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. 

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