Before I started blogging, I rarely heard and never even used the term literary fiction. Fiction in my mind could be categorized into genres (science fiction, romance, mysteries, etc.), classic literature, and everything else. Some books might appear in more than one genre (mystery/romance), and some classics might also belong in a genre. But other books are just fiction. That’s it. At least that’s the way I used to think of it.
But since I’ve started blogging about books, I’ve used the term literary fiction a lot. And I still don’t know what it means. Surely not every book that doesn’t fit into another genre can be considered literary. Or can it? As I’ve seen the term used more and more and used it myself, I’ve formed ideas about it in my mind. So I have an sense of what I mean when I talk about literary fiction, but I wonder what others mean.
I really got to thinking about this a few weeks ago when I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. I noted in my review that the story itself wasn’t especially original, but the writing style made it extraordinary. And so it occurred to me that this is what makes some fiction literary. There’s attention paid not just to telling a good story, but to telling that story in an inventive way. And by this definition, plenty of genre fiction could also be literary. For example, Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction masterpiece The Sparrow would certainly qualify as literary. That seems like a good thing. Maybe the term is useful in separating “writerly” books from books that are just good stories.
Still, I wonder how often we use the term literary fiction as shorthand for good fiction. I’m pretty sure I do that. There are some authors I like that I don’t consider literary, but they all write in genres, and often when I read genre fiction I’m looking for something that fits certain conventions. If it’s also literary, that’s a bonus.
It’s when I step outside genre fiction that things get fuzzy. When trying to think of general fiction authors whose books I wouldn’t consider literary all the authors that come to my mind are authors whose work I don’t care much for—Jodi Picoult or Anita Shreve, for example. I’ve read their books and didn’t hate them, but I didn’t find them particularly inventive or interesting. Do I avoid calling them literary just because I don’t like them much? Well, that just makes me feel snobby. So if the term is just a way of expressing snobbery, maybe it isn’t helpful. Plus, it’s terribly subjective.
Then again, I can think of plenty of examples of books commonly considered literary that I just don’t like, and I’m happy to continue calling them literary. Middlesex, which I found terribly uneven, won the Pulitzer. I’ve come away dissatisfied from plenty of other prize winners as well. So literary fiction, by whatever vague definition I’m using, isn’t exactly synonymous with good fiction.
Maybe the truth is that I prefer literary (aka “writerly”) fiction to other general, non-genre fiction, and so I end up reading more of it and thus encountering the literary stinkers as well as the literary stars. And that would explain why I can’t think of lots of non-literary general fiction writers that I like.
Or maybe I should just go back to not using the term at all.
Notes from a Reading Life
- The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King. The ninth Mary Russell mystery novel. It’s every bit as good as all the others in the series.
- God of the Hive by Laurie R. King. The tenth Mary Russell mystery. I picked it up as soon as I finished The Language of Bees and loved to bits! If you aren’t reading this series yet, what on earth is stopping you?
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (audio). I loved Walls’s detached, nonjudgmental approach, but was infuriated by her parents’ actions through most of the book.
- The Hidden Shore by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. The 19th Morland Dynasty book.
- Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (reread). I’m just over halfway through and still loving it.
- Waiting for God by Simone Weil. A collection of Weil’s essays on Christianity. I’ll be reading this very slowly over the coming months, perhaps an essay a week.
- Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner. In the comments for my review of The Spare Room, Sarah recommended this true crime book by Garner. My library didn’t have it, but a copy eventually showed up at Paperbackswap.
- The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. For the upcoming Russian Classics Circuit.
On My Radar
- The Concert Ticket/The Line by Olga Grushin. A contemporary Russian novel about people waiting in line, ostensibly for concert tickets, but can they really be sure? Annabel says, “the waiting is what they do best, with the lure of things happening tomorrow.”
- The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff. A Persephone sci-fi novel about the coming collision of the moon and the Earth. Verity says “if you want a tense, dramatic and extremely compelling read, then even if science fiction isn’t your poison of choice, then I would strongly recommend this novel.”
- Illyria by Elizabeth Hand. A magic-infused YA novel about a pair of cousins, young love, and a high school production of Twelfth Night. Nymeth says, “I both want to hug it … and lend it to all my friends, so that they too can experience the stunning writing, the delicate enchantment, and the passion and regret that permeate the whole story.”
- Regeneration by Pat Barker. This WWI novel has actually been in the back of my mind as something I’d like to read for quite a while, but I didn’t realize until I read Steph’s review this week that it’s about some favorite poets from the period. Steph says, “Barker’s real success is making her characters complicated, so that they have the minds and motivations of real men. As in real war, in Regeneration, nothing is simple.”