Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why Literary Fiction and What the Heckfire Is It?

So, I made it pretty obvious that this ole blog took a dramatic turn toward literary fiction in the not-so-distant past. Hello "Skewing literary fiction one novel at a time..." tagline. And since I'm so darned interested in literary fiction all of a sudden, you can bet there's a reason. A few of them, actually.

#1. My brain was feeling ignored. I took a promotion to Program Chair of General Education back in October at the college where I've taught full-time for two years. When I was considering throwing my hat into the ring for this position, I specifically asked my then-boss, now-fellow-PC what percentage of the job is stressful and what percentage is just annoying. As it turns out, this job is 10% stressful and 90% annoying. I supervise anywhere from 14-30 adjunct faculty and a team of three full-time faculty in any given term. In short, I teach, I do A LOT of paperwork, create a schedule for the classes, faculty observations and coaching, faculty development, etc. There's a lot to it, I wear a lot of hats, I'm very involved on campus, but it's not that hard. What's hard is juggling the oddball schedule, long hours, and pure exhaustion with home and family time. What I found is that my reading quality was going down, down, down. Two years ago I only read ONE novel all year. And that's just madness.

In part, my decision to focus on literary fiction is a calculated move to challenge myself a little more. I often found myself veering toward books I only felt so-so about because I was too tired or stressed to read some broccoli literary fiction. Generally, I find literary fiction rewarding to read and I appreciate it, even when I don't really like it that much. *coughGOONSQUADcough*

Do I still read other stuff because it makes me happy? Hell yeah. Literary fiction just so happens to be making me happier than most other reading material right now. We'll see how long this phase lasts.

#2. I'm lazy. I said it. Reading my way through my favorite blogs, I always saw books that looked super-tasty, but I wouldn't pick them up because that would require effort -- asking for them on NetGalley, requesting them via e-mail from a publicist, actually buying a book. I still don't buy many books, but I am far more apt to add myself to a library holds list and actually finish the book before it has to go back to the library.

#3. I'm still trying to figure out what constitutes literary fiction. It's an ongoing debate and it ruffles feathers sometimes, and right now, my definition is pretty simple. Novels that have some lofty goal, theme, or artfulness involved in their creation. In short, I think authors who write literary fiction might have more of an agenda than the average bear. That's not positive, it's not negative, it just is what it is. I can't name one novel I've read in the "clearly marked and marketed as literary fiction" category that didn't have some purpose: to wow me with form, wow me with character development, to wow me with its deeply thematic nature, etc.

Obviously, this definition and my previous statement beg the question, "If a 'literary fiction' book doesn't wow you, is it then not literary fiction?" And my response would be, "Shuddup! That's silly." Case in point: I hated Freedom by Jonathan Franzen to the depths of my soul, but I can still point at it and declare with confidence, "That's literary fiction." And I didn't even appreciate that one. Just hated it. Franzen was trying to make a point, he just made me want to die before I could get all the way to it.

So far this year I've read 10 books that I would consider literary fiction (one DNF, Franzen!), and it's been a rewarding time. I feel a little "fuller" than I have in the last couple of years, which makes me a very happy reader and a happy blogger.

I really would like to know how y'all feel about literary fiction in general.  Do you have a definition for literary fiction? Do you crave it? Avoid it? Feel like it's unnecessarily elevated? Underappreciated? What say you?

I'm sure I'll have more to say as the year rolls on and I amass reviews under my belt, but that's how I'm feeling so far. More to be announced!


  1. I do like some literary fiction. Some literary fiction. Not all. Some of it just feels like the author is trying too hard to be clever, like "Watch me dazzle you with my prose! You will be amazed! I will leave you dazed and confused!" I don't like that.

  2. Chris, that's exactly the problem with Freedom. Actually, McCarthy was pretty show-offy in the novel, C, but I was OK with that one. I think the different was Franzen was trying to show off AND make me like him AND his characters sucked. A lot.

  3. Calling a book "literary fiction" doesn't draw me. It's not that there aren't literary fiction books I like -- there definitely are -- but I tend to feel that I like them in spite of their literaryfictionyness, not because of it. Like most genres, it only means whatever you think it means, but I suppose it's useful for your brain to categorize things according to rough vague labels. :/

  4. Jenny,

    Maybe I've just exhausted other genres. I do feel more fulfilled as a reader since I've made a switch. I read the hell out of YA paranormal and got sick of those. I read the poo out of horror at one point. I started seeing too many obvious patterns that kinda bored me. Although, I have to say, I'm beginning to see more obvious (annoying!) patterns in literary fiction, too: dysfunctional families, multiple perspectives, metafiction. They're there. Maybe I'm going to find -- after this experiment is said and done -- that being widely read in any genre leads to boredom? That feels like a pessimistic assumption, but there it is. Hmmphf. You've got me thinking of a whole other issue now. My brain hurts!

  5. I think "more of an agenda than the average bear" is the best definition of lit fic I've seen so far. Not that I actually call it lit fic, I'm just being a lazy typist.

    As a general rule, I do like it, but I cannot read only lit fic. Mainly because of people like Franzen. And Nicole Krauss. And Barbara Kingsolver, whose agendas just seem more obvious, and whose prose makes them seem like they think they are above-average bears. They might not actually think that, but that's the impression I get when reading them. So I guess I'm saying I don't like the snobbish literary fiction, which I do think is worthy of it's own classification.

  6. Okay, worthy is the wrong word...more like there's so much of it, it could be its own classification.

  7. I really like literary fiction, sometimes I'm surprised by how much I enjoy it. But based on my shelves (I'm currently looking at them) literary fiction almost always gets read and enjoyed. Hmm, just learned something about myself there.

  8. I read a lot of literary fiction on my blog, which basically means (in my opinion) that I read stuff that isn't a specific genre. It might have elements, but it doesn't fit neatly into another category. I use the term because it seems to be a blanket statement for "I read what I want." With that in mind, I've read some really good stuff this year. I just posted a top 5 list. I could make you go look for it, but I'll just tell you:
    5. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
    4. The Metropolis Case by Matthew Gallaway
    3. The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen
    2. The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
    1. Galore by Michael Crummey

    Let me know if you read any of them. I'd love to know what you think.

  9. Thinking about what I have boxed up and what I usually pick up, I don't read a lot of modern literary fiction. I mean, I do read a lot of classics (and have in the past), but new releases that are "deeper" just never make it home. I read more YA, fantasy, and older novels than new stuff where the author tries too hard.

    BUT, I'm not very knowledgeable about it, and I am sure there are a lot of wonderful books I am missing.

  10. I'm really pleased to hear that you are enjoying your year of literary fiction. I tend to think of literary fiction as being books with symbolism lying under the surface - books with an added depth that may not be obvious at first. Some times it isn't easy to know whether it is or not.

    Literary fition tends to be my favourite, but I'm not always in the mood to test those brain cells and so do often read something a bit lighter. Those lighter books rarely make it onto my "best of year lists" though :-)

  11. You see, I'm sure I like literary fiction, if I could figure out what it was. I know it's me, but I don't really understand the difference between many labels. So in my head "literary fiction" just means that it's more "literary" i.e. it's less shameful to be found reading or something. I don't know.

  12. I agree with softdrink about "more of an agenda than the average bear" being a good start towards a definition.

    You were asking about our literary diets - I like a good bit of litfic (Room, Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Bel Canto have all been great this year) interspersed with my other reading - I tend to end up reading about 2 crime/thriller/whatever per litfic. When I first started blogging I read only classics and my brain was begging for a break very quickly!

  13. I think I do read literary fiction most or all of the time. I don't consciously choose it, and have certainly enjoyed some genre fiction, such as British mysteries. However, the thing with mysteries for me is that, half way through, I stop caring who dunnit, so there's never enough to carry me through to the end--unless, of course, there are also interesting and well written characters.

  14. I usually don't go for "literary fiction" I have to be in the mood for all that flowery prose. Now give me a good mystery and I'm hooked.

  15. Jill, I'm right there with you. One of the most important parts for me as a reader in combatting reading slumps is reading a variety of books. The new will wear off of this litfic thing for me and I'll have to branch out. In the meantime, I'm having a good ole time skewering the pretentious among 'em.

  16. Yay, Ash! Sadly, my shelves demonstrate that I do not read my own literary fiction (or the books I buy in general). I have years' worth but I'm trying to put a stop to that.

  17. Cassandra, sadly I haven't read a single one of the books you listed, though I am really looking forward to The Bird Sisters. I do think you're right that lit fiction readers tend to be eclectic. These titles kind of resist strict genre lines, so they're all over the place. I do find that I favor the more whimsical among them. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake comes to mind immediately.

  18. Allie, I've asked myself if these literary fiction titles will become tomorrow's classics. May not live long enough to find out, but there's a good case for it in authors like Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, et al. I can imagine if I were on a blog journey like yours, I would prefer YA and fantasy to counteract the perceived heaviness of classics. I love them, don't get me wrong, but they take a time and mental/intellectual investment, for sure!

  19. Jackie, it sounds like we're in the same boat. I was noticing that the bulk of my reading wasn't wowing me, and that's just unacceptable! And thanks to you, I think my reading of The Birth of Love was one of the turning points in this bloggy decision. Hurrah!

  20. Iris, it is a hard definition -- that's why I really want to know how a cross-section of bloggers from different locales, backgrounds, and reading tastes perceive it. It's a problematic genre to define.

    I've read just about every genre there is, so I tend not to consider myself a book snob. I'm just happy to "find" people reading any and everywhere I go. :D

  21. Yvann, that sounds like a great, balanced book diet. :D Outside of this year's literary fiction, I really enjoy a wide range of graphic novels, some YA, and a well-placed essay.

  22. Aine, I've never been much of a mystery reader -- British or otherwise. I also have a hard time caring who-dunnit throughout a whole book.

  23. Ann, I've been delightfully surprised to find some less-than-flowery literary fiction titles. I'm sure I'll gush about it until the cows come home, but The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and ROOM were particularly down-to-earth.

  24. I dislike the way 'literary fiction' is used to imply that all genre fiction is automatically less thought-provoking, well-written, deep, etc. than all non-genre fiction. Or the way that the 'best' of genre fiction is co-opted into 'literary fiction.' (I know that's not how you use it Andi!)

    Instead, I tend to think of books as 'lighter' or 'heavier,' depending on how much they make me work/think. Because obviously, not all books are created equal. I like to read both kinds, but I'd say on average I read maybe 70% dense, 30% light. I can't imagine cutting either out of my reading life, though, or limiting myself to just one genre! I love all of the contrast, and how books unexpectedly play off one another. :D

  25. I think of literary fiction as something that leaves me thinking after I finish it. Not just thinking about how hot and steamy a certain character is or was but thinking about life in a philosophical way. The book might change my mind a little about something, make me contemplate something in a new light or might just reinforce the beliefs I already had. I was frightened by literary fiction for the longest time but then I started reading a bunch of it in classes. At first, these kinds of books just kind of made me feel stupid, but then I discovered that they were really just challenging me and I started to actually like the challenge. I still don't read quite as much literary fiction as I would like but I'm sure that will change with time.

  26. Over all I tend to avoid "literary fiction" and would consider it "unnecessarily elevated". That being said, the handful of books that I would classify (most likely incorrectly) as literary fiction that I have read actually turned out to be very good. I'm thinking of work by Jonathan Safron Foer, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami. The reality is that all of these authors have either a fantasy or mystery element to their work so it shouldn't surprise me that I enjoyed them.

    When I think of "literary fiction" what generally pops into mind is Proust or books like Atonement (quite the wide spectrum there, eh?) and my natural reaction is to say "no thanks".

    I agree with what Eva said as well, especially given the undeniable fact that my first love is science fiction, followed closely by fantasy. Those who love those genres and frequently partake of them cannot help, try as they might, from getting the dander up when "literary fiction" is mentioned because of the long history of elitist claptrap that comes out every time some publishing company or "respectable" outfit does a 'best of' list and books like Lord of the Rings make the list.

    Over the years I've learned to trust my instincts as well as follow the advice of friends. My most successful forays into "literary fiction" have come from me wandering the book aisles and having a book leap out to me. As for purposefully seeking them out, I don't see myself doing that. I have no desire to spend time reading something specifically for the purpose of challenging myself or expanding my reading horizons. Those things happen and sometimes they happen with literary fiction and that is wonderful, but I don't seek that.

    I have always read for entertainment first, inspiration second and I don't see that changing, especially with the ever-growing pile of fiction in my preferred genres that I want to get top in my lifetime.

    Okay, shutting up. :)

  27. Eva, great points. And I agree that books fall into the "heavier" or "lighter" categories, and that tends to be a non-invasive and less insulting way to look at things. There's always a problem with labels because there are so many variables. Even if we're categorizing as "heavier" or "lighter" some books are going to be heavier or lighter than others find them. All very subjective. I think literary fiction works for me right now even though the discussion will endlessly continue about what that means.

  28. Jennifer, I tend to think of these as books that a prof would've brought to class as an undergrad or in graduate school as well. If I'm tying this back to my idea that literary fiction has an increased agenda then I can easily say that those were the easiest and most fruitful for picking apart in school.

  29. Carl, I'm glad you chimed in! There shall be no shutting up. :D

    I think all of this discussion becomes progressively tougher because #1 labels are not as neat as we try to make them (obviously!) and #2 genres constantly blur! One of the first things I teach my Intro to Lit class is that we LOOOOVE to mess with and subvert expectations as a society whether it's in our rules and regulations, our films, books, television. We love to blast convention and start anew.

    If I'm thinking over some of my favorite books marketed as "literary fiction" a great many of them do contain a fantasy or sf element: The Handmaid's Tale, The New York Trilogy, After Dark, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, The Blindfold, and on and on. I think this is becoming much more pervasive in fiction as a whole. I know I'm drawn to those books time and again.

    You know, as I was writing this post I really struggled with how to present this issue. I have chosen to embark upon a journey in what is *marketed as* literary fiction. Do I think it's all that's good? HELL no! When I was studying for my degree, the two areas I specialized in were children's lit and graphic novels -- two of the most bastardized, underappreciated areas in all of academia! I see merit in so much writing, no matter what it's type, it's kind of exhausting. So it was very difficult for me to write this post because I don't want anyone to think my purpose is to elevate literary fiction while alienating other genres. Not so!

    On the other side of that, *if* literary fiction exists and has some lofty goal in mind to elevate itself, push a message, strives to be more artful or smarter or more intertextual or whatever (again, this is hypothetical), I can't poo-poo those lofty goals either.

    As a professor and administrator, I'm totally awestruck by the rampant anti-intellectualism among my students and even some of my family. It's a very "you're gettin' above your raisin'" type of attitude that I've had to endure myself. Even existing in northeast Texas as a reader of any kind, can get a lot of dirty looks!

    Anyway, I would love to read any further thoughts you have to offer. For me personally, this discussion has opened up endless other avenues of thought and discussion (my rant about my own experiences getting crappy comments for being a reader). Thanks for contributing to this discussion, and I get where you're coming from.

    I guess part of the goal of my doing this is also to figure out IF literary fiction exists? Or is it must something publishing companies have come up with to make their stock look somehow set apart from other books, other authors, other companies.

  30. I find myself wondering if I would have responded to this at all had you not asked the questions at the end of the post, inviting comment. Because first and foremost with this medium of words on screen I often worry about the context of what I write and how it will be interpreted. In most cases I would have avoided sharing my thoughts for fear that it would appear that I was pushing back against the writer's own thoughts and opinions and I'm not big on arguing, especially in the area of reading where I freely submit to the idea that everyone should read what they want and be happy about it and not feel that they have to justify it. But I know (and hope) you understood where I was coming from, which was to strictly give my personal opinion on literary fiction as it applies to my reading and not as a general thought that anyone else should agree with.

    When I read your post the first thing I did think was that you are at least doing this for the right reasons--you are doing it for yourself and doing it consciously with various goals in mind, not doing it because you feel some external pressure to be more "well read", etc. On top of that you are in the educational arena where literature is concerned and I would imagine you read for many more and varied reasons than I do, even when it comes to reading for "entertainment". I hope my comments didn't come off as being anti-intellectual. I have gotten on my high horse about elitist critics, etc, in the past but when I calm down and think about it I do believe the majority of us are simply readers and we know what we like and we know what we don't. Yes, there are some snobs out there, but I also think there are just a lot of people out there who don't know how to express their opinion on something without coming off as snobbish.

    Not sure where I'm going with all that, so back to your comment. I too shouldn't poo-poo the goals of literary fiction, especially since a lot of the authors are just people trying to tell a story, something I respect and admire immensely. Sadly I don't see us reaching a place, at least not anytime soon, in which *this* kind of fiction and *that* kind of fiction and *that other* kind of fiction are seen to be mutually beneficial and worthy of respect. I think we will always have the step-child genres. I'm thrilled when a book blurs the lines, but I have yet to see a work of "literary fiction" with SF/F elements actually elevate the genre of science fiction or fantasy in the critical world's eyes. Most generally those works are said to contain "elements" of SFF thus minimizing the genre's taint. And I'm guilty of doing that all the time too, although not from any malice towards my favorite genres of fiction.

    Once again I should probably stop because I am all over the place. :)

    I'll be interested to see what you think as you go forward about whether or not literary fiction "exists". It certainly exists for publishers and it exists in the societal conscious at least in the way things are sometimes marketed and in the places where cultural elitism still has sway. It also exists for those on the other end of the genre spectrum who, instead of embracing the criticism, want to react with venom and circle the wagons when someone vehemently rejects their book/genre of choice. But does it really exist? Good question.

  31. Carl, thanks for this. I certainly don't think you were being anti-intellectual, and my comments were an attempt to make sure I wasn't coming off as condescending or uppity/judgmental about any genre.

    And in the midst of all this talk of literary fiction, I seem to have bored of my two current reads. Haven't been able to dig into them in almost a week, so I'm changing it up and reading a graphic novel.

    Cheers to genre diversity in reading! :D

  32. Hey, I'm loving the conversation. If nothing else it interests me to see what comes out of my head when someone writes such a thought provoking post!

  33. I have a bunch of literary fiction novels in my TBR pile, but I haven't touched them, at all. I just find the term literary fiction so intimidating, because I'm worried I might not get the writer's point. Your post makes me want to give them a try, though. :)

  34. LOL, Carl! I enjoy the brain dump, too. :D

  35. Darlyn, don't be scared. :) Like Carl pointed out in his previous comment, they're all just trying to tell a good story. :D

  36. I love language, people-observations and underlying themes, so I tend to do well with a lot of literary fiction, although I think the phrase itself is pretty goofy...publishers seem to use it as a catch-all label to get exposure for books that don't fall into (or hope to break away from) a specific genre.

    Overall, I have to keep my reading diet mixed--too much of the same type of thing gets boring.


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