saying that not all book reviews are created equal, regardless of the type of literature being reviewed. At the bare minimum, an adequate book review should keep the story summary to a bare minimum. Such efforts summarizing everything is more akin to a book report belonging in the fifth grade. Worse, too many reviewers simply plunk in the book’s synopsis rather than take the time to write their own concise summary.
Beyond a reviewer stating their opinion of whether the story was good or bad, reviewing literary fiction requires an understanding and appreciation of the so-called writerly choices that go into crafting a story. Questions to explore in gauging the effectives of a piece of literary fiction (and all fiction for that matter) include discussing literary elements such as the plot’s plausibility, character motivation, and the importance of setting. And that’s just for starters.
Literary fiction is often prone to experimenting with structure and language. Rather than telling a story chronologically, a variety of techniques may be used to organize the text so the reader has to do more work to figure out what’s going on. Or multiple viewpoints may be used to tell the story. Also, this type of serious fiction will typically find the writer doing double-time to write polished sentences. The cadence and rhythm of a story as shaped by word choice and punctuation become a vehicle for further advancing the plot.
Successful literary fiction has layers, so those seeking the proverbial “fast read” need not apply. The more a reviewer explores those layers, the better the story becomes. A person who loves to review literary fiction often finds questioning the reasons behind why the writer wrote the story the way they did as enjoyable as the story itself.
Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) is an author, editor and teacher. She primarily writes contemporary fiction and psychological suspense. Such is Life, her short story collection, is now available. Her forthcoming novel, Lost Girl Road, is a ghost story set in the woods of northwest Montana. She blogs about literature and writing on her twisted book blog: What do I know? Please connect with her at JeriWB.com.
Despite growing up in the rough Idaho mining town of Wallace, she earned multiple writing degrees, and became a devoted English teacher who has since left the classroom. Food and travel continually inspire her creativity and love of photography. She currently lives in Idaho with her wonderful husband and their demanding pets.