Back to Literature, Past
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

A Book is a Friend;
Find One with Character

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Author of This is the Place and Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered

Which word(s) would you pick to describe literary fiction?


    Because I write literary fiction that appeals to many who like romances, historical or women’s fiction, I am especially interested in the notions my readers have about “literary.”   Because my books cross over into several genres, I sometimes avoid the word “literary” because so many are, shall we say, scared off by the words you find above.  Actually, I don’t think most of them should ever apply to a novel and others only rarely do.

    Though I would love it if my readers felt “well-informed” when they have turned the last page of one of my books, I don’t write to inform, and I would venture to say that most novelists make an effort to avoid anything that smacks of educating their readers. Unlike nonfiction, the information in novels is desirable only if it appears as the natural outcome of telling a story and forming memorable characters.

    Occasionally one of my students or writing associates will tell me they don’t like the classics. If I ask, “What, you don’t like Dickens?” I’m likely to get a solemn shake of the head.  But if I counter with, “What you don’t find Scrooge fascinating?” the reaction is often a big, sheepish grin. For me, characterization is the difference between classic/literary and commercial fiction.  It is apparent that many of King’s novels, then, would cross over into literary. I think that many who think they “don’t like literary” would love it, if only they had the right books in their hands. I also think that if those who think they don’t want to read about a certain subject, actually “subjected” themselves to it (pun intended) they would find that they enjoyed it.

    Once a friend of mine who is an atheist told me (quite lovingly) that she wasn’t interested in reading This is the Place because it was “about Mormons.”  I didn’t try to dissuade her. I’m not a Mormon and, if I were, I would not be the proselytizing type. Also, remember, my novelist’s view about trying to educate my readers. Later, another unsuspecting woman in our circle gave this friend with the steadfast-opinions-about-what-she-liked-to-read a copy of my novel for her birthday.  It was not long after that the woman who was sure she wouldn’t like a book with characters even partially defined by their religion called me to say, “I just loved your Harriet—she is just so feisty and still so lovable.” Harriet was the only major character in the This is the Place who was a strong Mormon.

   I was proud of my friend for attempting to read a birthday gift that she couldn’t have been all that thrilled to receive. She subjected herself to something she either feared or disliked.  She found something in it that stayed with her long enough to mention it months later. I count the whole incident as a great compliment.  I figure I have done a credible job if the characters or events in my books hang about and haunt my readers a bit.

     Sol Stein, the author of an excellent book called Stein on Writing says that if a book’s characters are not “transient,” it is literary. I agree with him. To take it one step farther, if a book’s characters are “transient (in the sense that they do not stay with the reader),” the book cannot be literary.  As with a good friend, the value of a book is judged not only on its character, but its characters.

     Here are a few authors whose characters are not likely to be “transient.”

Elizabeth Berg
Fannie Flag
Luis J. Rodriguez
Joanne Harris
Leora G. Krygier (See below.)

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: Sign up for a newsletter by editor Barbara McNichol at It won’t be long before you know the differences between all the tricky words like affect and effect, when and how to use each. Professional speaker George Walther says, "(Barbara’s) work is consistently superb and I enjoy every message (she) send(s) me." If you need a knowledgeable editor, e-mail Barbara at

Readers' Tip: A brand new book, First the Raven was just released.  It was featured on Suzie and Kristies Have Your Heard page of MyShelf last month.  It is among my favorite literary novelsright up there in the top tenbecause it keeps the reader turning the pages and the characters (and subject matter) stay with a reader long after the shes closed the book.

2002 Past Columns

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