Friday, January 27, 2012

What the *%$#^! is "literary fiction"?

Come on.  You can't tell me I'm the only one who's fed up with this bizarre little term, which, to be honest, I never even encountered until I started going to writing conferences and reading writing blogs and following writer's chat groups.  Isn't it a little redundant?  According to my big fat Webster's Dictionary, "literary" means bookish or related to learning or books or literature.  Um - isn't that inherent in the term "fiction"???  When did we decide to use this to describe a special subset of fiction?

If Google, the 21st century's lazy woman's research tool, is right, the term started being used in the '60's some time.  Figures.  (Oops!  Did I say that out loud?).  But I'd swear the widespread use among agents and editors is a later development.  At any rate, I'm really developing a dislike for it.  At times it seems to imply that "other" fiction (sometimes called "genre fiction" or "popular fiction" or "commercial fiction") is  NOT literary - that it's for simpletons, that it's less educated or complex or nuanced.  On the other hand, sometimes "literary fiction" is code for "stuff that won't sell" or "dull and plotless".

There's no lack of efforts to explain and define this term.  Nathan Bransford has a nice, succinct one on his blog:  "In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface."  He also makes a decent case for the concept, and puts up a good defense of what quality literary fiction ought to be.  Still, I can't help feeling like this term can cause nothing but trouble, heartache and bad writing.

The best of "literary fiction" pays intense attention to detail, and finds breathtakingly perfect ways to describe small nuanced moments while tracing the arc of a character's internal journey.  The best of "commercial fiction" pulls you along with strong plot elements and pacing.  My question is, shouldn't the best of ANY fiction have all of the above?  Achingly spot-on description, meaty nuanced character development, layered thematic arcs, gripping plot, strong pacing.  I want it all!

I guess that's why I don't get the whole need for a term like "literary fiction."  It just rubs me the wrong way.  It makes my shrill, opinionated, loudmouthed self absolutely insist on coming out to play.  Thanks for putting up with her.  I shall now return to my more level-headed, conciliatory persona, who will dutifully look at all sides and recognize the value of a variety of perspectives.  Let the comments commence!  

(Today's blogpost is brought to you by an evening of reading literary fiction magazines while drinking coffee at Portland's Press Club eatery.)


  1. This is a FUNNY post!! In a bookstore I once browsed the "literary fiction" shelves and about gagged when I saw all of Nicholas Sparks's books there! Oh My! Now ... no offense to Sparks ... I've read several of his books and love his movies ... but I would NEVER classify his writing as literary fiction!!

    Anyhow ... I stopped by for the critique my blog blogfest. :)

    Love your blog. Don't change a thing. :) Except - - get rid of the word verification box. Those drive me nutso!! Just sayin ...

  2. here from the critique my blog. I love your header and your picture by the side. The width is just great and the sidebars well arranges. If this is any indication of your posts, the quality is excellent too.

  3. You are a funny lady. I almost fell out of my chair when I read this post. I feel the same way!

    Now for my critique of your blog...

    I love the layout of your blog. I would like to see a mini bio under your picture (I like that you have a link to your website). I’m not sure about the paragraph of text under your header (can you somehow condense it?)Overall I like your blog!

    1. I'm here for the critique blogfest. Thanks for participating!

      I had the darndest time figuring out how to leave a comment and eventually settled for clicking on "reply" to someone else's comment.

      The background is one of those standard blogger backgrounds and I see it everywhere. Maybe you can some up with something better?

      You posts are all interesting and informative, and you have a good voice. It makes me sad that you don't post very often, and I think that's why you don't have many followers. I'm sure if you posted more, you'd have many followers.

      In the same vein, some of the blogs you follow haven't posted in months. You might want to update that.

      The words under your blog title are awfully big and distracting, and really, I think they would be better placed in an "about me" page. You could just say "Writing isn't a solitary journey, let's connect and learn from each other" in smaller letters, and that would draw me in.

      I love your title.

      I hope some of that was helpful!

    2. Thank you so much for the feedback! I have a quick follow-up question. You mention that I don't post often enough. My current schedule is to post once a week. What would you recommend?

  4. Thanks for the comments and feedback, one and all. And the reminder that it's my turn to jump over to all those blogfest blogs and give a critique. Eep! Feels like I've got a college deadline!

  5. good post.

    This is another reminder about how subjective this writing business is for us.

    visiting from Critique My Blog blogfest.
    Your blog gets an A plus for info! It is easy on the eyes.

  6. Well, I like your background. That, along with your photo, give me the feel of being in a library or bookstore (which I love).

    I read one of your posts about re-reading Pride and Prejudice. I think even if you hadn't mentioned your age or included a photo you would have given an impression of wisdom and expereince. (No, that is not code for "old"!) My personal impression is that this is a place to come for comfort, humor, and perspective. I do agree with Teralynn that you should post more often!

    1. oh, yeah, I LOVE the larger font. So much easier to read with a child on my lap!

    2. LOL! I love that I have apparently graduated to the age of wisdom and experience and I didn't even know it! Isn't it funny how we see ourselves inside? Yay for gray hair!

  7. Yeah, I think that "literary fiction" is just a little bit too "cool" for me. I remember seeing one chick at Absolute Write going off on a rant when others tried to helpfully inform her that her work sounded not like "literary" fiction but "plain old genre fiction" :P She was actually offended.

    So pretentious!

    1. Wow! I have a lot of respect for folks who write "genre fiction." It's kind of like writing in highly structured forms of poetry. It takes skill to write well within the expected structures, and in my experience, fans of "genre fiction" are incredibly exacting.

      "Genre fiction" is another one of those terms. Isn't "fiction" a genre itself?


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