Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What the hell is Literary Fiction?

This question comes up with regularity on AW, and as we all know, AW is my personal frame of reference for all of reality. Invariably, everybody weighs in on the subject, and virtually invariably, the threads eventually devolve into this script:

(warning: this post is long.)

FantasyWriter: So what you're all saying is that literary fiction is somehow better than that "low-brow" genre fiction.

AllLiteraryWritersInConcert: No, that's not what we're saying at all. Where did you get that from?

ParanormalRomanceWriter: I've read some literary fiction and all it was to me was a bunch of snobbish masturbation, and the writer trying too hard to be smarter than the reader.

ALWIC: Read some better lit fic. There are poor writers in every genre. Also, stop calling us snobs, for the love of god. That's a way dead horse already.

Sci-fiWriter: My extraordinarily heavy sarcasm will fly right over your head as I sneakily imply that it's totally not fair how some literary authors win prestigious awards.

SarcasticForumRegular: *posts smiley eating popcorn*

ALWIC: Uh, you guys have the Hugo and the Nebula. Also, most of us would really enjoy the opportunities that genre fiction present for series and an enormous backlist, which makes you more money in the long run than any advance or literary award.

RandomWriter: Well, it's pretty obvious that literary writers are only in it to show off, because they are snobs. I despise literary fiction and I will never read it. That kind of pointless wankery is so far below me and I shall never abase myself. Did I mention I think you all are snobs?


The net result is that few useful or productive discussions defining literary fiction ever take place. And maybe that's a good thing, because I'm not sure it's really possible to define it.

Many people wiser and with better credentials than mine have said that it's easier to tell what Lit is not than what it is. So what isn't it?

Well, it's not especially concerned with big plots. Taut thrillers are not generally described as "literary." Quest fantasies are not usually literary.

It's not about an expected setup with a gratifying conclusion. Romances, where boy meets girl, obstacle prevents love from forming, obstacle is overcome, and happily-ever-after occurs, are not literary fiction.

It's often said that literary fiction is about character development and internal character arc, and I would tend to agree with this in the general sense, but there are other types of books that also deal with these structures but are not literary fiction. Chick lit/gossip fiction, for example, is usually about a character's internal or emotional struggles, but is not typically considered literary. I'm not sure why this is. I suspect it's for two reasons. First, the voice in chick lit tends to be plucky and assertive (even if the main character doesn't always behave that way with other characters). Literary fiction seldom has a wholly plucky main character. When an unusual amount of pluck is evident, there is usually some juxtaposed tragic element. In my observation, at any rate. I have not read every literary novel out there by a long shot, my friends.

Second, the problems main characters in chick lit face tend to be relatively light, when compared with the heavier conflicts faced by the MCs in literary fiction. In gossip fiction, a happy or at least a pleasant ending is virtually guaranteed, while in literary fiction endings can be significantly darker. A truly awful (but still plausible and satisfying) ending can only be a possibility when a high-stakes conflict is faced. If your book is about reconciling with your drunk bridesmaid after she ruins your wedding, how sharp a stake can your main character really be facing? If your book is about keeping your family from starving to death during the Great Depression, the stakes are a tad higher. So literary fiction is not about generally light-hearted plots.

Literary fiction is almost never simplistic in style. That's not to say that there is not a very large sampling of spare lit out there. Hemingway is just one example of many. His writing is marvelously trimmed but the moods and concepts in his stories and novels are far from simple. There is a complexity underlying his work that is obvious to any reader. Typically the complexity of a literary work manifests itself not only in its plot or theme but also in its style; we have all heard literary prose described variously as "embellished," "intricate," "flowery," "experimental," and even "purple," but that all depends on opinion, of course. It does tend to deal strongly with imagery, with atmosphere, and with mood, and I believe that is largely because its character-focused story arcs tend to occur deep in the realm of sensation and emotion. The style follows the structure.

The thing about literary fiction is that it's got no real home. With fuzzy boundaries like these, it can drift all over the place -- and it does. You will find strong literary elements in science fiction, in fantasy, in mainstream fiction (whatever THAT means), and in romance. Anywhere you can think to look, you will eventually bump into a heavily literary work that still sits neatly within the bounds of some genre or other.

Literary fiction is transient. It is more about feeling than plot. It is more about mood than structure. It is more about character change than character adventure. It's the Flying Dutchman of the genres, forever condemned to sail the turbulent seas beyond the safe ports of backlists and steady writing careers. Don't call snobbery on those poor souls doomed to pace its ill-defined decks. We yearn for the harbors, but we're serving a penance. We loved the sound and texture of language too much, and now we're confined to our drifting curse, always just beyond the reach of steady land.


  1. Soooo, my character-driven piece where the main characters change with heavier conflicts and juxtaposed tragic elements is literary and not science fiction! Awesome! (It's actually very science fiction, but it has those literary elements and more.) And that is the interesting quandary with literary fiction. Just like horror, there is no real quantifiable element(s) one can point to as a reference to genre. It's more of a gut thing, which seems to go at odds with how we deal with genres normally. Good post.

    Oh, and although Hemingway is a giant of literary fiction, I've always personally considered him more of a horror writer. Read some of his stories with that in mind and tell me I'm not entirely crazy.

  2. I find a lot of literary stuff in sci-fi, which is great because I love both. Tons. I think lit may bleed into sci-fi more than it does with any other clearly defined genre. Horror would have to take a close second place on that list for me. I guess that's because of the wide acceptance of "weirdness" and experimentation in sci-fi and horror than in any other genre.

    I haven't re-read any Hemingway for a long time, but I will definitely check it out and try to put on my horror goggles when I do. I am trying to restrict my fiction reading for the next 12 months to Pulitzer, Booker, and NBCCA winners as a form of "market research," I guess you could call it. George R. R. Martin is seriously messing with those plans, though. Said Libbie, donning her headphones and setting off on her five-mile walk with A Storm of Swords playing in her ears.

  3. You guys get called snobs, we (writers of the dirty variety of romance) get called pornographers (spoken with a wrinkled nose and disgusted tone), and other genre writers are called low-brow. It would be nice if all writers would quit looking down on other writers based solely on their genre. There's a reason I steer WAAAAAY clear of those discussions. My desk has enough forehead-shaped dents in it.

  4. Please allow my +3 Axe of Taut Writing to cut through here. The purpose of a novel is to entertain. Different books have different means of doing this. Thrillers, Suspense, Romance are all genres named for a particular feeling evoked in the reader. Adventure, Erotica and all the others pretty much do what they say on the tin.

    Literary seeks to entertain on the basis of craftsmanship. That's why it's seen as a 'higher' art than genre, because it can't be done successfully without a great deal of technical skill. This doesn't mean a genre writer can't have technical skill, just as Jimi Hendrix could be a virtuoso in a lowbrow genre. But there are also plenty of Ringo Starrs and Clive Cusslers who are simply the best at giving the people what they want.

  5. Libbie - I guess I never really thought about science fiction being so closely linked to literary, but it makes sense. After all, one of the main points that make a story science fiction is the issue of morality and humanity as seen in the "man vs. machine" concept.

    Richard - the problem with that is all writing is supposed to have a certain craftsmanship to it. Only the finely crafted are good enough to make it, or at least that's the way it is in theory. Genre fiction relies strongly on emotion and plot in addition to craftsmanship. Somehow people seem to view that as "cheating", and that involving emotion or plot somehow lessens the craftsmanship of the work. That's why literary fiction is given that stigma. Believe me, I've seen my share of literary fiction that didn't live up to the craftsmanship billing, and a ton of genre fiction that did. It all depends on the writer.

  6. Hi, Richard

    Oh, I agree that the purpose of a novel is to entertain. And I also agree with Jonathan that genre fiction requires just as much skill to write as literary fiction. It typically relies on a different skillset, but it's not a lesser one by any means.

    I've seen plenty of severely disappointing literary works. (But I also believe that lit writers tend to be way harsher with each other than they are with writers in other genres, and harsher with each other than other genre writers are on each other, if that makes sense.)

    I am a big sci-fi nut and I really nerd out badly over certain fantasy. Actually, just George R. R. Martin, whose numerous strengths so astound me that I rank him up on my list of Best Authors Ever, alongside Vladimir Nabokov and Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.

    I only partially agree with you that literary writing depends on craftsmanship to entertain. I think that statement could be more specific, because awesome plots and world-building and speculative questions as seen in many genres are a very special craftsmanship all their own. I think the special craftsmanship of literary fiction is an acute understanding of unpleasant emotions (as that's almost always where literary fiction focuses) as well as a willingness to be riskier with language than you'll usually see in other genres.

    I think maybe it takes a weird reader to be entertained by poking about among humanity's less-than-awesome aspects and/or wooey-woo linguistics, but still, the purpose of all fiction is to entertain.

  7. Ah, writers and words! I'm pretty sure we're all agreeing with each other. When I say literary relies on craftsmanship I mean the crafting of the words themselves and nothing else.

    How about this: literary can be a block of wood, tooled and polished and worthy of hanging on a wall just to look at. It is ars gratia artis.

    Genre can be wood made into an object--a chair, a desk, a picture frame. The craftsmanship must be 'good enough' for the function of the piece. Here the design is what's important--how successfully the builder executes the 'genre' of that particular piece of wood.

    A useful object can also have outstanding, hang-on-the-wall-for-its-own-sake craftsmanship.
    A true masterpiece of the decorative arts is a thing to behold. But sometimes all I want is a well-designed chair that I'm not too worried about scratching.

  8. Good analogy. I'm with you there.

  9. So Richard, with your analogy, is this literary or genre? http://www.notcot.com/images/2011/01/octochair1.jpg

    Heh, kinda fooling with you there! Good analogy, though. I'd even take that a step further and say that often the greatest works in either category tend to transcend the category. Great genre pieces tend to leave us in awe of the human spirit, morality, or whatever else the focus of the book is, and great literary pieces tend to drag us along with a can't-put-down plot and tension to the climax of a really great story. Great pieces of either type are like King Ludwig's bed in the Neuschwanstein Castle. 20 years of painstaking fine wood crafting, but the crazy bastard still slept on it every night.

    One thing I have noticed is that a lot of the classic writers are lumped into literary, no matter if they might be churning out genre pieces in today's day and age. Some of the horror writers come to mind as especially good examples. Wouldn't much of what Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote considered to be horror nowadays? How about Jane Austen? Isn't she the chick lit author of her time? Both are considered literary, at least from what I've seen.

    More debate on the subject than you expected, eh, Libbie?

  10. I'm just relieved there's still activity here. Keeps me from having to think up another blog post when I'd rather be working on the book.

    I do take umbrage at all classics being lumped into literary fiction. Many of them are not the same in quality (quality as in characteristics, not as in relative merit.)

  11. I disagree that the purpose of all fiction is (simply) to entertain. Some stories are just not all that entertaining/enjoyable to read, but nevertheless, there's something important about them, something important which they manage to tap into. While I think all kinds of stories can tap into this obscure quantity (genre, literary, whatever), I think literary fiction's typical lack of reliance on plot as a formula by which to tell a story allows for the focus of the story to be about something more than just the events of the story themselves, if that makes sense. Literary fiction also tends to focus on simpler things, and the only way to make reading about a quiet TV dinner shared by an old couple worthwhile is to make that scene about more than just having dinner. I don't think there's that same imperative at play if you're writing a battle scene, for example, or describing court intrigue.

    This is of course something of a stereotype, but generally speaking, the genre writers I've spoken to are typically interested first and foremost in entertaining, in telling a good story. Now, I don't know many literary writers so I won't speak for them, but for me, I'm most interested whatever drives me to write the kind of story I end up writing. And I think the best books, regardless of who considers them what, are those which communicate not just the story, but a feeling of why the story is worth telling in the first place, why it is important, why it *matters.*

    Just my honest thoughts on the matter.

  12. Literary fiction has been described by Charles Baxter as a "dark reflecting pool" in which readers can see themselves with penetrating clarity or revealing distortion. Horror comes from the pointed feeling of being revealed in some way to oneself. To me, whatever genre the work exists in, the identifying element of literary valor is a 'mirror trick,' which reveals something of collective truth that the reader identifies as reality.

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  14. I would agree with that definition to an extent (though I don't think it has to necessarily be revealing about oneself so much as about one's world.) And the difficulty that I think any genre work has to contend with if it attempts to be revealing of our collective reality in some pointed/profound way is that the whole point of genre fiction, whether it is fantasy/science fiction, a romantic comedy or a thriller or what-have-you, is usually to escape. To do the things you cannot do. To explore the galaxy. To save the world. To meet your perfect match. To hit it off with a sparkly vampire.

    My point is not that genre and literary cannot meet. Some of the works I admire most are those which combine fantasy with literary or science fiction with literary, and I think to do this well requires an extraordinary level of talent. The reason why I think this is so difficult is that escapism is on one end of the spectrum, and being revealing about our condition/the world we live in is on a different end of that same spectrum. They are at odds with one another. Perhaps they are even opposites.

    I think much of the conflict between literary and genre is a conflict between a literature that seeks to escape and a literature that seeks to stay right where we are. I don't think there is an answer for which is better, but I do believe that the literature that seeks to stay right where we are can be more revealing to us. And as for literature that does a little of both? That grounds us, while also using speculative elements, not as a means of escape, but as a means of seeking further revelations about our condition/our world? Perhaps this hybrid literature is the most ambitious of all (Off the top of my head I'm thinking Never Let Me Go, and 100 Years of Solitude, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.)

  15. Emil -- I am a reader and a writer of literary fiction and I feel strongly that I want my own work to mean something to the world. I want to leave behind some body of work that makes a difference in whatever way I can. I aspire to write something more lasting and impactful and meaningful than sparkly vampires.

    Still, I do think that fiction needs to entertain. It is entirely possible for a highbrow work with deep social meaning to entertain. And it should entertain. "Entertainment" doesn't have to mean tight pacing, tense plots, explosions, flying fists, steamy sex, boobs, and fart jokes. What entertains one person doesn't entertain another. I am entertained by interesting character arcs, emotional dilemmas, interesting use of language, and twisty structure that I haven't seen before. In short, the typical "deep" literary work is something I find genuinely entertaining. I'd rather read that kind of thing than any urban fantasy or mystery. I find it much more fun to explore character and language than the Temple of Doom.

    Perhaps what I should have said is that all fiction needs to be enjoyable. That is a more ambiguous word that illustrates more firmly that what one person enjoys (is entertained by) may not be what another person enjoys.

    Cheers! :)