One characteristic that distinguishes literary fiction from other fiction is felicitous language. Many writers tell good stories. Many more weave together suspense and character, keeping us entertained while delivering low voltage shocks to the backs of our necks. Others inform us, writing clearly and convincingly.
A few tell good stories, weave together suspense, character, entertainment, and information with exquisitely formed phrases. These write the books we read and remember well; these write the books that win prizes.
What makes the words of literary fiction different from words in other genres and sub-genres is the beauty of the language. It sings, dances, and resonates. It feeds a need for us. As A. J. Fikry says to his adopted daughter Maya, “The words you can’t find, you borrow.” (The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin)
And what are those words? They are words that teach us, that trigger recognition, that help us understand.
- “A devil’s sick of sin” (Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”) describes the horrific final moments of a soldier who fumbled his gas mask, breathed in toxic mustard gas, and died slowly, suffering. A slight five words that endure, that give me words for what I’ve seen in the eyes of those lost, words I could not find alone.
- “…The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. . . .Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of red light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. . . .” (Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See) describes the beauty found in acts of war, translating man’s darkest moments into poetry.
- “For now, while he breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse’s ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one’s own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one’s own.” (We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas) These words capture the reasons we cling to life and the joys to be found in living. Such an epic task delivered succinctly.
We read to know. We read to belong. We read to understand.
Read for felicitous language.
Write felicitous language.