3.08.2006

Literary Couture

Dear Miss Snark,

I pen this with much fear and trembling, but what exactly is "literary fiction"? I've been hearing about it, reading about it, I think I've even been reading some of it. Nonetheless I remain confused. So far this is the info I have gathered.

Literary fiction contains beautiful/fancy writing that may not sell well but is sure to win numerous awards. It has been accused of being plot less and often features a tear conjuring protagonist who dies, is dead already, or is abused throughout the work until she is finally forgotten/abandoned by the known world. It seems to be held on a pedestal over genre fiction, inducing one agent to declare that her authors wrote literary fantasy. I know for sure that my best friend would love it, but I'm not sure what it is. Does literary=good writing?



Literary fiction is shorthand so agents and editors know what a novel's audience is. It's used primarily to separate more commercial titles from other, ie literary, titles.

Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore write literary fiction.

Literary non fiction is what John McPhee writes, what Melissa Fae Green writes, what Mark Kurlansky writes, what Simon Winchester writes.

And I'll hold Michael Connolly, James Lee Burke, Frederick Busch, Laurie King and Sara Paretsky up against anyone in the "literary fiction" category even if what they write is shelved as "crime fiction/mystery".

Go into any bookstore and I challenge you to find "literary fiction" as s shelf category. It's either genres or "literature".

Commercial fiction is supposed to sell. No one cares if it doesn't get reviewed.
Literary fiction is like haute couture; real people may not buy it but it's what's featured in the pages of the New York Times and defines your line.

20 comments:

Jane said...

I did not know that! Thank goodness you asked.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Miss Snark! Just have to rave about Connolly and Paretsky! I'm a total nut about Paretsky ... she makes Chicago so real that I feel I've been there! I've learned so much about writing from reading her books ... especially that I dare not try to write suspense/thrillers/crime novels, b/c they'll come off as a wannabe. She (and all the others you list) has set the bar too high for other writers, though ... I judge all crime writers by that standard, and many fall fall short. An exception to those who fall short would have to be Tess Gerritsen ... she makes Boston come alive in much the same way that Paretsky does Chicago ...

Mark said...

"Literary non fiction is what John McPhee writes, what Melissa Fae Green writes, what Mark Kurlansky writes, what Simon Winchester writes."


Bravo. It is also what I write. I've been studying McPhee since the'70s. I wouldn't say I've equalled his work by any stretch, but he's been the teacher all along. That's the model, but like the master, the stories are the ones I found and reconstructed. I met Kurlansky at the LA Times Book Festival.

Anonymous said...

As a reader I would expect
"literary fiction" to be about character, and development of said character, with psychological insights, and about challenging ideas - all of it well written.
"Genre fiction," I would expect to be about more easily recognizable characters ( sense of depth being provided by reader recognition, ) comfort zone ideas, the challenge being about guessing how the plot works out - all of it well written.

Richard Lewis said...

Paretsky? A literary writer like Marilynne Robinson? Egads. Paretsky must have really changed from her early style, which I read years ago. And enjoyed, don't get me wrong, but definitely genre, although not quite as genre as Grafton (imo)

Now James Lee Burke, amen and hallelujah and pass the gumbo.

Rhonda Stapleton said...

Good answer - thanks, Miss Snark!

Anonymous said...

Well, I have to somewhat disagree with your definition, Miss Snark.

What sets "literary fiction" apart is the fact it has multiple layers of meaning. In commercial fiction, most of the story lies on the surface. In literary fiction, the story is not contained solely in the plotline.

"Literary fiction" isn't defined by the flowery writing or the character-centeredness or the "lack of plot." Literary fiction is defined by the quality of having to be gently teased apart in order to understand the story's message/meaning. As Vladimir Nabokov put it: "My stories are like elegant puzzles waiting to be solved."

And it's this quality that makes me love literary fiction.

Anonymous said...

This may help...

http://www.davidlubar.com/litfic.html

Reggie said...

Who gets the larger advance - literary writers, who aren't money machines but 'define the line', or genre writers who reel in the readers and the dough?

a writer said...

And that's why I think some of what is being published under the aegis of "literary fiction" these days is crap. The writers THINK they are Nabokovs, giving us elegant puzzles, but really they are just being obscure for obscurity's sake and wallowing in their own self-importance. And there are plenty of things being published as "genre fiction" which are complex and multi-layered and, in the future, will be remembered as the great works of art of our day. Some will not, of course, but what marketing departments decide today is "literary" or not is a passing fancy. What really matters is how well the piece is going to last, and how many layers are divined by the readership.

Farenheit 451 was published as genre sf.

Lisa Hunter said...

My definition of literary fiction is a book that's better the second time you read it.

For example, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was a thriller, but it holds up to multiple readings. It's an astounding meditation on the nature of good and evil, and the struggle between duty and conscience. Many outwardly similar books (even some by the same author) have nothing but a who-done-it plot, and are unreadable once you know the ending.

dink said...

ha! A clue for the clueless. I've learned I'm not a real person (I suspected as much).

I'm always looking for writers to try --thanks for the list!

Anonymous said...

I've read a lot of both and feel that the word 'literary' can be applied to numerous books both in and out of genre. JRR Tolkien's LOTR series holds up against Hemingway any day for quality of work, layers of meaning, symbolism, and sheer interest. And much of the 'literary fiction' I've read is pretty much an exercise in how far the writer can stretch his/her ego...there's usually very little storyline that is of even remote interest. Amy Tan is one good current exception, however. She holds up in both story and character.

Tina W said...

This discussion reminds me of a recent quote concerning the Oscar slate this year: "Quality is becoming a genre."

Anonymous said...

Tina, I think in this case the reverse applies more. Genre is being published with more quality.

J. Carson Black said...

Don't forget Dennis Lehane!

Alex said...

Literary fiction has become a genre too, with all the same stock elements as all of the other genres. Just look at the writing in the New Yorker, or in Best American Short Stories, or in Tin House. Good fiction is good fiction. "Literary" is basically a short way of saying "not mystery, SF/F, horror, romance, etc."

Bernita said...

I'm inclined to agree with Lisa and a writer, but sadly, that's not the point here.
It's a packaging term, and it escapes me.
Frequently.

jta said...

A quick ID method:

literary = fiction that doesn't immediately lend itself to presentation on the screen, without adaptation, shaping etc.

genre = fiction a filmmaker can basically "play as it lays."

The distinctions are issues of character and plot rather than good v. bad--the reasons "Crime and Punishment" doesn't work as a movie and "Fahrenheit 451" does. You know it when you see it.

Anonymous said...

jta, I have to disagree.
The French Lieutenant's Woman = literary fiction & great film - that's just the first which comes to mind

It's a really tough one, but I know it when I read it and you don't have to be unreal to read it.

M