Sunday Salon: What Makes Fiction Literary?

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

Books Completed

  • 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.

Currently Reading

  • 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.

New Acquisitions

  • 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.”
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40 Responses to Sunday Salon: What Makes Fiction Literary?

  1. gaskella says:

    I too would describe literary fiction as writerly, rather than bestsellers/pulp. However, occasionally a work of lit fiction will become a bestseller, so that doesn’t work either!
    In my own reading spreadsheet, for analysis, I tend to split fiction into contemporary, classic and genres, rather than lit or not lit. However much we argue against labels and genrification, a lot of people like them/it, they help locate a book in, out or around your comfort zone.

    • Teresa says:

      Annabel, I’ve thought sometimes that I’d like a bookstore that didn’t even separate out genres, but then again I find the separation helpful if I’m craving a mystery or science fiction, so the categories have their uses. I think with lit fic, it just isn’t tidy. It overlaps with everything else (or should if it just means writerly fiction).

  2. Study Window says:

    I don’t have a quick rule of thumb for literary fiction either, although like you I’m fairly clear on what I consider to be specific examples. If I was pushed I would suggest that it had something to do with wanting to go back to a book because I know that there is more there than can be fully appreciated on a single reading. Looking at your ‘radar’ list, ‘Regeneration’ would definitely come into that category for me and I would love to have a reason to go back and revisit Barker’s work this summer.

    • Teresa says:

      SW, I almost need specific examples to come up with anything approaching a definition. The big literary prize lists are a good start, too, but then they often ignore genre fiction. A book that would seem to require a second reading for full appreciation seems like a good rule of thumb.

  3. Verity says:

    Thanks for the mention! The concert ticket is on my radar too – can’t wait to get a copy. And I loved Regeneration.

    • Teresa says:

      Verity, I nearly picked up a copy of The Line (aka The Concert Ticket) at the bookstore yesterday but I’m trying not to buy books faster than I can read them!

  4. Nymeth says:

    I strongly dislike the term exactly because it’s used to mean “good fiction”, or “fiction that is better than the rest”, and then it’s applied almost indiscriminately to realistic or “non-genre” fiction and almost never to genre stuff. Not by everyone, of course, but that seems to be the general trend. That makes me uncomfortable, so I’d rather not use it.

    I’ll now walk over to the corner and weep because you weren’t too crazy about my favourite novel ever, Middlesex :P

    • Teresa says:

      Ana, I agree that if literary fiction means “good fiction” then it almost has to include genre fiction, and YA fiction for that matter. Maybe it means books that deviate from a “formula”–but then there sometimes seems like there’s a lit fic formula that a lot of so-called literary books follow.

      If it makes you feel better about Middlesex, there was enough in it that I liked that I do intend to read The Virgin Suicides someday.

  5. Deb says:

    Not intending to be flip, but to me “literary fiction” means that the characters in the book are informed by literature–which might or might not mean the writing is better than “non-literary fiction.” I suppose the assumption is that readers of literary fiction are aware of the references that the characters make and this, in turns, produces a deeper experience of the book. When the writer has made the assumption that the reader will be familiar with the references made to certain aspects of literature, that to me is literary fiction.

    For instance, I recently finished Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie trilogy (which I loved) and almost all of the characters, no matter what station in life or what education they’ve received, live a life in which literature (not necessarily read in the present, but remembered from the past) plays a role. Characters are always thinking about a few lines of a poem or something that happened in a book that reflects on what they’re doing in the present. One character thinks of her rural life as being “like a Thomas Hardy novel before the trouble begins*,” another thinks that she’d be happy to “live inside any 19th century novel.” I’m sure someone who wasn’t familiar with Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton or Henry James would enjoy Kate Atkinson’s books, but knowledge of those writers and their books makes reading Atkinson’s work that much fuller and richer.

    (*love that line!)

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, That’s interesting. I never would have thought of it that way. Your definition is perhaps narrower than the vague definition in my head, but I’ll have to think about it some more.

      And I love that Thomas Hardy line! I do want to read the Jackson Brodie books. I think they’re near the top of my audiobook queue at Booksfree.

  6. Richard says:

    The rampant use/abuse of the nonsense term “literary fiction” is actually one of my Top 10 Blogging Pet Peeves, Teresa! Feel it’s more a judgement than a description and yet the parameters are so hazy that it can be applied to anything when somebody wants to engage in a little bookly snobbism. “Fiction” and “nonfiction” are more than enough to do the explanatory trick for me!

    • Teresa says:

      Richard, It’s the haziness of the parameters that’s the problem, isn’t it? If everyone means something different by it then it’s not helpful at all. And if it’s not helpful, why use the term?

  7. christina says:

    Teresa! I am so glad you wrote this post as it has been lurking in my mind for a few weeks now and I’m slowly hashing up my SS post. I did a google search for literary fiction, definition. (Because _of course_ when one is seeking information out they google it, right? ;) ).

    I gots nothZing from that search. It helped me zilch.

    I think I kinda agree with you, insofar, literary means “writerly”. Like, although I enjoy Picoult…she’s definitely not literary, much more like Lifetime, yes?

    But then would literary describe feats of work that are new to the times or exemplify a genre but might not be “writerly”? For instance, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. *Highly* important for the science fiction genre and historical (er, literary?) but the writing…well, Heinlein is not a very character driven writer…and I guess I put “writerly” hand in hand with characters I could touch and feel. But still, I would say that SiaSL is Literary Science Fiction.

    I don’t think that I’m being much help (at least I know I’m not to myself). I continue to create more questions for myself.

    Still, great post. I’m tagging it to come back to, fo sho!

    • Teresa says:

      Happy to help, Christina, even if my help is only contributing to the muddiness.

      And the Heinlein, which I haven’t read, does make for an interesting example. Is something literary merely because it’s important, as SiaSL undoubtedly is? Or is it just important?

  8. cbjames says:

    I’ve not given this question any thought before, but I’m going to agree with Richard and with Nymeth. I suspect that “literary fiction” is a term intended to mark some readers as readers into “literary readers.” It’s appeal is basically, at heart, snob appeal.

    Most of what passes as literary classics now was considered not much better than pulp when it first came out. Look at how the ladies of Cranford in Elizabeth Gaskells book look down on Dickens and praise Samuel Johnson. At that time the entire novel genre was considered beneath the realm of true literature.

    Sir Conan Doyle wrote for pulp magazines, but no one would question calling Sherlock Holmes literature now.

    • Teresa says:

      cbjames, That’s a good point about the former pulp appeal of some books now considered classics. The “literariness” of a work is largely in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is no doubt influenced by the tastes of his or her time and culture.

  9. Steph says:

    I’ve gotten the feeling that because fiction has been broken into all of these different genres, that literary fiction in itself is a genre… but denotes fiction that isn’t part of any other genre. Like something is literary fiction if it isn’t a mystery, chick lit, western, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc…. but maybe that’s not the case? Maybe it does have to do with the writing? I just kind of thought it was a catch-all term for all the books that aren’t otherwise easily slotted into another genre.

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, I think I have seen people use the term as a catch-all “everything else” term. But I don’t think that’s true across the board, hence the fuzziness. If it’s just “everything else,” I’d think something like “general fiction” would work better because it doesn’t connote quality the way the word literary does.

  10. Kristen M. says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “literary fiction” simply because I don’t feel comfortable defining it. I would assume that it applies to most character-driven fiction and a small sampling of well-written plot-driven fiction but I don’t like to draw those lines. Unlike others, I don’t feel there’s any sort of snobbery in using the term but I just don’t feel qualified to designate books as “literary” or otherwise. I think I would feel differently if I had a literature degree and not a science one!

  11. Rob says:

    What makes fiction literary? When it focuses more on character and emotional development rather than plot.

  12. Iris says:

    I have a hard time using any genre-markers. I know many bloggers do so, but I simply feel I do not know enough of genres in books to use the labels myself. Like you, since I’ve started blogging I’ve heard the term literary fiction a lot, but I don’t really know what it means. I suspect, like you, that it’s meant to imply that it’s “better” fiction than other books out there, but then I’ve also seen people use it for books that reference other literary works in their texts.

    • Teresa says:

      Iris, I do think some genre markers are useful, because if you want a fantasy or a mystery, it’s helpful to know which books fit that category. And all of the genre terms are a little fuzzy, so we have to muddle through. But I do find that literary fiction is especially fuzzy, which makes me question its usefulness.

  13. winstonsdad says:

    It is hard to put a thumb on what is lit fic ,Myself i tend to read translated accross the genres ,but find i tend to read what is classed as lit fit bar the few crime books i read ,all the best stu

  14. Melissa says:

    Great post! And timely too, as I was talking books with a coworker this week and when she asked what kinds of books I preferred, I answered “literary fiction.” She then asked me to define that, and I was – embarrassingly – stumped.

    I introduced her to the world of book blogs on Friday, so maybe I’ll have to show her this post. :)

  15. rebeccareid says:

    I have been wondering what “literary fiction” means for most of my book blogging time. I have realized though that I don’t prefer it. I prefer the older classics.

    I look at my bookshelves and wonder which non-classics are “fiction” and which are “literary fiction.” Sorry, this comment doesn’t add much. I hesitate to say more because people already call me a “book snob.” I don’t know if it’s because I love the classics or think little of modern fiction for the most part…

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I do think of classics as a whole other category, and I tend to think all of my newer books are “literary,” but I do wonder if that’s me thinking of lit fic as “modern books I like.”

      And I get frustrated when people consider it snobbishness to have preferences! We’re all allowed to have preferences. Being entirely unwilling to try something different, writing off entire genres without thinking twice, or assuming that people with different tastes than you have *bad* taste–that to me is snobbery. (And I’ve never seen you do that.)

  16. Juxtabook says:

    Gaskella’s “writerly, rather than bestsellers/pulp” is good starting point. I think it means that the quality of the work rather than simply its salebility, or its page-turning-readability is what is most important. Best seller is not synonymous with poor quality though pulp most certainly is.

    rebeccareid’s comment that she prefers older classics to literary fiction is interesting. I would have said that older classics were mostly literary fiction from another era. Though sometimes an un-writerly page turner that has something iconic about also gets the ‘classic’ tag. Today’s literary fiction are next century’s classics I think.

    Fay Weldon said there are four types of book: the good good book, the bad good book, the good bad book and the bad bad book. I take the first to be literary fiction, the second to be failed literary fiction (the over-indulgent, failed experiments), the third to be well worked genre fiction, and the last to bad genre fiction.

    I like to read from Weldon’s groups 1 and 3 and don’t mind looking at group 2 to see what they were about. Unfortunately there is far too much group 4 published!

    • Teresa says:

      Catherine, I’d be very interested to see which books of today become the classics of tomorrow. I imagine we’ll be surprised to see which highly praised literary books don’t stick around and which page-turners endure! (Take Stephen King, for example. His writing is stellar at time, but he doesn’t have literary cred. But I could see him in the future gaining the same kind of classic status that Wilkie Collins has today.)

      Weldon’s categories are interesting, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the good/bad distinction applied to genre fiction as opposed to more literary books, as if page-turning (or genre) fiction is not as “good” as more writerly (or literary) fiction. I’m not sure that one is patently better than another. It’s all in what you’re looking for at the moment, isn’t it?

      But I like how those categories get at the idea of judging a book by what it sets out to do; a “good bad book” under Weldon’s categories shouldn’t be faulted for not being a “good good book.” I just wish there were a way of making that distinction without calling a “good bad book” a bad book!

  17. I always think of literary fiction as books that have an added depth, containing symbolism or layers of meaning that are not always visible on a first reading. The ‘literary’ element can be found in all genres. I am a big fan of literary thrillers and will be writing a post all about literary science fiction soon. I think the problem is that some people become snobbish about it, but this is a real shame, as it is helpful for me to know there are layers of meaning in a given book.

    I seem to have a different taste in books to you – I have loved Picoult, Shreve and Middlesex!! :-)

    • Teresa says:

      Jackie, That’s similar to the way I make the distinction, I think. And I totally agree that the “literary” element can appear in all genres. I really look forward to seeing your post on literary science fiction. (Have you read The Sparrow? It’s a natural for that category, I would think.)

      I do prefer books with layers to them, whatever the genre, but that’s not always what I want. And if a book is just looking to be diverting, that’s okay. I read fewer books like that, but good plain entertainment is sometimes just what I want.

      And I have noticed our divergent tastes before. But we do seem drawn to the same kinds of books, and we share the Saramago love!

  18. Jenny says:

    I’ve used this term before, but I don’t have a good way to define its parameters. I’ve heard the characters-over-plot thing before, but I’m not sure it works. The Life of Pi had lots of plot, and also Margaret Atwood books do, and Sarah Waters! Loads of plot all over Sarah Waters. And Notes on a Scandal, and those are just the books I thought of this minute.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, I don’t know if it’s so much characters instead of plot as it is characters being as important as plot. Or maybe just that there’s more than plot. I don’t know that Life of Pi, for example, had so much in the way of character, beyond Pi himself, but it had big ideas.

  19. Wendy says:

    I agree with Jackie’s definition…and also the story tends to be more character driven than plot driven. There are overlaps in all genres…for example, Benjamin Black’s books are mysteries with a literary feel to them. Often, regardless of genre, I find myself wondering how to classify a book.

    • Teresa says:

      Wendy, I’m liking Jackie’s definition, too. And I agree about the overlaps between genres. I can think of tons of genre writers whose works feel more literary than pulpy. Maybe “literary” is more of a characteristic some books than it is a genre. The characteristic could apply to any book, if it has layers of meaning, is writerly, etc. But it wouldn’t apply to every work of “non-genre” or realistic fiction.

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