Just because a story makes no sense and seems to serve no purpose, don't assume it lacks literary merit. That's not your decision to make. The person who opted to publish the story has already bestowed merit on it by the very act of putting it into print. While the world of literary fiction might seem anarchic, formless, and confusing, you can learn to enjoy this genre, or at least learn to recognize the nature of this thing that's taking up all the space that might otherwise go to cartoons. In fact, all literary fiction can be easily divided into just four categories. Here they are.
Two characters meet somewhere, drink tea, and talk. One notices that there are crumbs in the butter and realizes this is a metaphor for her life. The story ends. The gender of the characters and the type of beverage being consumed can vary. It is permissible to have something other than crumbs in the butter (e.g., a dying fly or a small diamond). There can be something other than butter on the table. There need not even be a table.
These stories come to an abrupt and arbitrary ending, as if the writer, like Coleridge, was interrupted by the postman and just couldn't get back up to speed. The more threads left dangling, the greater the literary merit. The boldest versions stop mid sentence.
These stories, too clever by half, are based on literature in self-referential ways. The main character might realize he's a character in the story. Or he might be writing a story about a writer writing a story about himself. Or reading about himself. Or visiting another story. Or thinking about writing a story. In more civilized parts of the world, it is a misdemeanor for anyone over the age of 27 to write this type of story.
This is the great practical joker of the literary world, with a pedigree going back to the original shaggy-dog story. The reader is lulled by interesting characters and maybe even a whiff or two of plot. We read dozens of pages. Characters converge and interact. Things happen. Then we reach a conclusion that seems to bear no relationship to the previous text. For example—two people meet and have tea. Halfway around the world, a butterfly dies. The end. We are left as clueless about the ending as the author.
And that wraps things up. One final hint. If you're ever in doubt about whether a store is literary, there's a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.
"A Guide to Literary Fiction" Copyright © 2002 by David Lubar
First published in the Winter 2002 issue of Once Upon a Time
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