Literary fiction is realism focusing on a character and how the character is transformed by exterior forces denying, compelling, or otherwise styming interior desires. The gap between expectations and reality in this way is filled with relative power, and its attendant strains of irony.
Power and The Gap
To recap, literary fiction is realism that is character-focused with the focus primarily on the protagonist’s level of power:
* Power in relation to other characters and situations (or poles) in the novel–are they smarter, less intelligent; are they a child and the narrator an adult?
* Power in relation to the reader–is the protagonist smarter than the reader, the same as, less intelligent than?
The progression of plot in literary fiction is not the action of circumstances, but rather the failed expectation(s) of the protagonist, which goes to the character’s sense of being, psychology, relative power, et cetera.
At every step the character comes into greater and greater focus for the reader, greater and greater changes for the reader, because of the progression of these failed expectations, reality/conflict, choices, and consequences.
In literary fiction, the failed expectation is most often the result or illustrated by irony. Like it or not (I was not a fan of the ubiquity of irony for many years; and it has become an overused convention, which some argue is one the way out) the contemporary literary novel trucks in irony, lots of it, and there are several kinds.
Kinds of Irony
The use of irony–somewhat ironically–seems to come to contemporary writers quite readily because our culture is often an ironic one, of feigned ignorance, or of results to circumstances being the opposite of what is to be expected. Nothing is as it seems, in our day, right?! In most cases, irony is a misunderstanding or a difference in understanding, which pretty much describes Facebook, half kidding.
In literary ficiton, irony is where one character has superior knowledge (subtle or otherwise) or some kind of insight another chracter does not have, which is shared or known as such by the reader.
So, irony is the reader knowing something the fiction character or characters do not. This is dramatic irony. It heightens drama, in the reader and in the character, because of differing levels of knowledge, and yes, knowledge is power. See what I did there?
There can be the more straight ahead form of irony, the one we as members of society are all too familiar with–verbal irony, which simply means the meaning intended by a character differs from the meaning understood by the other characters.
A common form of irony found in literary prose is cosmic which allows the writer to really F-up a character by the cruel joke of ultimately controlling their destiny or fate. Have a racist character find out in the end that they’re one-half black, say, or have a woman who is a kleptomaniac have her get-a-way car stolen.
Tragic irony is probably the most common and heartbreaking of ironies in which the tragic flaw in a character results in lapses in judgment (and sometimes bad habits, and flat out accidentally) leading to an undoing, an unraveling, a lost of some kind of body, soul, mind, friends, community, et cetera. Here the character’s flaw is abaout missing the mark somehow, about erring, which we all know is to be human. The character suffers a reversal of fortune, the saying goes, they lose power in a big, big way.
This erring first found its way into the literary vernacular by way of the Greek, whose word hamartia means sin or error. As Aristotle writes in Poetics (his book examining the elements of tragedy or storytelling), the hero’s reversal of fortune in classical tragedy usually results from mistaken judgment, weakness of character or accident. Every character in literary fiction suffers with hamartia–a flaw that cripples their power, denies them their expectations, forces them to choose, and suffer the consequences.
In other words, literary fiction is realism.
Irony, once the hipster’s favorite weapon, had become exhausted and rusted into cynicism.