The Literary Fiction Conundrum

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CarolMS

Full Member
Sep 23, 2022
Vancouver WA USA
Okay, guys, you have a choice: bear with me, or ignore me. I tend to be wordy, and editing takes me much longer than writing, so, well, this is what you get. But nevertheless, I think you'll perhaps find this topic interesting, and trust many of you might have more to add.

I've noticed in several of our Huddle meetings that people have very different ideas about what is meant by "literary fiction," including strong opinions that are sometimes quite negative. I get it. Frankly, I think it's a confusing subject. At least I know I have been quite confused about it, though less so now than in the past. But because I was having trouble figuring out where my novel fit in the vast and seemingly shape-shifting realm of literature genres, I did my usual thing and read a whole bunch of articles on the subject by editors, agents and authors. While doing so didn't completely cure my confusion--the whole business is like a moving target, after all--it helped.

And I think it's important. Being informed about how the different categories are constructed or perceived helps us to not only categorize our own novels but also give more appropriate feedback when doing critiques of others' work. It also helps us filter out feedback that is well-meant but doesn't quite fit our projects. When poorly informed, it's easy to be led down rabbit holes of mistaken edits and revisions.

With this in mind, I've attached one of the first posts I did on my blog MarttaKarol.com when I started it in 2014 (soon after I started writing my novel). The post is about the definition of literary fiction. (If you look at my blog, please be aware, I've hardly posted anything for several years and the site needs a huge remodel--back in 2014, I just didn't really know what to do with it [and I'd only been working on my novel for a year or two]. Now I have more, hopefully better, ideas, but too little time to apply them. Sigh. So much work to do!)

I've also included some graphic representations of the categories, which you can see at the end of the attached document. As was so with the opinions expressed in the articles I read, I don't always agree with them, and suspect you won't either.

Finally, you might also take a look at the Editor's Reviews for some novels designated a "literary" on Amazon's website. I just took a look at Hernan Diaz' new novel Trust, for example, and read through a long series of recommendation/review "blurbs" (as term is used in U.S. vs. the UK) and by the end of doing so I felt as though I'd taken a workshop in what literary fiction is. Really! Then I read the sample first pages and found them a somewhat challenging read--beautifully constructed but very dense prose and what felt like a lot of backstory--so that if I hadn't read the reviews, I'd not know how to approach the book and might put it down. Apparently there are several big and profound shifts in the book--the first, at about 100 pages--which challenge readers in fairly profound ways, and there's a reason why it won the Pulitzer and all those accolades. But I'm sure it's not for everyone. Nor should it be. That's why we have so many fiction genres to choose from!

Okay, that's it for my "food for thought" contribution.

--CarolMS
 

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  • LITERARY FICTION per CarolMS.pdf
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I think it's much more complicated than that, and I think it can be very misleading to box things up as either literary or genre. Maggie O'Farrell, for instance, can't seem to get past a literary prize without at least being shortlisted, but her fantastic writing also falls into genres e.g. Hamnet is definitely historical fiction; This must be the Place is contemporary fiction. Erin Morgenstern writes gorgeous lyrical prose within the Fantasy genre. Deborah Kerr's Hot Milk is labelled as literary but could also be regarded as falling into the coming-of-age spectrum. Deborah Kerr's writing is slow-paced, but Maggie O'Farrell's is not, imo.

Many Pop-ups who say they are literary are really naval gazing or writing purple prose or displaying that they have swallowed a thesaurus. That is not literary fiction. To really get what literary fiction is, I think you have to read a lot of both literary and non-literary in different genres.

Genres help us decide what we'd like to read (and I include experimental fiction as a genre). They can be plot-led or very much character-led. They can be literary or non-literary, and both can be very high quality prose. Just different.
 
I don't attend huddles (it's 0300 at my time of the world, and sleep is important, too), but when it comes to a discussion like this, who can resist? Not I.

Literary - it's a BISAC code that defines the publication as literary (FIC019000 - for fiction, literary and literary fiction). Anything else is the interpretation of the reader/writer/audience.
In terms of sales (I'll use 'zon), most (a very defined number, but not in this case, as books published can have several categories) books come under Literature & Fiction, and then one other category (sometimes more, but that's a longer story). Which means, most sales of books include at least one number in the column for Literature & Fiction, and one sale in at least one other category. Very few published books include that specific BISAC code (you can search for it, but the results are a bit dubious).
Defining the work as Literary (note the capital letter of a proper noun) is up to the people who tout the book (or profess to have read it), and it's not usually the writer - they just tell the story to get it out of their head. Most newish writers dream that their work can be both literary and saleable, and that by using that word, it will make them sound more real as a writer.
So, what is literary, in terms of an actual story?
I found one I've almost read. Yes, Ulysses is literary (it's in the BISAC code of the publisher) - and that (should ensure) is a warning that the reading is going to be dense and slow and it will twist your brain in some way. And this one still sells in reasonable numbers, but not many people can tell you what their understanding of it is unless they go to a site that discusses the 848 page tome. I haven't done that yet, but am considering it each time I go back in for another brain-numbing read.
Dennis Lehane has his works labelled as literary, but that's not how he sees it.

And that's my two cents worth of literary interpretation.
 
I think it's much more complicated than that, and I think it can be very misleading to box things up as either literary or genre. Maggie O'Farrell, for instance, can't seem to get past a literary prize without at least being shortlisted, but her fantastic writing also falls into genres e.g. Hamnet is definitely historical fiction; This must be the Place is contemporary fiction. Erin Morgenstern writes gorgeous lyrical prose within the Fantasy genre. Deborah Kerr's Hot Milk is labelled as literary but could also be regarded as falling into the coming-of-age spectrum. Deborah Kerr's writing is slow-paced, but Maggie O'Farrell's is not, imo.

Many Pop-ups who say they are literary are really naval gazing or writing purple prose or displaying that they have swallowed a thesaurus. That is not literary fiction. To really get what literary fiction is, I think you have to read a lot of both literary and non-literary in different genres.

Genres help us decide what we'd like to read (and I include experimental fiction as a genre). They can be plot-led or very much character-led. They can be literary or non-literary, and both can be very high quality prose. Just different.
You're right on, Hannah. It's not either/or, but rather both/and and more. There are superb examples of historical and I think every other genre, too, that should also be called literary, especially if we're focusing on the prose. But there are novels with not just exquisite prose but also other defining literary characteristics, such as deep and complex characterization or grand, even profound overarching themes in historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, sci-fi (I think of Portlander Ursula K. Le Guin) and no doubt every other genre category, too.

What I'm suggesting is that people need to get away from thinking it's just about the prose. As I said in my blog post, that is precisely NOT the only defining feature, but it is very often, I think quite naively, assumed to be. It's a bit like quality jazz; you can't improvise well until you know the melody and master musicianship. The purple prose enthusiasts you mention, about whom I much agree, haven't yet learned what that means; they're often beginners who don't realize they're beginners. (I've been guilty of some of that myself, especially in the parts of my novel written back in 2012-2014, when I began it, and cleaning it out is still one of the things on my revision to-do list.) A little (a lot?) more learning about craft and also better understanding how genres are defined (loosely, at least) helps. Thank goodness first drafts (3rd, 4th...6th?) aren't final drafts! Realizing that is so, of course, also has to be learned.

There are a lot of cross-genre novels, too. Mine is one of them, being a kind of coming-of-age story (a young woman's "late" sexual awakening), also classified as women's fiction (because the focus is a woman's emotional growth arc), with romantic suspense and psychological thriller elements (two key suspense-filled "brewing" relationships with men but both have traumatic ends, one a shameful mistake and firing from job and the other a man killed by an ex-lover stalking him, not exactly happy-ever-after endings), historical (1968-1971), and "upmarket" because it includes aspects of both "mainstream" and "literary" fiction (key characters' psychological/emotional factors drive the plot action, slower pacing, attention to prose, does not follow any tropes or standard genre "conventions," and portrays an overarching theme having to do with how individuals, from childhood on, develop--or fail to--the ability to have respectful, loving relationships including healthy sexual intimacy--a theme which speaks to the "Me, Too Movement," sexual abuse, etc, etc. and how society might create change in these areas). Such novels involve choosing the best options.

In the end, we just need to write the books we want to write and do the best job we can in doing so. And aren't genre labels more about shelving books in bookstores more than anything else? It seems we just need to be respectful of one another's "vision" for our novels. I think Litopia's stated approach to giving feedback promotes such supportive interaction. It's one of the things that drew me to the Colony.

--Carol
 
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I think it's much more complicated than that, and I think it can be very misleading to box things up as either literary or genre. Maggie O'Farrell, for instance, can't seem to get past a literary prize without at least being shortlisted, but her fantastic writing also falls into genres e.g. Hamnet is definitely historical fiction; This must be the Place is contemporary fiction. Erin Morgenstern writes gorgeous lyrical prose within the Fantasy genre. Deborah Kerr's Hot Milk is labelled as literary but could also be regarded as falling into the coming-of-age spectrum. Deborah Kerr's writing is slow-paced, but Maggie O'Farrell's is not, imo.

Many Pop-ups who say they are literary are really naval gazing or writing purple prose or displaying that they have swallowed a thesaurus. That is not literary fiction. To really get what literary fiction is, I think you have to read a lot of both literary and non-literary in different genres.

Genres help us decide what we'd like to read (and I include experimental fiction as a genre). They can be plot-led or very much character-led. They can be literary or non-literary, and both can be very high quality prose. Just different.
Good grief. I think I'm in an especially verbose mood today. I wish I'd just clearly said what's so: I agree with everything you said--and I wish I were as well-read as you (and some other Litopians)! Sigh. :)
 
I don't attend huddles (it's 0300 at my time of the world, and sleep is important, too), but when it comes to a discussion like this, who can resist? Not I.

Literary - it's a BISAC code that defines the publication as literary (FIC019000 - for fiction, literary and literary fiction). Anything else is the interpretation of the reader/writer/audience.
In terms of sales (I'll use 'zon), most (a very defined number, but not in this case, as books published can have several categories) books come under Literature & Fiction, and then one other category (sometimes more, but that's a longer story). Which means, most sales of books include at least one number in the column for Literature & Fiction, and one sale in at least one other category. Very few published books include that specific BISAC code (you can search for it, but the results are a bit dubious).
Defining the work as Literary (note the capital letter of a proper noun) is up to the people who tout the book (or profess to have read it), and it's not usually the writer - they just tell the story to get it out of their head. Most newish writers dream that their work can be both literary and saleable, and that by using that word, it will make them sound more real as a writer.
So, what is literary, in terms of an actual story?
I found one I've almost read. Yes, Ulysses is literary (it's in the BISAC code of the publisher) - and that (should ensure) is a warning that the reading is going to be dense and slow and it will twist your brain in some way. And this one still sells in reasonable numbers, but not many people can tell you what their understanding of it is unless they go to a site that discusses the 848 page tome. I haven't done that yet, but am considering it each time I go back in for another brain-numbing read.
Dennis Lehane has his works labelled as literary, but that's not how he sees it.

And that's my two cents worth of literary interpretation.
Interesting! And a very worthy two-cents worth it is!
 
Carol, thank you for this thoughtful post! I agree with everything said already, and although am neither as well-read as Hannah nor as 'sage' as Cage about the publishing business, I would add is that there is too often a tendency among writers to view literary vs commercial/genre fiction as a great divide. I like your graphics as they make it clear there is common ground, and even 'cross-over' with upmarket.
Personally, I have never been able to see Literary as a genre (almost seems like a contradiction in terms) but rather as a quality (which explains the eye-rolls when authors self-identify in that category). And as a reader, I love books that hit that sweet spot of compelling story combined with complex characters and deeper themes.
 
Today I write for Shakespeares audience. They are the ones who decide whether the work survives even one generation.

I started off writing poetry for the literary magazine crowd at uni. There you have to decide what is the flavour of the month and you have to demonstrate that you have dutifully followed the canon for what has been decided is "literary" by the current literati. When I was there the publish or perish tomes were written about male professors in pursuit of silly coeds to the chagrin of their long-suffering wives who stay for the same reason trophy wives stay with any powerful man. They have no talent of their own.


When I was told by another woman that the revered professor in charge of my uni's literary magazine had rejected my poetry tho everyone else had voted for it, I decided to transfer to the J school. I had refused to sleep with the revered prof. He'd told me to find a sugar daddy to pay my rent when I said I was working two jobs to pay for tuition. It was pretty clear who he had in mind.


At J school I met professionals who saw writing as a craft. I learned to appreciate readers and how to find a story. Shakespeare began as an itinerant actor playing spear carriers. He learned what made audiences gasp, cry, laugh and how to tell a story with emotion. I got that training as a reporter.


In the English dept I learned how to please the powers that decide what is "literature" in that tight knit university funded world. Being a reporter taught me how to read the zeitgeist of the larger world and offer an editor the story that will sell.


Maybe because I grew up under the poverty line and didn't see university as any kind of haven, I made the decision about who I wanted to write for. I'd rather be in the company of Nora Roberts than Joyce Carol Oates any day. The craic will be 90 instead of deconstructing whatever the literati has decided to make their shibboleth that month.

My conclusion is a working def of literary fiction. If you are writing to please a certain audience that has defined themselves as the gatekeepers of "literature" you will say you are writing literary fiction. If you are writing for Shakespeares audience-you won't.
 
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Good discussion point, Carol. I think the negativity you see and read around here is based on the classification, rather than the work. When I was studying fiction writing, character driven fiction was considered European, while plot driven was US. Those generalizations are, as most are, crap.
However, it's hard to get much deeper into literary fiction than those who've walked away with Nobel prizes for literature. Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Morrison, Lewis, Buck, all plot driven authors, and all included in the definition of literary. Their writing isn't so very different in being driven by a narrative arc than Hesse, Mann, Kipling, Solzhenitsyn, Golding, Grass, Camus, etc. As we all know, because we've all read them and often first under force but later for enjoyment, they produced some ripping good yarns. They all have arcs that lasso you in the beginning and haul you on through to the climax.
The definition of literary fiction, and your point, were probably best expressed in Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech: "Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat."
His notion that great literature has to speak to the eternal truths, that the arc has to MEAN something beyond the confines of the story. No one is disagreeing with that idea.
What Hannah was speaking to were writers who believe that the arc isn't what matters, it's the prose, and the meaning, etc. That sort of approach too often leads not just to purple, but purple and turgid. Writing is, after all, communication, and writing that fails to communicate is poor writing.
That foundation of meaning can exist in genre fiction, and often does in many genres. Dune, LOTR, Ender, in Sci-fi/fantasy, all have deep meanings. Even in the oft reviled Romance genre, the underlying meanings, love conquers all, all you need is love, boy/girl/you that butt look good, etc, have deeper meaning in life than we like to admit (okay, the last one may not).
So this is where balk at the literary fiction classification. While the BISAC stamp might be proof, many of us believe literary should be something earned, not labeled. Win a Pulitzer, a Booker, a Pen/Faulkner, etc, and literary is conferred on the work.
Label it as such and it's meaningless.
After all, joining you in writing coming of age genre: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, Little Women, and many, many more.
 
Carol, thank you for this thoughtful post! I agree with everything said already, and although am neither as well-read as Hannah nor as 'sage' as Cage about the publishing business, I would add is that there is too often a tendency among writers to view literary vs commercial/genre fiction as a great divide. I like your graphics as they make it clear there is common ground, and even 'cross-over' with upmarket.
Personally, I have never been able to see Literary as a genre (almost seems like a contradiction in terms) but rather as a quality (which explains the eye-rolls when authors self-identify in that category). And as a reader, I love books that hit that sweet spot of compelling story combined with complex characters and deeper themes.
I wish they'd come up with a better "label" than "literary fiction." Using the same word to name a genre as to describe the quality of craft is confusing.

Your sweet spot for novels to read rings my bells, too. :)
 
Today I write for Shakespeares audience. They are the ones who decide whether the work survives even one generation.

I started off writing poetry for the literary magazine crowd at uni. There you have to decide what is the flavour of the month and you have to demonstrate that you have dutifully followed the canon for what has been decided is "literary" by the current literati. When I was there the publish or perish tomes were written about male professors in pursuit of silly coeds to the chagrin of their long-suffering wives who stay for the same reason trophy wives stay with any powerful man. They have no talent of their own.


When I was told by another woman that the revered professor in charge of my uni's literary magazine had rejected my poetry tho everyone else had voted for it, I decided to transfer to the J school. I had refused to sleep with the revered prof. He'd told me to find a sugar daddy to pay my rent when I said I was working two jobs to pay for tuition. It was pretty clear who he had in mind.


At J school I met professionals who saw writing as a craft. I learned to appreciate readers and how to find a story. Shakespeare began as an itinerant actor playing spear carriers. He learned what made audiences gasp, cry, laugh and how to tell a story with emotion. I got that training as a reporter.


In the English dept I learned how to please the powers that decide what is "literature" in that tight knit university funded world. Being a reporter taught me how to read the zeitgeist of the larger world and offer an editor the story that will sell.


Maybe because I grew up under the poverty line and didn't see university as any kind of haven, I made the decision about who I wanted to write for. I'd rather be in the company of Nora Roberts than Joyce Carol Oates any day. The craic will be 90 instead of deconstructing whatever the literati has decided to make their shibboleth that month.

My conclusion is a working def of literary fiction. If you are writing to please a certain audience that has defined themselves as the gatekeepers of "literature" you will say you are writing literary fiction. If you are writing for Shakespeares audience-you won't.
Oh, my, there's nothin' like learning from gettin' down deep in the trenches! And when it comes to that business of professors and coeds, I suspect a whole lot of us have seen (or dealt with) that one. Needless to say, it's a meme that's found far beyond the realms of academia; I ran a psychotherapy support group for several years that focused on women who had been wounded, whether sexually, emotionally and psychologically, also spiritually, by men of power, including professors, teachers, psychiatrists and psychologists, medical doctors, clergymen, bosses--you name it. I keep seeing new debut novels by MFA graduates writing about professorial exploits and vulnerable coeds. Not surprising, is it. :(
 
And then there is my favourite non-genre fiction label, clearly stated on the back jacket of so many novels in my book case... and it's another Agent Pete bugbear -"General fiction."
Right. And I think it's a label that's been used interchangeably with "mainstream fiction."
 
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