Literary Fiction & Shakespeare: A Scholarly Approach

I’ve written much on the nature of literary writing in my blog posts thus far but from now on for a few turns I will discuss two major issues: (a) What is Literary Fiction as it is understood academically and by the publishing industry today and (b) that Shakespeare speaks through it from his own times until now. Whereas his medium was generally poetry and he wrote plays, the novel has grown under his influence. I have come to this conclusion as I have proceeded to write fiction on the one hand and deliberated upon Shakespeare on the other. [The posts that follow will be more extended discussions than the ones I’ve posted till now. I’m having the urge to write a little more ambitiously on this subject.]

The first of these posts will contain some basic statements on the nature of literary fiction and on my belief that Shakespeare is a very powerful presence behind its creation.


I see myself writing on the nature of the literary novel or story not as one that is an academic per se but as one who looks at this subject essentially like a writer of fiction. I do not write on the nature of literary fiction as some theorists or critics have done before me. My understanding of literary fiction is based primarily, though not solely, on what I have learned through my journey as a novelist and short story writer. Perhaps every writer of and on literary fiction has in them a little of both, the fiction writer and the theorist of fiction. Without a native critical sense no one can write fiction convincingly; and all fiction must have an inbuilt architectonics. Similarly, all theoretical or critical writing on fiction must stem from some firsthand awareness of the creative act. The two must have a union at some point however difficult to detect. In my case, I have relied a little more on whatever I felt deeply about the nature of fiction as I wrote my novels, novellas or stories.

            Literary fiction, if it is different to other fiction, and I argue that it is, is different both in WHAT it projects before a reader as well as HOW it does that. The nature of the kind of subject-matter that is the best fit for literary fiction could have undergone a change over the ages in spite of a few very basic unchanged traits. We seem to have evolved to a stage where “anything goes” even in literary matters just as it does in everything non-literary in the postmodern world. But even in that “anything” there is something qualitatively different to what behooves non-literary writings. Yes, the manner in which language is used in literary fiction is as much of interest to readers and writers as, if not more, than the subject-matter it contains. The language of literary fiction explores its befitting form in virtually every literary novel or story. To say something new a whole new medium or manner of writing can be required. Sometimes a lot of the meaning is contained in the style. One can after all dress differently to convey an attitude or a message or one can change one’s hairstyle radically to make a point. The literary novel often does rely on a newer version of expression that it discovers for its unique content.

            For what is to follow, I find a sentence in Jeorge Luis Borges particularly applicable to literary fiction: “A book which does not include its opposite or ‘counter book’ is considered incomplete.” This statement is very true in the case of a book or a text of literary fiction. For, this category of fiction does contain its counter quality as well as what it projects, both tied up in a binary opposition. To put it differently, dealing in absolutes is not what literary fiction should do. It must not be too assertive; it should be tentative, offering suggestions rather than dogmas. It should be in a position to offer the other point of view. For everything or everyone can be considered right or wrong from some angle or position. It should be able to see, as Will Shakespeare does, fair in foul, good in bad, and everything in nothing. This oppositional way of perceiving things may not always be as explicit as it sometimes is in Dickens’s – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” But it is there more implicitly present, if it is not present in explicit terms, in literary fiction. Where the experience is tragic, in the real sense, as it is in the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, or the Germans who delved into the tragic after the advent of Marx, this tragic experience will be understood and internalized in opposition to a comic vision as envisioned down the ages from ancient classical times. A true master of literary perception has an inner realization that nothing is entirely tragic or comic but that thinking makes it so; nothing is to be seen in extreme or absolute terms – all should exist at the level of suggestion or should appear true only tentatively. Life is too complex and unpredictable to be described in any sense of finality. Thus living on boundaries is what the author of literary fiction accomplishes. Human experience is always fraught with the biggest surprises that can convert tears into laughter, or vice versa. The writer of contemporary literary fiction must always be conscious of this as some of the masters like those of postmodernist fiction are. We have learned to realize that giving too much importance to serious or what can be considered “high” classicism cannot live on for long; it must be, if it is to remain alive, blended with its very opposite, the romantic and the common. It is unnatural for the human mind to see things steadily and see them whole for any length of time. For what is “whole” and what is “steadily” is anyone’s guess. Life requires that the literary imagination places irony at a very central viewing point of perception. “There is nothing serious in mortality” and “everything is nothing” are lessons that come down from Shakespeare up to postmodernist fiction. The battle ground of a postmodernist hero can well be a bed as it is the case in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

            Frank Kermode significantly pointed out the tendency in poets and other literary authors to make sense and give shapes to life because the future would imminently hold something defined by religion or some apocalyptic sense that forecasts the ultimate destiny of the world. The lives of individuals merely reflect the patterns of the destiny of the world on a smaller scale. It is my contention that the crowning glories of fiction have followed Shakespeare’s manner of seeing in life such final patterns or shapes on a smaller scale. Macbeth’s ambition may have led to his rise and fall but you may also say that the witches or Lady Macbeth were behind it. Shakespeare was rarely in a position of certainty; he was content to stay on boundaries that had clear exits to the other side. In Shakespeare a hero could belong to Denmark, Scotland, Venice, France, England or any other land but he was someone not unfamiliar to the rest of the world. Even when he retained a minimal sense of belonging to a particular nation or place, he erased that sense while creating individuals of an exceptional nature. Even the wily Mark Antony of Rome, in Julius Caesar, who harps on the desirability of honour, can become quite un-Roman in Antony and Cleopatra.  This point will be made in greater detail in the posts on Arundhati Roy and Michael Ondaatje to show how their fictions inherited this trait from the bard. There are other novelists who have done the same to a lesser degree with or without a consciousness to the debt they owe to Shakespeare.

            It follows from the above that literary fiction, in its contemporary form, is not merely a story or a narrative. It is much more than that. It must accommodate within its vision the understanding that there is no absolute, no eternal, no final, or no concrete meaning. Anything that is stated must be stated with an intuitive awareness of this limitedness. An author can be either tragic or comic but may never trust the tragic or the comic entirely. Nothing ultimately remains where it stood, beyond a point of time; there is never a dead end and the literary mind must have this vitally necessary openness of perception. Fixities must go and a more eclectic way of seeing remain if one is to write literary fiction.

            Literary fiction, written in the twenty-first century (or three or four decades earlier), needs to incorporate into its folds an awareness of cultural difference. Gone is the time when an author wrote as a national of a particular country, sexuality or culture.  The postmodern mind must know that the world belongs neither to the white race, the capitalists, the super powers, the males, the heterosexuals, or any other embodiments of power. It is a site where cultural difference is a fact of life that cannot be slighted. There is no one superior or inferior in cultural, racial or in any other terms. Just as Shakespeare could make Othello one of his most interesting heroes and Cleopatra one of his most interesting heroines though these were not of the white race, or just as he could put to debate (without seeming to do that) whether Antonio was right or Shylock, similarly the literary novelist has been pitting one opposition against the other. The English Patient is such a great novel because it highlights the issue and debate on cultural difference in such a sophisticated manner. Juxtaposing the Indian Kripal Singh (Kip) against the European English patient and then suggesting how cultural identity is an issue that needs to be understood differently than it is, is what makes this novel so exceptional.

            The great classics from the ancient times down must remain “great” only in the context of their own respective time-frames. There are few, like Shakespeare, that live on to accommodate the contemporaneity of “all time” in their vision. These are authors who have learned to live on boundaries instead of absolutes; those that never swear by anything of a permanent nature and have learned to live in the moment. Dickens, though an iconic writer, could be considered wanting in this regard as compared to Shakespeare. When you say something concrete, as in philosophy, you leave the realm of literary fiction. Opinionatedness and literary fiction are not friends. The best writer of literary fiction would rather choose to remain silent than express an opinion that directly or confrontationally bulldozes other meaningful opinions. One is reminded of the value of this kind of silence in the words of Arsenius the Great:  “I have often regretted the things I have said, but I have never regretted my silence.” This again points to the fact that nothing is permanent and to profess an interest in any kind of philosophies that swear by eternal truths is to go against the literary temperament as it has come to appear in its new avatar.

            It may appear bizarre to link almost half of literary fiction written in English with a particular individual who existed before prose-fiction came into existence in real terms. But William Shakespeare can be seen, I say this with a consciousness of what my critics could say to such a claim, as that single individual whose texts form the intertexts of much literary fiction. This is not only at the base of the forms that literary fiction has employed but also at the level of the consciousness of English-knowing authors. Shakespeare was constantly assimilating the visions of the ancient masters with his own stable genius. Thus he was blending much that was considered the best that had been known and thought in the ancient classical world with his more than just romantic way of perceiving things. Apart from his intuitive abilities to see things better, he had the advantage of living during the Renaissance of Petrarch, that unique age when the human mind could even go back to the ancient past in order to advance towards the future. Shakespeare’s mind could survey what was great as well as what was not in Ovid, Seneca, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Sophocles, Plautus, Terrence and others apart from what was great and avoidable in his own contemporaries and predecessors in England like Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe and Kyd. His mind seems to have churned in the ideas and visions of myriad kinds of genius, creating depths that have remained unrivalled in human history. In the eighteenth century when the novel acquired its “four wheels” (Fielding, Richardson, Stern and Smollett) to start moving ahead as a literary form, Dr. Samuel Johnson could speak of Shakespeare’s work as “the map of life.”

            Since the early nineteenth century, after the novel had begun to acquire a more mature shape, everything literary seems to have been affected by Shakespeare; his way of seeing things, his love of language and the manner in which he handled the real and the magical. It was early in the nineteenth century when Shakespeare began to be appreciated as the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon that he was to become. Shakespeare’s rise due to admirers such as Hazlitt, Coleridge, Lamb, Keats and others in the first half of the nineteenth century, each a critic who could recognize Shakespeare’s genius as others before them could not, probably drove the novelist (subconsciously) in and after the nineteenth century to see Shakespeare as a model. Coleridge the influential critic and theorist had stressed the idea that the opposite of poetry is not prose but science. Hence the writer of prose-fiction could easily have found a wellspring of resources for literary fiction in Shakespeare’s poetry and poetic drama. There are few like him who “can turn politics into poetry,” as Stephen Greenblatt has maintained. I know how I have fallen back on Shakespeare and his inheritor, Dickens, subconsciously, whenever I sat down to write fiction.

            Shakespeare could strangely anticipate the postmodern not only as he could keep his understanding of tears frighteningly close to his understanding of laughter, as he does in King Lear but also because of his inclination for parody, in addition to his fascination with irony. In Shakespeare there is a recurrent mockery of things taken too seriously; always a parody of too much correctness. In Hamlet there is parody of Socrates (II. ii. 33-37) and it abounds in other early plays of Shakespeare. Hans Walter Gabler has given a great account of this aspect of Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt speaks of parody in Shakespeare citing Love’s Labour’s Lost as an illustration where the ridiculous school teacher, Holofernes, “whose manner is the parody of a classroom style that most audience members must have found immediately recognizable.”(24)

            The desire to make an idol of Shakespeare has existed from his own time to the present. Bardolatry is a word coined only in appreciation of Shakespeare.  I would like to draw attention to the view of John Middleton Murry who, in his eleven or more year polemic with T. S. Eliot, pointed the vital centrality of Shakespeare in the creation of an English and wider Western consciousness; something even more significant than a worldview. Murry could say that before Shakespeare all authority for the Westerner, and particularly for the Englishman, lay in the Church whereas after Shakespeare it lay in himself; in his [the writer’s] inner resources. For with the Church as authority, one spoke in a borrowed voice whereas it was necessary to speak in one’s own. What Shakespeare did was to create a resource bank for creativity in his Self and his successors found it convenient to rely on Shakespeare’s manner of handling creativity (perhaps at the subconscious level.) We also have Harold Bloom’s theory of Shakespeare and “the invention of the human” as well as Bloom’s contention that Shakespeare is at the centre of the Western literary canon. Stephen Greenblatt  puts this phenomenon differently.  He points out that a young man from a small provincial town moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. He then tries to show how an achievement of this magnitude is to be explained. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004) brings us down to earth to see, hear, and feel how an acutely sensitive and talented boy, surrounded by the rich tapestry of Elizabethan life, could have become the world’s greatest playwright.

            When literary fiction takes on the added task of going beyond its basic role, which is self-expression, then it acquires a related function. Shakespeare also wrote his literary texts with an additional function sometimes. He combined history with literature in his History Plays (plays based on British history). He wrote somewhat differently when he did that, but he was still producing literary texts. In the history plays audiences are taken into the lives of various British monarchs and their idiosyncrasies. We are subtly instructed in how to appreciate the tribulations of kings, placing ourselves at the right point in the Elizabethan world order.  In these plays we not only enjoy great literature but enter into various phases of British history viewing things as those living in the times that these plays foreground. A literary novel can similarly have an added purpose of historicizing a monarch, movement or age; or making a reader think of fixations, issues or factors in addition to the literary experience they contain. Shakespeare could also write in an entirely different mode in the so called “Problem Plays” in which he made us think on specific issues such justice, as he does in Measure for Measure (something that was done differently by Dickens in Bleak House); or in All’s Well that Ends Well where he takes a harshly cynical view of sexual love; or in Troilus and Cressida which seems to support ethical nihilism. He could raise issues on whether something was right or was only considered right in a society and thereby question the foundations of morality.

            Like Shakespeare, the literary novelist can stray into another domain. They may want to keep the focus on social behaviour, psychological patterns in individuals, particular historical figures, philosophical bearings, etc., but they continue to write literary fiction because that is what comes naturally to them. Dickens, for instance, questions the very basis of social morality in novel after novel. He reveals the length of suffering Lady Deadlock has to go through just because of a relationship that has not ended in marriage even though it has brought forth a child. Or, sometimes the literary novelist may want to take little from an original text or basic source but concentrate more on psychological patterns in human behaviour as Shakespeare did in Hamlet and Othello and some other plays.  The literary novelist can find in King Lear the prototype of an aging father unwilling and refusing to become less important in the eyes of his children after retiring from active life. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) does that and is able to get the Pulitzer Prize for it. Then, Shakespeare’s plays amply reveal the human desire to remain politically strong and empowered as in King Lear and Macbeth and so many of his other plays. The urge to remain important and powerful is a frequent theme in literary fiction. The literary novel must have a theme that comes from a sociological, historical, psychological or political perception of the universe in which individuals live. These have rarely been better visualized than in Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard has remained the model for most such writings. This point will be dwelt on in another post.

            Odd as it may sound to name Arundhati Roy as a great inheritor of Shakespeare, there is something in her first novel The God of Small Things (1997) that ties the two together. The connection between the two is largely an intense love for the niceties of the language. Even her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), is unparalleled in the way it uses a different kind of languageto tell a different kind of story. But the real connection between the two authors goes beyond language. It points to an intimate integration with the universe in which they live. Such a connectedness is rare and only the literary fiction of Roy or the poetry of Shakespeare can handle it without letting it jar.

            Mainstream fiction or commercial fiction is more popular because it says things clearly; things which have much more obvious meaning or finality. Of course the dichotomy between the two has been often opposed as it is by Jodi Picoult. She finds even in Shakespeare a “commercial hack”  and believes that when you’re talking about good writing there simply is no division between the literary and commercial. But Picoult could be saying this as she calls herself an author of literary as well as commercial fiction. There seems to be a personal angle to her description of Shakespeare as a commercial hack. Commercial, or popular, fiction does say things more clearly than does literary fiction, and therein abides an essential difference between the two. Most of us are used to clarity of expression and real content in whatever we express. Therefore a story told without ambiguity, with an Aristotelian beginning, middle and end, is much more popular. But such a story will hardly always be the framework of literary fiction. E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel projects a false impression in the way it seems to view the relevance of the story. When Forster says that “What happens next?” is very significant in a novel’s scheme, and when he recounts the story-telling strategy of Scheherazade, he is also conscious that a story has power over a less refined or even savage mind. The story is vital, in comparative terms, for the less advanced reader. In contemporary terminology, a story is more important for a writerly text than a readerly text. Roland Barthes’s theory that the readerly text is hardly readerly because it does not locate in a reader a site for the production of meaning makes it quite clear that a readerly text or novel is not for everyone. Literary fiction too is not for everyone’s consumption. There are aspects of the novel that lie beyond the dimensions of its simple meaning; the literary novel is significant in that sense. It puts us in touch rather clearly with the novelist’s consciousness. The commercial novel keeps the reader glued to the story or the hook whereas the literary novel takes them to other domains that may spring from the story but which may never limit themselves to it. The mind of the novelist needs to be tame, controlled and calm so that it is able to incorporate a welter of unruly experience churned and turned in to what needs to give it that classy, life-like touch. The writer of literary fiction is often hypnotized by life.

            In the case of commercial fiction, the plot is so significant that when a novelist has worked hard on that the novel is half written. Planning, and plotting, even if it seems contrived is everything in a commercial novel. In the case of literary fiction the plot is not unimportant but the literary novelist needs to work elsewhere, in other domains apart from the plot. They need to do one or more of the following: take the reader into the minds of their characters; dwell at length on highlighting the features or feel of a place; reveal how the present, or a particular time, is different to others; or simply keep the reader glued not to a novel’s plot but to its unfolding through the magic of language and narrative technique. These four additional chores of the literary novelist will be expanded upon in an interspersed manner in what follows but not in this order.

            The first of the above, taking the reader into the mind of characters, is the primary task of the literary fiction writer. In doing this, an author is able to make the reader see everything from the point of view of certain characters. Of course, this can happen in other categories of fiction as well. The vital difference between literary and other fiction is a matter of depth; it is the extent to which the reader is kept experiencing the trauma, passion or the excitement of a character experiencing a particular emotion. Or, it may just be a memory, a meeting, reaction, regret, and so on. Shakespeare’s tragedies take us into the minds of his major characters, sometimes through his use of the soliloquy. It has been pointed out that a typical Shakespearean tragedy takes us to the edge of human consciousness.  The suffering mind is able to reach out towards the depths of consciousness. “O, full of scorpions is my mind,” says an agonized Macbeth (III. ii. 36). Hamlet is said to be structured through soliloquies. Shakespeare frequently leads us into the minds of his heroes, thereby slowing down the action of his plays. Literary fiction too generally moves slower in terms of plot because it needs to fathom deeper into human experience. Experience can be tinged with a fear, anxiety, thrill or simply a sensuousness that has gripped someone as is the case in the opening lines of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah:

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell. She liked taking deep breaths here. She liked watching the locals who drove with pointed courtesy and parked their latest-model cars outside the organic grocery store on Nassau Street or outside the sushi restaurants or outside the ice cream shop that had fifty different flavours including red pepper or outside the post office where effusive staff bounded out to greet them at the entrance. She liked the campus, grave with knowledge, the Gothic buildings with their vine-laced walls, and the way everything transformed, in the half-light of night, into a ghostly scene. She liked most of all that in this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone adorned with certainty. (3)

            Why does the plot move slower in literary fiction? The reason is quite obvious. In literary fiction life is what needs to be shown; life with all the myriad people that constitute it. For this reason, there can be hundreds of minor characters that will hardly add to the plot of the novel; their existence is of minuscule significance to the novel as a whole. But they do add to the flavour of the parts and then vanish, sometimes never to return. These characters may appear and disappear within the length of a chapter, page or even paragraph. Both Arundhati Roy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels belong to this category. In chapters twenty-six and twenty-seven of Americanah, when Obinze has landed in London and has to rough out with other workers, we come across this phenomenon of the character that suddenly emerges, colours the setting with his or her peculiarity and then exits from the novel as though they had never been there. Such a character does no more than crowding the place that is under focus and lends to the readers certain clues that will help their imaginations to grip the situation better. Without absorbing the reader’s imagination, they will merely add to the overall picture that is needed in that moment. Such pictures can be made of nonliving things as well; they keep adding to the overall effect that literary fiction sets out to create. These characters slow down the pace of the novel no doubt but they also enrich the reader’s experience. They are the stuff that life is made of in anyone’s experience and life is what needs to be copied by most literary novels; unless of course, the novelist wants to play with language instead or exaggerate one aspect of life’s experiences.

            The matter about the truth to life in fiction is as complex as life itself if not more. Yet any account of literary fiction cannot ignore it.  Literary fiction is either a direct road to the truth, or near truth in life; or it is a play with language that takes you toward what seems to be life, indirectly. The world or the truth of life is generally seen and gauged through image, metaphor or symbol in literary fiction. It has to be shown pictorially or through rhythmic language. Therefore fiction, if it has to be literary, will tend not to state in clear terms; it will be an exercise in showing more than in saying. When literary fiction is just saying or stating, it will be addressing an audience that needs help in making sense of life’s subtler experiences. But passages of a novel that do that will normally be short fragments of the text.

            Why will literary fiction not die out easily? Why must it still be read and why must it continue to delight and instruct people? In order to answer these questions, I would like to bring back to memory a really significant British mind that we seem to be forgetting. Matthew Arnold, in spite of all the moss that has grown round his name, is one of the best literary theorists the world has produced. Unlike the negative and nihilistic theorists of contemporary times, he could see that poetry (which would include all literature, particularly literary fiction in today’s scenario) needs to be “at bottom, the criticism of life.” He thought that literature could be a substitute for religion, given the precarious condition in which religion was placed in his times. It could support mankind as nothing else could. He supported the humanism which contemporary theories have denounced. Henry James believed the reader needed a friend and Wayne C. Booth said that the reader keeps a kind of company and the quality of that company is vitally important. Literary fiction is what gives this kind of company. The author is surrounded by imagined friends, as James pointed out, and the reader finds the people they come across in the novel as the ideal kind of company.

            In the contemporary world, literary fiction, much more than poetry, can play the part that was once envisaged for poetry by Arnold. This is so because poetry since the modernist times has, more than anything else mirrored the shattered or alienated state of the human lot, sometimes in a form that is well beyond comprehension. Literary fiction cannot be like poetry because it must also endeavour to tell, to narrate. Poetry can be obscure and still acceptable because most poems are not long like novels. A novel, even the most inward moving one, like a stream of consciousness novel, must still have some kind of plot. Without a plot there can be no novel. The literary novel is often marked by the absence of a tight plot. The mind is drawn to the use of a language that is packed with literariness. Instead of merely telling a racy story, which is what the commercial novel does, the literary novel takes the reader into the depths of human experience just as poetry did earlier. It can transport you into the minds of characters somewhat like Shakespeare’s tragedies did, often virtually to the edge of human consciousness. Literary fiction helps the reader to see things better. It shows what mere narration cannot and does not show.

            With the force of language, in forms from the simplest to the most complex, the literary novel achieves more. It says more by showing more. Metaphor, which can be as immediate as consciousness itself, is a major tool of the literary novel in showing things. It is the vehicle that carries the reader’s imagination into the writer’s consciousness. But it also makes the reader see better; and seeing is believing. When a reader sees more he gets more convinced and satisfied when put through a novel’s discourse metaphorically. Symbolism, similarly, makes language do what everyday language fails to. It makes communication as clear as it can get. This again is what the literary novel uses along with its varied machinery of literary devices. How can such a literary form die out? In spite of contemporary life, and its hurried pace and mental fevers, literary fiction will be there, even if sometimes to play a therapeutic role. People need stimulants and intoxicants; they need to escape the drudgery of today’s mechanical life. Hence the mad rush for bars, cafes and other sensual retreats. Contemporary man cannot live on alcohol and sex alone; they need the elixir of life that literary fiction contains for thrills and laughter and for the more serious journeys that such fictions make.

            In a discussion on Literary Fiction it is necessary to come to some decision regarding what literary fiction is and what it is not. The term is by no means easy to define and yet there is something that people have rightly or wrongly called “literary fiction.” A little confusion in deciding what literary fiction is could have accrued from the demands of the publishing industry and the bookstores with their far too neatly divided bookshelves that readers look for when purchasing books, particularly in western countries. Books need to be classified and categorized according to the genre they embody. From the patterns that have emerged, literary fiction has been considered to be something by the process of elimination; by whatever genre fiction is not. But, as I said, this way of looking at literary fiction is not right. It may suit the industry or the bookseller but it may not be the best proposition for a writer of literary fiction. For the writer of literary fiction, there need to be other criteria; those that relate directly to the nature of literary fiction. F. R. Leavis has suggested something that I find convincing though I would like to modify on the basis of what I have come to feel as a writer of fiction. Leavis writing about the great tradition of the British novel shows how the best English novelists, beginning with Jane Austen, particularly George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, have much that is common between them even though they are so different from each other. They share a tradition in direct or indirect ways. They all share an intense interest in life and in human nature. They are “all very much concerned with ‘form’; they are all very original technically, having turned their genius to the working out of their own appropriate methods and procedures. But the preoccupation with form may be brought out by a contrasting reference to Flaubert.” (16) This would probably mean that interest in language and technique alone will not make a literary novel. The literary novel needs to be connected in some way to the novels of the past masters but must have an original existence of its own. I would say that it must show an author’s connection with his or her consciousness of the universe in which they live. Writing as though an author was cut off from the social or natural world would make a work seem little more than story telling; that is sometimes the stuff of which commercial fiction is made. The work must relate also to the author’s psychology and psychological perception of people and of things that are visible and not so visible in our lives. In telling a story, the literary author must connect with the universe in a particular way. Of course, as they go along writing and maturing as authors, thoughts of other literary novelists will continue to haunt them and often disturb them. The texts of other novelists and literary figures will enter their texts unconsciously and they will find new ways of going beyond and being unlike them. Writing serious fiction is a highly psychological affair because the writer is always struggling to remain balanced in what he or she allows the imagination to accept for their literary fiction from the work of others and what they do not. The struggle to be new and original is always operative at the conscious or unconscious levels. Psychology is vital to the literary novelist in another way too because the literary novelist keeps a strict vigil on the behaviour of human beings. A character that has taken birth in the imagination of the literary novelist needs to be carefully observed with a view to whether or not his or her mannerisms, ways of reacting or responding, smiles or frowns, inward withdrawals or outbursts are psychologically valid. For, characters are the basic material of which literary fiction is made. Being true to life is, to a large extent, being psychologically convincing. A novel that has a very neatly worked out plot before it is written is something like a Greek Tragedy in which the plot is like the blind fate of the hero, too surely hemmed in from every side to allow him to escape. A character should, instead, determine the way a plot will develop, as it happens in a typical Shakespearean tragedy from which Romeo and Juliet should be exculded.

            The characters of a literary novel, then, should ideally be the guiding factors of its plot. They should be able to exist independently of the plot. The plot never seals their movements and decisions entirely. They have much more freedom to grow independently than the characters of commercial novels. The average reader, who reads fiction to pass time, is more interested in knowing what happens next and therefore will not have the patience to see the growth or evolution of a character for the character’s sake. But there is a reader of a different kind for whom a character’s minute details can be very absorbing and each little response made gives an extra interest to that character’s growth. The characters in literary fiction, as is sometimes said, can step outside the worlds of their novels and live freely in our imaginations. Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are all characters that have this tendency to interest the reader on their own terms. They remain in the mind even after some parts of the plot of Pride and Prejudice are forgotten.

            A literary novelist, like a poet or artist, will normally be able to intuit what an audience will make out of their words and sentences. People are by and large intelligent and a particular image or sign will set them onto the path that the novelist wants the readers to be on. Readers have vast visual and cultural vocabularies and the literary novelist knows how to tap them. In spite of all the talk of signifiers and signifieds most readers will get only slight variations of what the literary novelist desires of them. These variations will of course be sizably more than the variations in the responses to mainstream fiction. Readers will normally feel that the images are there within their minds, it’s just that they haven’t brought them to the surface till the literary novel has helped them to do that. A literary novel is a bridge between an author and the intelligent reader; the voice, the inner vision and experience are transmitted to the reader through the novel. And all this happens while the reader has left his or her world and entered the world of the novel.

            Why is the literary novelist likely to gain by having some awareness of Shakespeare’s imagination and maintaining a subconscious link with him? The question is not easy to answer because Shakespeare’s work “kept in” as well as “left out” the social element from his literary discourse in a unique manner. But an attempt can always be made to investigate into Shakespeare’s genius in handling what may be called the “social” aspect of his mind. Shakespeare’s imagination could incorporate into its fold whatever was of a purely social nature in a way that the society portrayed remained no more than a faded palimpsest in the background, never coming into the forefront. From Shakespeare’s manner of handling the problem it may be said that the more a society of a specific time and place is allowed to interfere with the literary imagination, the more dated the literary work tends to be. Yet the novel must be social in a way that Shakespeare will never be. It must allow social structures to be a little more visible than they are in poetry of the highest order. The social or ideological content must blend with the literary form in a manner that it no longer seems to be there in a manifest form and yet is never absent from it. Bakhtin has this to say about the discourse of the novel:

“. . . art can and must overcome the divorce between an abstract “formal” approach and an equally abstract “ideological” approach. Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon – social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning.”  (The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, 269).

            One of the reasons that make Jane Austen so enduringly popular is that her novels do bring out the society of her time but that aspect is always second to her interest in human nature. What she picks out to show us was not only true of her times but is generally true. Women like Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility or Emma Woodhouse in Emma will always be there in every society just as men such as Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice will always be. The woman wanting to manipulate everything to her own advantage, the woman interested in matchmaking because that gives her pleasure, the man wanting to please and flatter someone for self-advancement and believing that to be right, or the man who thinks himself too important to see others objectively, will always be there.

            The plot can become quite a hurdle in the way of a novelist and it happens in the best of novelists. For literary fiction to pay too much tribute to the plot is unwise because that is more the domain of the mainstream novel. Forster points out how Meredith’s and even Hardy’s plots spoil their novels and don’t allow their characters to do the right things:

In the losing battle that the plot fights with the characters, it often takes a cowardly revenge. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows the novelist to stop as soon as he feels bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness. (Aspects )

            A novelist whose primary focus is on the plot can generally be considered a successful writer of literary fiction in very rare circumstances. For them the plot will limit the vision of people and of the way life moves generally. That is why the literary novelist needs to be something, however little, like Shakespeare but not like other dramatists particularly those of ancient Greece. In Shakespeare’s most successful drama, the plot builds around a central character or two; this central character is not ruined by the necessity of catering to a powerful plot. Being the genius he was, he could often make his plots look impressive. But his focus is always on human behaviour, psychology or failing; it is these that make the audiences love him. His best and deepest work revolves around human nature which seems to be a contrast to social reality. That is one of the many reasons why he continues to be a contemporary for every new generation. The novelist that keeps an eye only on a particular society, limited by time and space, will write a novel, even if that looks literary, will be dated and will therefore not go down in history as something to be considered worth remembering. The page of history, as William Hazlitt said, was the test of greatness. The plot of a novel is like the diagram an architect draws when they visualize a building that they design. An entirely predetermined plot will limit the shape of the novel and not allow it to grow naturally as life moves without a clear direction or plan of action.

            If genre fiction keeps the reader glued to the book, taking them from one moment to another in quick succession, because its action is tightly knit, literary fiction often takes the reader deeper into every moment. It makes him live through the novel with greater intensity and realization; there can be a kind of concrete realization of each instant. The story may not move horizontally at the same pace in literary fiction, but it does take the reader’s experiencing-self deeper down vertically. The reader is made to dwell in the moment for longer stretches of time. It is like peeling up a moment to show its kernel inside. The attempt to make the reader feel each moment, without wanting to know what happens next is the method of literary fiction. Here is an example, in Katherine Mansfield:

            “What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss—absolute bliss!—as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe? . . .

            Oh, is there no way you can express it without being “drunk and disorderly”? How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” (68)

            Sometimes literary fiction takes on the form of a lighter category of fiction so that it acquires generic hybridity. Such a work may not aim at the depths of say a George Eliot novel but it has its own literariness. Literary fiction can give plain descriptions and reflective conceptions of the world even without seeming very literary. It can make the reader see by arousing the memory and awakening the imagination. Instead of the usual metaphor, image and symbol, it can resort to a true to life dialogue, or simply through repetition make the reader feel certain emotions. This slackens the narrative movement to a degree. Description and  reflection go against narration. Martin Amis’s lines quoted below will illustrate this point:

            We have all known days of sun and storm that make us feel what it is to live on a planet. But the recent convulsions have taken this further. They make us feel what it is to make us live in a solar system, a galaxy. They make us feel – and I’m not on the edge of nausea as I write these words – what it is to live in a universe.

            Particularly the winds. They tear through the city, they tear through the island, as if softening it up for an exponentially greater violence. In the last week the winds have killed nineteen people and, and thirty-three million trees. (49)

            Fiction, as the word suggests is not fact and must never be confused with factual truth. Even literary fiction is not literally true. But its truth is closer to a general truth of life. Pablo Picasso believed that art is a lie that makes us realize the truth and the same could be said of literary art as it manifests itself in literary fiction. Plato called the poet [that we may equate with a literary author in today’s world] a liar because he imitated an imitation and was twice removed from reality. Some of the lies are in the plot and some are in the metaphorical content.  When Shakespeare’s Jaques says in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage” we know that what he says is not literally true. Yet we get to know a great deal about life in those five words. Shakespeare has put his finger on the ironical nature of things; he has pointed out the difference between the appearance of things and their reality. He has said that our actions and contentions are all part of our attempting to be what we are not. We are engaged in role-playing and in doing what others have scripted for us even when we believe that we are doing something meaningful for ourselves, or something that our minds have engineered independently. Metaphors tell general truths but factual lies. Literariness is largely constituted of metaphors and similes as well as other figurative terms. A simile is not as much of a liar as a metaphor is; it always admits the similarity between things by using words such as “like” or “as”. A metaphor can call a man a lion or a fox directly instead of saying that he is like a lion or a fox. Images, metaphors, similes and symbols have the power to transport the reader into a different world because they provide a visible, auditory, tactile, gustatory or olfactory path for that transportation. Besides, literary language relies also on sound effects. Words can be used for their rhythmic qualities or sounds rather than for their meaning in literary fiction. But literary fiction should not be considered merely the sum of its words and their arrangement; words that are used in a particular manner to yield much more in terms of sound and sense. The use of language has a great role in this category of fiction but is definitely not its be all and end all.

            Literary fiction then, delves deeper down into the consciousness than genre fiction; it is layered with interpretable meaning. It normally does have more signifiers and signifieds than other forms of fiction. In a recent assessment, Jack Smith states this in clear terms:

“For a fictional work to be classified as ‘literary,’ it must have the capacity to resonate with readers on several different levels. To put it another way, it must be layered and multifaceted in meaning: There is much more at hand than the story you’re “seeing” and following on the page – it contains levels that go fathoms beyond plot and characterization.” (251)

A novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri or Khaled Hosseini, for instance, has a racial and ethnic angle to carry in addition to the language it uses idiosyncratically.  Literary fiction relates an individual to their universe and society; it is the individual’s reaction to the universe and to society. Literary fiction is broad based enough to incorporate a great many variations into its domain.

            Literary realism began with the mid nineteenth-century French literature and extended to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century authors. It showed a movement towards portrayals of contemporary life and society as it was. In the spirit of general “realism,” realist authors opted for depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation. George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch stands as a great milestone in the realist tradition in English fiction. The nineteenth-century realism’s role in the naturalization of the burgeoning capitalist marketplace should not be missed. Literary fiction can choose that mode or opt for its opposite modes like fantasy or magical realism. In Shakespeare there is both magic and realism though he is hardly noticed for either of these. This point will be taken up in a later chapter in which I have dealt with Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison and my own novel, The Tailor’s Needle.

            Of course the difference between literary and mainstream fiction, particularly at the present time can become difficult to maintain.  At least in snatches a literary novelist will normally try to befriend the reader by being more accessible to them and, conversely, the teller of the straightforward story will stop by to look deeper into that ocean which is loosely called life. The balance has got to be maintained by some quick positive thinking done by the publishing industry, which is governed by the good sense of trade and commerce, as well as by the artistic temperament which can have the tendency to straggle away into the woods of obscurity. Some literary authors who have written to please themselves rather than the readers of our times will remain unpublished or little read. But there has also been activity in the opposite direction. Some writers have found ways out of this problem. They have written simple direct prose and come straight to the point of the story so that the reader with less time is not put off. They either continue to progress in this manner or, at times, though rarely, put in their purple patches only after the reader has been hooked on to the story. Two apt examples of this kind of writing are John Irving and Ken Follett. The latter dives straight into the story that can compel the reader not to leave his novel once the reading process begins. But Follett’s desire to write literary fiction is obvious even as the titles of some his novels suggest: Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, Edge of Eternity (these are his Century Trilogy), Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, A Column of Fire. Other titles match the content of the mainstream fiction that he writes: Whiteout, Hornet Flight, Jackdaws, Code to Zero, A Dangerous Fortune, Night Over Water, The Man from St Petersburg, etc.

            Reading the opening of a Ken Follett or John Irving novel shows how a contemporary novelist can opt for   a simple as opposed to a literary opening: 

“Rebecca Hoffmann was summoned by the secret police on a rainy Monday in 1961. It began as an ordinary morning. Her husband drove her to work in his tan Trabant 500. The graceful old streets of central Berlin still had gaps from wartime bombing, except where new concrete buildings stood up like ill-matched false teeth. Hans was thinking about his job as he drove. “The courts serve the judges, the lawyers, the police, the government—everyone except the victims of crime,” he said. “This is to be expected in Western capitalist countries, but under Communism the courts ought surely to serve the people. My colleagues don’t seem to realize that.” Hans worked for the Ministry of Justice.

            ‘We’ve been married almost a year, and I’ve known you for two, but I’ve never met one of your colleagues,’ Rebecca said. ‘They would bore you,’ he said immediately. ‘They’re all lawyers.’

            ‘Any women among them?’

            ‘No. Not in my section, anyway.’

Hans’s job was administration: appointing judges, scheduling trials, managing courthouses. “I’d like to meet them, all the same.” Hans was a strong man who had learned to rein himself in. Watching him, Rebecca saw in his eyes a familiar flash of anger.” (Ken Follett, Edge of Eternity, 3).

John Irving does the very same:

“Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater. This was shortly after the Japanese had bombed the Pearl Harbor and people were being tolerant of soldiers, because suddenly everyone was a soldier, but Jenny Fields was quite firm in her intolerance of the behavior of men in general and soldiers in particular. In the movie theater she had to move three times, but each time the soldier moved closer to her until she was sitting against the musty wall, her view of the newsreel almost blocked by some silly colonnade, and she resolved she would not get up and moved again. The soldier moved once more and sat beside her.

            Jenny was twenty-two. She had dropped out of college almost as soon as she’d begun, but she had finished her nursing school program at the head of her class and she enjoyed being a nurse. She was an athletic-looking young woman who always had high color in her cheeks; she had dark glossy hair and what her mother called a mannish way of walking (she swung her arms), and her rumps and hips were so slender and hard that, from behind, she resembled a young boy. In Jenny’s opinion her breasts were too large; she thought that the ostentation of her bust made her look ‘cheap and easy.” (15)

From the two respective novel-openings it is quite obvious that the two novelists are keen to get into their major characters from the word go. This means that they want to write literary fiction but they try to accommodate the common reader by making their language simple and intelligible. Follett is able to make his novel seem more mainstream but Irving is still pulled towards the literary in spite of his consciousness that the market can be difficult for him to handle if he gets stuck in his literary urges. The second opening, in spite of its raciness is rather descriptive and pays heed to detail. Of course these are just two of the hundreds of novelists who are faced with the problem of having to give up some of the literary in favour of the mainstream. But can it be said that much literary fiction of our times is generally hardly what literary fiction used to be? It is an attempt to keep crossing over to the other, more marketable, side.

            Lyotard’s theories of “language games,” legitimation and identity place narrative at the centre of human experience and society. It is language and its varied use and discourse that makes us see what or who we are and what we aspire to be. The narrative discourse of literary fiction must be seen as a deeper entity even though Lyotard does not say that in specific terms. The language games that Lyotard speaks of are made of the different discourses from different subjects. Literary fiction also has a distinct kind of discourse to offer; a discourse that puts us in touch with ourselves and the universe in which we live, but one that never finally defines us or the universe. There may be very few other mediums apart from literary fiction that put us so close to the understanding of the Self.

            Jane Kinsley-Smith argues about how much George Eliot learned from Shakespeare’s sonnets when she conceived the characters of Rosamond and Fred Vincy in Middlemarch. And George Eliot was definitely one who wrote in the line that Shakespeare did. But she kept away from the magical perception of things as in Shakespeare. This is what I mean by the argument that I started with. Every novel must have its opposite within it. The word opposite is not as simple as “opposite” is in meaning; it needs to be understood by stretching the imagination to a point where opposites seem to get reconciled in a Coleridgean sense, and this may mean getting into the imaginative ranges of two authors that think in oppositional ways. The second part of the essay argues that George Eliot was particularly sensitive to the theorization of shame in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which she read immediately before composing Middlemarch. However, she develops an implicit critique of the Sonnets by letting her characters break through their solipsism and experience a redemptive shame.

            To establish what I’m trying to establish regarding literary fiction and its debt to Shakespeare, I have to use the tools of literary criticism and I’m doing this here only to support what I’ve felt as a writer. Sally O’Reilly believes that Shakespeare inspired at least ten novelists. All of these use aspects of human nature that never die out:

“Thwarted love, ambition, greed, jealousy, fear – if you want to write a story about a  fundamental predicament, there is a Shakespeare play to fit the bill. So it’s not surprising that he has inspired so many writers, from Herman Melville to Angela Carter.”

Moby Dick, O’Reilly believes inherits from Macbeth and King Lear, The Daughter of Time from Richard III, Brave New World from The Tempest, Cakes and Ale from Twelfth Night, The Talented Mr Ripley from Macbeth, The Black Prince from Hamlet, The Dogs of War from Julius Caesar, Wise Children from The Taming of the Shrew, Love in Idleness from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and A Thousand Acres from King Lear.  I take into account novelists other than those mentioned by O’Reilly who, consciously or not, took a great deal from Shakespeare. In fact it makes a much greater claim about the nature of English literary fiction; it claims that literary fiction would be different without Shakespeare. I feel that Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare missed out on this one significant point: How Literary Fiction became Literary Fiction. Coppélia Kahn gives a clue to this by informing us that Shakespeare’s characters in his narrative poems speak in their own voices (75). Literary fiction coming after Shakespeare’s narrative poems could well have found therein questions related to characters, personas and voices, for these are what literary fiction is very largely made of. Shakespeare’s “A Lover’s Complaint” is a poem that uses multiple voices as fiction does. It even talks of a “double voice” needed to “list the sad tun’d tale.” For, the voice of a novel may lie in its style but it may also lie in the multiple voices of the characters and hence have more than one voice. Besides, Shakespeare had taken some plots from Boccassio’s Decameron and hence his plays and poems were not free from the influence of the novella. Bloom claims that Shakespeare invented us because he can feel Shakespeare in every form of literature written in the English language. Shakespeare does speak through English literary fiction.

            One difference between the contemporary world and the world of the past is that today an individual’s labour or artistic work is getting lost in the sea of machine made goods or computerized art. The individual is getting irretrievable in a dehumanized world. The writer, the artist, the statesman, even the religious propagandist is dependent not on their intrinsic vision and merit as on the means by which they need promotion and marketability. This can result in the impoverishment of the human endeavour to be intrinsically creative. Today’s writer, musician or politician needs to remain original and talented in spite of the aids machines provide them, because the mechanized aiding that they receive should not make them less but more. This is very largely true of Literary Fiction as well. Will we have another Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Balzac, Proust, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hemmingway and some others who appeared in more human conditions? Let us be hopeful that we may, at least they will have the Shakespeare industry to aid them.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays

Follett, Ken. Edge of Eternity. Penguin Publishing Group.

Gabler, Hans Walter. “Experiment and parody in Shakespeare’s early plays” Studia Neophilologica

Volume 46, 1974 – Issue 1, 159-171.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, London: The Bodley Head, 2004.

Johnson, Samuel. (

Kahn, Coppélia. “Venus and Adonais”. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry ed. Patrick Cheney. New york: Cambridge University Press.

Kermode, Frank. A Sense of an Ending. OUP 2000, 1st ed. 1967.

Kingsley-Smith, Jane. “The Failure of Shame in Shakespeare’s Sonnets”. The Review of English Studies, Volume 69, Issue 289, No. 1, 2018, 237–258.

O’Reilly, Sally. “Top 10 novels inspired by Shakespeare”. The Guardian, Wednesday, 30 April 2014.

Picoult, Jodi. “Literary Lust Versus Commercial Cash,” The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2016.

Tomiche, Anne. “Lyotard and/on Literature.” Yale French Studies No.99, 2001, 149-163.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.