Ellis Sharp points us to a British literary agency that informs us it looks for the following in the fiction it represents:
A good title; an engaging story with a beginning, middle and end; vivid, memorable characters whom one cares about; superb dialogue; a transporting sense of time and place; accuracy of detailing; psychological plausibility; an intriguing beginning and memorable ending.
In addition, what fills us with joy is the writer who has a palpable love of language, who always chooses precisely the right words, eschews clichés, handles pacing with the skill of a dancer and musician, conjures up moods and atmospheres with an apparently invisible wand, and whose spelling, punctuation and grammar are immaculate.
It may be that, as Ellis intimates, this is a way of warding off various kinds of genre manuscripts, letting prospective authors know that this agency is looking for only the "best" in serious fiction. However, it doesn't seem to me that these criteria really exclude the "best" in current genre fiction. Most SF and crime fiction attempt to provide "engaging" stories, "memorable" characters, "superb dialogue," blah, blah, blah. (A possible exception might be "psychological plausibility": SF novels, for example, probably aren't expected to provide this particular kind of "realism" very extensively, at least not at the expense of a clearly demarcated "beginning, middle, and end"; presumably only "literary fiction" is asked to carry off both of these tasks at the same time.)
The real problem with this editorial prescription is that it's just a grab-bag of conventional wisdom about what makes for a properly "literary" work of fiction, and as such it's probably shared by most agents and editors who consider themselves in the business of publishing "quality" books. Perhaps writers who perceive their job as first of all to be published attempt to scrupulously obey such directions and duly set about to provide the ingredients called for (and perhaps this explains why so many published literary novels seem so indistinguishable from one another), but writers interested in creating fresh and imaginative works of art can only find this list of imperatives confusing. Producing "literary fiction" apparently doesn't mean doing one's best to create a compelling reading experience out of the myriad ways language can be brought to bear on "character" or "story" or "place," but is a matter of combining these elements in an already-known manner: Mix one part "engaging story" (making sure to include "an intriguing beginning and memorable ending") with two parts "accuracy of detailing" with a healthy slice of "memorable character" and just a pinch of good dialogue.
Do these agents and editors really believe that writing fiction comes down to following this formula with just a little more skill than the next guy? Exactly what is a "palpable love of language" for them? Is it as simple as eschewing cliches? Surely it can't be something as vague as "pacing with the skill of a dancer and musician" or conjuring up "moods and atmospheres with an apparently invisible wand." Is this where the "art" comes in? Accepting that "pacing" is very important and then carrying it out with "the skill of a dancer"? That "moods and atmospheres" ought to be present and then applying one's wand? Furthermore, how to reconcile these more evanescent attributes with the need to choose "precisely the right words"? Isn't this "precisely" a little constricting, especially if you're trying to imitate dancers and musicians, whirling through the story and jamming out "moods and atmospheres" at your pleasure? Doesn't finding the "right word" imply that that word was known beforehand, that writing involves pinning down the thought to the word rather than letting words loose to see where they'll go?
In an interview at Condalmo with Sheila Heti, author of the underappreciated novel Ticknor, Heti says this about "character":
I think we read literature in a funny way. We try to make sense of it the way we make sense of life, and by this route, look at the characters as though they're our friends, by which I mean: we gossip about them and cheaply psychoanalyse them. I find this to be a very funny thing to do to a character! In a lot of interviews I'm asked to speculate on Ticknor in this way, as though he is something separate from myself, someone I know, that I can talk about objectively. But of course, he is only my words, my head, my understanding of things, my aesthetic – not a person at all. . . .
In my opinion, asking for a "vivid, memorable character" amounts to requesting that a work of fiction provide us with a friend, a "person" with whom we will have what is called "sympathy." Demanding "psychological plausibility" in fictional characters means the author should give us the opportunity to "gossip about them and cheaply psychoanalyse them." And in the same way Heti suggests that good writers don't think about what makes for "memorable characters " when they're creating them, it's likely they don't think much about what makes a story "engaging" or dialogue "superb" or a sense of time or place "transporting," either. (Although maybe they do think about good titles and grammatical correctness.) Telling writers they ought to produce such things means nothing.