Sunday Round-Up

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fIn theory this ought to be a good day for writing blog posts.  There is, after all, a whole extra hour that can be dedicated either to reading books or to writing about them. Somehow, though, it never quite works out like that.  I get completely disorientated by the change in the clocks and although the autumn experience isn’t quite as disturbing as the one in the spring, when we lose an hour, nevertheless it will be the end of the week before my internal clock resets itself and life returns to something approximating normal.  This doesn’t bode well as I have a lot to get through over the next seven days with a class on Love’s Labour’s Lost to develop and teach, the work for my Dickens class to continue and a book club discussion for the following Monday to prepare, on top of all the other normal weekly commitments.  If I go under and vanish from view then it has been good knowing you all.

Literary Fiction

What do you think of, I wonder, when you hear the phrase literary fiction?  It was bandied around rather a lot last Wednesday when the group reading that book I was finding so troublesome met for our monthly discussion.  Only a third of the group had managed to finish it, although to be fair they had all enjoyed it.  The rest of us, for one reason or another, had admitted defeat.  I did try to battle on to the end, despite all your good advice, but when I found myself setting out to clean the kitchen for the second time in as many days just to avoid reading I knew that a line had to be drawn.  The member who had chosen the book was severely disappointed in us and several times during the evening she commented on the fact that she really enjoyed literary fiction.  The implication was obvious.  This was literary fiction, and it was clearly not for the likes of the rest of us.  The implied hierarchy in both books and readers was fairly obvious as well.

Literary fiction is a difficult thing to define.   I’m fairly sure I know what the fiction bit means but after that I start to fight shy of anything concrete.  On Wednesday it seemed to mean ‘books that you have to work really hard to understand and even then will only appreciate if you are very very clever indeed’.  I tried to think of books that I would describe as literary fiction in the hope that I would find a common thread linking them which would offer enlightenment.  My first thought was just about anything by Colm Tóibín, Jim Crace or Julian Barnes.  When I read works by these authors I have a sense that every word on the page has been carefully weighted to account for what it adds to the novel as a whole before being allowed to stand.  There is a rhythm to their writing, whether it is at the level of the sentence, the chapter or the entire book. I come away from a first read blown away, but knowing that there will be more to gain from a second, third or even fourth read.  Crucially, I look forward to subsequent readings.  I add that last thought because I suspect that my reading group colleague would argue that all that was true of her choice of book. The important difference for me being that I had to fight my way through it the first time and wouldn’t go back to it if I was paid.

I suspect that for some people literary fiction is defined in a negative way in as much as they would see it as that which is not genre fiction.  Now that, I think, really does smack of literary snobbery.  I will fight anyone who argues that Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction is not literary or what about P D James’ crime fiction, especially from her middle period.  I first came across Katharine Kerr’s fantasy novels when one of them was included in a corpus a friend was working with and the quality of the writing stood out so strongly against the other data that we just had to break protocol and find out what it was she was reading.

So, what is literary fiction?  If it is fiction I have to fight in order to even begin to understand it, then I will gladly admit to not being clever enough and let it pass me by.

Emergency Poet

I was going to report on how the Dickens course is going, but this post is long enough as it is.  I will come back to that midweek, perhaps.  I did just want to say, however, that those of you who commented on my entry about Deborah Alma, the Emergency Poet might like to know that Deborah herself came by and left a thank you message in response to your enthusiasm for what she is doing. You can see what she has to say here.

26 thoughts on “Sunday Round-Up

  1. I know I like literary fiction generally but like anything else not everything within that category would suit me. It is hard to categorise though and there can be a lot of snobbery around the term. I think you have defined it exactly. I tend to think that Literary fiction is about really good writing, beautiful language and wordsmithery. Narratives often (though not always) character driven rather than plot driven.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, Ali and that it is to do with the quality of the writing but even then I think you can get writing that might be analysed as being beautiful but which is so dense as to defeat a great many readers. I think there has to be an element of accessibility in there as well.

  2. Totally agree with Ali, above, and with your definition. It also drives me crazy that books get defined as “genre fiction” when to me they clearly aren’t, just because they share some vague similarities: Mantel’s novels are a case in point. I would call those literary fiction without hesitation, but then I think that probably reveals that that sort of snobbery, much though I hate it, is at least a little bit ingrained in me! I do think that good “genre” novels tend to stand out from the crowd of awful genre novels, but then, there are plenty of awful litfic novels too. Maybe such books ought to be considered both genre and litfic. Ursula K. LeGuin is another good example: incredible writer, and also definitely a genre writer.

    1. Yes, Elle, I hadn’t thought about Le Guin, but you’re absolutely right about her. And that raises another question to do with another difficult term ‘Children’s Literature’. Can books written for children be considered literature and is it possible to classify them as literary? If they are ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’ definitely yes.

  3. Thanks, Alex I really enjoyed your post. I’ve often wondered about the definition of ‘literary fiction’ and decided that it was too difficult for me to bother thinking about it. All the genres can be composed of many different types anyway and I know that crime fiction in some circles is most definitely not included in literary fiction and the distinction between historical fiction and historical romance is also hard to define. I used to struggle over deciding which genre a book belonged to and then realised it may matter to publishers, but it doesn’t really matter to me.

  4. I’m very grateful for the hour today – as it means my jetlag is one hour less arriving home from hols in NY this morning! I took four books with me, but read 100 pages only I was so tired after each day’s sight-seeing.
    On Lit Fic, I like Ali’s definition. I have always viewed it as a marketing term meaning non-mass-market fiction rather than genre/non-genre, however that is still snobbish. I don’t think I use the term any more (although I’m probably guilty of describing a challenging read as ‘unashamedly literary’ sometimes 😉 )

    1. It isn’t a term that I would use, either Annabel, which is why I struggle to define what is meant by it. Unfortunately for some people it appears to be important to their identity as readers.

  5. I tend to avoid the term literary fiction these days because it’s so often used as a sort of status marker, setting “literary” books above “genre” books, as if a book is better just because it doesn’t involve spaceships or crime solving or whatever. And a book doesn’t have to be difficult or inaccessible to be literary.

    When I do use it, I think of it less as a type of book as a quality of a book, much like what Ali describes. It’s a book more focused on the writing than the plotting. And, to me, books can be both in a genre and be literary. I’d call Wolf Hall both historical fiction and literary fiction. It’s silly to exclude it from either category.

    1. Exactly, Teresa. And there are some books that can focus on the writing with no detriment to the plotting. The only thing I would call them are books that I want to read.

  6. Good question. One of the first books I read about how to write was aimed at genre writers, but author was constantly reminding us that the points could also be used in literary fiction. I think about that point a lot. I’m not so hung up about wordsmithery, as I am sometimes suspicious that a glut of words can be used to cover up a lack of ideas. Maybe I would say that where genre fiction sets us up for an action/suspense pay off, literary fiction aims to set the reader up for an emotional/philosophical pay off.

      1. Thanks! Although thinking further, I have ignored chick lit, which is very much up for the emotional pay off. So maybe I would redefine literary fiction as aiming to have a philosophical pay off, with secondary elements of the emotional and the suspenseful.

  7. I dislike the term in general though I’m sure if you went back through my reviews you’d find me using it. I think I prefer on the whole not to put books into categories. But obviously if something is beautifully written (style, language etc) or interestingly constructed, or profoundly thought-provoking, it probably qualifies. Anyway, you did well to give up on that one — I like the yardstick about cleaning the kitchen!

    1. Cleaning the kitchen is something I avoid as for as long as possible, Harriet. When I find myself yearning to be doing it there has to be something very radically wrong!

  8. I really dislike the labelling of books into any kind of genre as it’s so limiting in the end. My basic credo is to read what I enjoy and it might be a classic, it might be an Agatha Christie or anything in the spectrum of books inbetween. The main thing is to love the experience and if your fellow book club member is going to be that sniffy about people not liking *her* book, that’s her problem not yours!

  9. I’ve come to use the term “literary” as an adjective – like “literary crime” or “literary sci-fi.” Sometimes a book has precious little to offer other than literary value – interesting structure, lively, appropriate metaphors and other tropes, distinct language, thought-proking themes, etc. And this literary quality is usually wrapped around some character development scheme and ends up being, as far as I’m concerned, “contemporary fiction” – or “classic fiction” maybe – or “20th century fiction.” I could use “general fiction,” I suppose. A novel with neither genre (meaning category or type of story-line, NOT formula!) nor literary value (see above) is not much of a novel, imo. But a book with both some kind of genre – category of story-liine) and literary value can be a marvel.

    For me to simply say I enjoy “literary fiction” is kind of meaningless, imo. It’s probably more accurate to say I appreciate a good literary touch to the novels I read. Your friend is probably defending her enjoyment of the literary aspects of whatever it is your group read by making it into a whole category or something. From what you say. here seems to be little else to the book (and I’ve read books like that.)

    On my blog I recently used “literary dystopian,” “literary crime,” “literary fantasy,” “literary romance/erotica” and even “literary horror.” – lol – but they really are. Only one, Nora Webster (Colm Toibin), in the last month or so – 15 books? – couldn’t fit anything I thought up, so i gave it a “contemporary fiction,” label. – (Nora Webster is based on autobiography so it can’t quite be historical fiction.) I suppose I could have used “literary relationship.” (lol!)

    Well – I over-wrote again – “categorizing” books is sometimes tough but if you can’t distinguish Margaret Atwood (literary dystopia) from Marlon James (literary crime) or Colm Toibin (literary general fiction) maybe you ought to read more. ?

    1. I think if I had to categorise ‘Nora Webster’ it would simply be as one of the greatest books I had ever read, Becky. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

      1. Yes, I enjoyed Nora Webster very much – a wonderful book. 🙂 And also wonderful and along the same lines are The Green Road (Anne Enright) and A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler). Those three are general contemporary fiction and they all have very nice literary-type qualities. And they’re not dense – and they’re not overwhelmingly literary which is to take away from the story I think and then what is the point of a novel?

        (I am dying to know what your group read.)

  10. My plans for the extra hour also went a bit awry. I’d meant to spend the time reading Edna O’Brien’s Little Red Shoes but the Christmas cake baking session took far longer than expected. And then there was all the cleaning up afterwards…..Still I’m sure I’ll appreciate all the effort come December.

    Now then, to your question re literary fiction… I have no problem with someone using the term literary fiction except when they are doing so merely to make a point that they are somehow more of an elevated, cultured reader than someone who reads say, crime fiction. It’s hard to define in any precise way; I suppose I just think of it as a way of highlighting books that have a rather thoughtful, reflective aspect where you get to discover the inner lives of the characters not so much by what they do but what they think and say. Which is why for me, they stand up to more than one reading.

    1. Why can’t crime novels be literary? – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is certainly a crime novel, but it’s literary enough to win the Booker Prize this year. Or there’s Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura about a criminal in Tokyo.

      Literary is not a genre – it’s about the techniques and style of a novel – like gourmet isn’t a kind of food, it’s a kind of cooking. – I want some turkey stuffing – will it be formula by-the-bag? or gourmet – with special bread, spinach and shitakes? Literary is to the novel as gourmet is to food.

      I think it’s a tough call to write literary crime because too much literary and it spoils the plot while too much plot messes with the literary. The author has to know just how to advance the suspense without getting bogged down in his own literary voice.

      Moraltiy Play by Barry Unsworth has a murder at its center and it’s even a who-done-it but that has some really outstanding literary interest. Shoot, Crime and Punishment is a crime novel – it’s just not a who-done-it and certainly not “formula” like Michael Connelley or someone. And Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is at least somewhat literary.

      Newer literary crime: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, The Paying Guests by Sara Waters, The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, and a few years ago there was The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (brilliant). The novels of Thomas Cook are said to be quite literary author and those of Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) definitely are. And wasn’t George and Arthur by Julian Barnes a rather literary crime novel?

      – Of course the definition of “literary” is kinda subjective by nature – formula fiction, no matter the genre, will never cut it, though.

  11. Wow, sounds like the group meeting was kind of bumpy. I consider literary fiction a genre and like all genres, the edges get blurry, but it is generally useful in describing a type of fiction and what one can expect from it. I consider the authors you list writers of literary fiction. Literary fiction doesn’t mean super crazy avant garde or really hard fiction though it can be both of those. They tend to have a certain quality of language and style, a focus more on character and ideas than something like commercial fiction, I could go on but in general, I think of literary fiction of being deeper and more thoughtful than say Dan Patterson book.

    1. I think the problem last Wednesday was that the term was being used to mean super crazy avant garde and really hard, Stefanie and as you say, that isn’t really a helpful set of criteria.

  12. I was talking to a student today about the difference between a successful 18th-century satire, which we most often call “literature,” and an unsuccessful one, which we call “that broadsheet that got him clapped in gaol for libel.”
    So there’s that claim–that anything “literary” is going to last past the century it’s written in. Doesn’t always apply to the crazy avante garde texts.

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