Defining “good fiction” is tricky.
I think it’s easy to say what good fiction isn’t, or what it doesn’t do. It isn’t cliché. You can’t predict the ending from the first paragraph. The characters aren’t flat. The scenes aren’t contrived. The dialogue isn’t stale. And on, and on.
Harder to describe is what should happen in a work of fiction. I’ve read excellent stories comprised almost entirely of dialogue and excellent stories with no dialogue at all. I’ve read stories that make magic out of tropes and stories that smother in the stale air of a tired idea. I have fallen in love with people who never existed, characters whose breath I could smell. I’ve taken the place of the nameless narrator who slides into nothingness in thriving scenic detail and intricate language.
Basically, defining good fiction is hard—writing it is harder.
Clearly this is no profound revelation. If writing was easy, wouldn’t we all be super successful, widely-published, bad-ass story writers by now?
But we’re not.
And it isn’t.
So really it’s no wonder I’m adding to the drivel of not-totally-qualified writers pondering what holds a story up on its glass-spindle legs, and what sends a story to the ground on a bed of crystalline dust.
In the academic scene, I’ve run across the term “literary fiction” more than once
(a gross understatement). Literary fiction is often treated as a blanket term that incorporates all “good fiction” and excludes the unworthy, low-art masses.
Literary fiction and genre fiction, as I have learned them, are mutually exclusive. In fact, if a piece with fantasy or science fiction elements is deemed to have literary merit, it is no longer considered genre fiction. Instead it becomes genre cannibalizing literary fiction.
Why can’t it just be good genre fiction?
Why should the presence of witches, wizards, dragons, spaceships, futuristic technology, elves, cyborgs, and whatever else we dream up create expectations of poor literary merit? And why, if we overcome those prejudices, can we no longer be considered writers of fantasy, science fiction, or young adult novels?
A good story has many ingredients and many varying ratios of those ingredients; I think I’ve made my stance on that painfully clear. Why should the absence or presence of the fantastic or the futuristic suggest the success or failure of a piece?
Keep writing fiction.
Keep writing fantasy. Keep writing science fiction. Keep writing young adult.
Become that super successful, widely-published, badass story-writer, and write whatever the hell you want.