Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Twisty, Twisty Books: Literary Fiction and Inextricable Genres

Last year I made it my mission to read literary fiction and it's been seven months that I've had this little scheme in action. I loved the books I read last year so it was a no-brainer to continue into the new year.

When I started this journey I wrote a post titled, "Why Literary Fiction and What the Heckfire Is It?" After these seven months of ruminating, I've pretty much decided that literary fiction is fiction marketed as literary fiction. I think I'm also still keen on my original definition that, "authors who write literary fiction might have more of an agenda than the average bear." Literary fiction is also (typically) critically well-received. This is the trifecta, you see: agenda, marketing, critical reception.

Notice, the trifecta definition does not exclude any genre, and that leads me to my next lightbulb...

As a result of the literary fiction post I linked above, Carl and I had a great conversation about the rub between literary fiction and genre fiction and how MANY MANY MANY literary fiction works do include an element of some genre or other: sf, historical, etc. It was interesting to go back and revisit this conversation Carl and I had because I've been spending a lot of time thinking over the books I read last year and gazing at my immediate TBR, and I know something very specific about my literary fiction tastes after seven months of this personal project: I MUCH prefer literary fiction that incorporates a specific genre or some sort of unique angle. 

Of the 20 or so books on my immediate To Be Read pile, it seems to me that the majority of them have a very specific angle or incorporate multiple genres. Let's have a sample...

  • Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin - historical, retelling of Alice Liddell Hargreaves’s life 
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - sci-fi
  • The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer - retells or makes overarching references to Lysistrata
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters - historical, GLBTQ
This is a really small sample, but I think it illustrates what I'm driving at. Seems to me "literary fiction" is a genre imposed from the outside by publishers and consumers. Any genre can be literary fiction if the conditions are right. 

The literary fiction titles on my shelves tip the scales heavily toward historical novels (The Sisters Brothers, C), retellings or homages (Wicked), and sci-fi/fantasy or magical realism (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake). Even within these examples it's almost impossible to distinguish one genre-within-a-genre from another! Wicked was a retelling/homage but also a fantasy. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was magical realism with a bit of historical thrown in.

I suppose what the last seven months have done for me is to really help me pinpoint and refine my tastes. It's brought me a greater sense of self-awareness (and shelf awareness!) and has made me realize exactly how closely bound all genres really are and how silly it is to get into a tizzy over genre lines. I don't tizzy, but some readers most definitely do.

In conclusion, I really want to thank all of you who responded to my original post back in June 2011 and those of you who come here and converse with me over these bookish thoughts. You bloggers, you make me think and by allowing me to discuss these items with you, allow me to understand myself and my reading better all the time. 


  1. Book blogging has also helped me to understand which books I enjoy. I think I agree with you that I enjoy literary fiction which is also part of a specific genre. When literary fiction is simply that it can lack enough plot for me. Here's to many more fantastic book discoveries!

  2. I'm with you: I often say I read literary or contemporary fiction, but what I really mean is literary fiction of a weird/historical/sff bent. I'm not a fan of straight-up contemporary realism at all, which is what lots of people think of when they think literary fiction. It's definitely a slippery term, and not particularly useful. But what else can we call it, without adding yet more terms to the genre vocabulary?

  3. I have to say I prefer literary fiction to almost all other types, but my definition of literary fiction is loose. I just take it to mean a book that is not really on the best seller list, or can be found in mass market paperback. There are some exceptions though. While I do really enjoy literary fiction, I have learned that I really love other genres as well, and that realization came from getting to read lots of other opinions and feedback on the blogs I frequent. That's how historical fiction became one of my favorite genres.

  4. Sometimes I think literary fiction just means highbrow and some people think they're intelligent because they read it. I think I prefer it when it incorporates a genre as well.

  5. I'm with bermudaonion on my opinion of what "literary fiction" is - "highbrow" and sometimes overly wordy. I much prefer genre fiction ... is that the same as speculative fiction? I'm so over all these literary terms :-)

  6. I've never understood why genre novels can't be considered literary fiction. The Hobbit, for instance, is so much more than a fantasy novel. The best books blend both - literariness and some genre plot points. Fiction, after all, should be able to go anywhere and do anything - that's sort of the point.

  7. Jackie, I tend to think of "family dramas" when I think if literary fiction that doesn't borrow from other genres (sf, historical). Though there's also blending of family dramas with other types of genre, I think I jive the least with these types of books. I need lots of plot, typically.

    Victoria, contemporary realism! Great term! I get along least with contemporary realism (see comment above). And I'm with you re: more terms. They are quite sticky.

  8. Heather, I know what you mean. By reading the recommendations of trusted bloggers and developing a record of books I enjoyed in "literary fiction" I see more specific trends in my reading, for sure.

    Kathy, this is where I think "literary fiction" gets as bad a wrap as genre fiction. While I think some might go the "highbrow" route, I don't think it has to be. I guess that part comes along with the critical reception and the tendency of some publishers/media selling literary fiction as some how "better." But that's demeaning to other genres. It's all very problematic.

  9. Tanya Patrice, there are a lot of terms. The only reason I get into term talk is to define it for myself and how I interpret it. I figured since I'm more interested in literary fiction these days, it would be good to figure out exactly what that means to me, and that's what I've been working toward for the last 7 months or so.

    Amen, Brooke! I could not have said it better myself. It's absurd to assume that genre fiction and literary fiction can't mix and commingle and have beautiful literary babies.

  10. I feel so far out of the loop on reading right now, it's not even funny. It has been so long since i really picked up a book for just the pure pleasure of reading. As much as I love fantasy, I'm pretty open to anything. I do realize that I need to read my literary fiction though.

    Never Let Me Go was a great read. Highly recommend it. Ishiguro's writing is pretty sparce, but it really works in this book. I really loved it! Sarah Waters is definitely an author that I need to read.

  11. I definitely agree that literary authors have a 'theme' or 'agenda' and I actually think it's this part that makes me enjoy them. It's more than just a story. Genre fiction is often just the story, right?

    And you've also reminded me that I really must read Alice I Have Been in the near future.

  12. I far prefer books that mix literary elements and genre elements. I think all those books exist on a spectrum, and I don't really like pure genre fiction or pure literary fiction most of the time, but a combination of the two, in whatever form, is really nice!

  13. Stephanie, I know how that goes! My pleasure reading dipped pretty low when I was in school, too. I'm impressed you're blogging at all! I'm very much looking forward to Never Let Me Go. I read Waters for the first time last year; The Little Stranger BLEW ME AWAY. So good!

    Sam, I agree, I like the agenda a lot! I think that's where discussions of genre become sticky, though. For a very long time there was an assumption in literary circles that genres were somehow "less." They were certainly more marginalized and even the best of a number of genres were not critically well received or taken seriously. I would say the same of children's/YA that I spent my time studying in school. While there are always the formulaic genre offerings, I think there are a lot of very serious, "agenda" novels in those categories as well. I think that's what we're seeing now is the wonderful acceptance of good writing in various genres, and the "literary fiction" label is largely imposed by critics, publishers, and media.

    Amanda, I think the spectrum is a really nice way to think of it. Those that blend elements are always of interest to me. I've gravitated toward books, movies, and music that blend genres and become something new for most of my adult life and certainly in my academic and pleasure reading. :) Good stuff!

  14. I might possibly be too ignorant for this discussion. But . . in my feeble brain, I think of "literary" fiction as "well-written" or in some way a cut above. But, there are enough crappy books marketed as literature that the more I think about your comments, the more I agree. Marketing is just that. If literature was confined to perfection of writing, there would be plenty of books of all genres mixed into the literature section.

    Which brings to mind Ender's Game. I cringe to think that people who love a truly astonishing work of literature are missing out on that book because it's marketed as sci-fi.

  15. It is interesting to see how the genres bleed over into each other. I haven't ever stopped to evaluate where my literary fiction reading stands. Sometime I should look and see how they sort out by sub-genre. If I had to guess I'd say I read more that are about modern families, which is kind of funny because up until I started blogging I was more of a sci-fi & historical fiction reader.

  16. I'm a genre reader for the most part. I love to read mysteries, urban fantasy, and the like. But lately I've been drawn to read award winners from these genres...and I just picked up a bunch of books from the library that fit that bill :) I've enjoyed seeing how you choose your reads with the Tournament of Books and I've really found this post enjoyable to read. Thanks for sharing!

  17. I am definitely a genre reader, but one of my top reads in the last two years was The Passage, by Justin Cronin and in his very capable literary-authorish hands, the vampire/dystopian genre was transformed. So I won't shy away from literary fiction - but yes, I prefer a genre element.

    I did read one book a few years back, though, that made me at least reconsider my feelings about literary fiction - Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel. Smiley wrote so engagingly about the 100 classics she read to break through her writer's block, I actually seriously considered reading through the books on her list.

  18. Excellent post, Andi! I'd like to add a thought here too: if literary fiction includes so many elements of genre fiction, why is genre fiction looked down upon? Who decided that science fiction or fantasy or mystery isn't as good as literary fiction? I think it's because the publishers are hoping literary fiction is close to 'classic' fiction through their marketing, when much of it is boring, because it;s written to be Important, and isn't any fun. I really wish the publishers would open up the gates of literary fiction to include the best of all the books being published, because there are ideas in mystery and science fiction that are already included in litfic, that I wish more people would read because they are fun as well as Important! In other words, I wish we could get away from thinking of litfic as highbrow and everything else second-class. This feeling very much exists though in the book world. We need more conversations like this!


Thanks for taking the time to comment! Blogger has been a beast lately, so I hope you do not have any troubles leaving your thoughts.

Images by Freepik