I was reading a bit of literary fiction just recently. It was well written. The characters were interesting. The scene setting was quite good. It was a leisurely read, meaning that I felt in no urgency to get to the next paragraph or page. When I did reach the end I found, no ending. It just stopped. In fact, it stopped at a point where I thought something dramatic was finally going to happen. I just shook my head, put that one down, and picked up Rick Cantelli, P.I., by Bernard Lee Deleo. Our intrepid P.I. is kicking back on the beach with a couple of lady friends when here come three gangsters, including the brother of one he'd just recently killed. "Uh Oh," I thought, and was instantly eagerly reading forward to see what happened next.
The contrast between the two tales was dramatic to me.
The literary fiction was fine. There was nothing wrong with it. It felt a bit like looking out a window and studying the scene there. Sometimes I like looking out the window. On the other hand, the DeLeo tale has the elements of a good "story." In a story, something happens, then something else happens, and so on, and the things that happen are connected to each other, and they affect characters that you've come to know and love, or, more rarely, hate.
A story involves "narrative drive." At least, a good one does, a compelling one. Narrative drive is about the giving and witholding of information. You give the reader enough information to understand "what" is happening, but you withhold plenty of the "why" information. The "why" information is only slowly revealed, and only at the last possible second that it must be revealed. And, almost every time you reveal some "why" information, it ends up raising still other "whys." It is the need to figure out the answer to the next "why" that creates narrative drive, and this is what keeps the reader glued to the story.
There's no particular reason why literary style fiction can't have narrative drive, and sometimes it does. Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" has it. So does "The Old Man and the Sea." A lot of literary fiction doesn't though, and when I'm looking for something to read it's almost always narrative drive that I'm looking for. I want to get lost in the story to the point where I no longer know I'm reading a story. Most literary fiction simply doesn't do this for me, and most of it is not supposed to. Doesn't make it bad. But for that reason, it's never going to be as important to me as a rollicking good story.