What is Literary Writing?by John Oldcastle
The term 'literary writing' calls to mind works by writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, or Wordsworth; definitive examples of all that the term implies. We instinctively associate the term with characteristics such as artistic merit, creative genius, and the expression of mankind's noblest qualities. In this essay I will explore some of the characteristics of this kind of writing.
Literary works are primarily distinguishable from other pieces of writing by their creative, or artistic intent.
The writer of this passage emphasises the distinction between writing of didactic purpose and literary writing which has that other, aesthetic, dimension. In fundamental terms literature is 'an expression of life through the medium of language' , but language used more profoundly than when used simply to convey information.
The following two extracts, for example, both describing one partner's response to marital problems, are different in both their form and their intent:
The first piece, from a newspaper, gives a typical tabloid account of a broken marriage. It plainly states the position of the two parties involved, (but with an attitude akin to 'gossip'). The tone of the second piece is less factual and more descriptive. Here the writer is sets out to depict a particular scene, that of a woman distressed by the discovery of some unsavoury information concerning her husband, and employs such devices as the use of emotive words, such as 'disfigured', the gradual increase of dramatic tension, 'slowly turned in her chair', and then in the last line a humorous deflation of this tension, 'her face . . . was not a pretty sight'. The author shows a mixture of intentions here, the structure and the use of language showing a different approach and purpose to the first piece's straightforward account of the everyday world. In contrast to such a plain factual account -
So literary writing, having creative and artistic intent, is more carefully structured and uses words for the rhetorical effect of their flow, their sound, and their emotive and descriptive qualities. Literary writers can also employ tone, rhyme, rhythm, irony, dialogue and its variations such as dialects and slang, and a host of other devices in the construction of a particular prose work, poem, or play.
Literary writing is, in essence, a 'response', a subjective personal view which the writer expresses through his themes, ideas, thoughts, reminiscences, using his armoury of words to try to evoke, or provoke, a response in his reader.
In Welsh Hill Country, R. S. Thomas conveys his response to a landscape:
Here the powerful evocation of desolation, of the stark brutality, even indifference, of the countryside is captured by Thomas through a pointed use of language which also conveys his grim mood.
In contrast, Keat's To Autumn conveys a soft, sensuous depiction of this season which captured his imagination:
Both these extracts show a creative, imaginative response to a particular scene, and show contrasting ways in which a poet can use diction to capture his mood and provoke a reaction in the reader. Devices such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and assonance combine to form a structure of mood, a structure recognisably literary.
Literature is a process of communication, it 'helps us to understand life'. 
Perhaps we should also consider the motivation of the writer as a factor which distinguishes literary from other forms of writing. The writer's motivation is the energy that pulls together the strands of his creativity in the shaping of the finished work.
Ernest Hemingway gives his reasons for writing:
Georges Simenon puts forward the idea of therapeutic value, a search for self:
Philip Larkin gives his reasons for writing poems as a need 'to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others'. Here, in The Whitsun Weddings, his motive was to capture his response to a view seen from a train:
The main impetus behind Edward Thomas's No One So Much as You, is to describe his experience of love:
While the motive behind Andrew Young's, On the Prospect of Death, is self-evident.
Personal motivation is an essential characteristic of literary writing. It is the engine behind creativity, and the last two extracts provide examples of some of the great themes which occur again and again, not only in literary writing, but in all the arts; love, death, war, and peace. Such themes, it seems, provide perennial inspiration for artists.
So perhaps an inventory of literary writers' motives should include the overflowing of their passions, their desire for self-expression, an abiding fascination with humanity in all its variety, the need to come to grips with relationships as they really are in the world as it really is, the striving after an ideal world which can exist only in the imagination, and, perhaps at the heart of it all, the need to form, shape, things of beauty.
The artist needs to resolve conflicts within himself, to reach an understanding, to search for some credible meaning of to life, to death, to everything. He is always reaching, fumbling toward some sort of truth; an artistic creative truth, a truth that resides in the individual artist and needs to be grasped, made real, made understandable.
Perhaps in some cases the artist's motivation could be seen as a need to create other worlds, in the way that Milton and Tolkien created other worlds, in order that they can project real conflicts onto another plane.
The many different genres of the novel constitute a particular challenge to the concept of 'literary writing'. Detective novels, and science fiction novels, for example, are creative, imaginative, depictions of life. We might question their seriousness as literature, or whether they can achieve the high ideals of art, but then we might equally well question the meaning of 'seriousness', and 'the high ideals of art'. Popular novels may not deal with life's great conflicts, or search for truth and beauty, and they may deal with the seamier side of life, or escape into the fantastic, but can they still be considered 'literature'? Do they still make an important contribution to our understanding of the world, as 'real' literature does?
Obviously 'literary' works such as Tolstoy's War and Peace and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past take as a nucleus an event, an aspect of life and construct a world around that core. They are works about real people, engaged in the real business of living. They convey knowledge, understanding, experience and are hence considered important. Yet they have in common with the detective and science fiction novel that they are books, consisting of words that have been used to express something, words that may or may not be read, and may or may not succeed in conveying an understanding of the world they depict.
In my view it comes down to subjective value judgements. I believe literature is a 'broad church' which ought to be able to deal with any subject, and that ultimately it is individual readers, or readers en masse, who decide on the value of any particular work and on whether or not it deserves a place in the annals of literary history.
Writers aim to show us 'the world', but no single writer can do this, and 'literature' should encompass numerous different kinds of writer because each is trying to show us something which cannot be shown as a whole. Each, whether a Tolstoy or a Raymond Chandler, can only give us his own small fragment of understanding. Ultimately it is those works which endure that should be considered 'literature', those which have succeeded in holding firm a fragment of life, to be seen, to be read, to be understood.
Perhaps we should let a writer have the last word on summing up the writers' art:
In conclusion, literary writing does embody certain distinguishing characteristics. It is a self-conscious, imaginative mode of writing which uses words not just to convey information, but as an art form. Ultimately it is a response to life.
Personally, passages of outstanding literary writing such as the following, convince me that words are the highest form of expression available to mankind:
© John Oldcastle, October 2000