Within the past couple of weeks, four writers I’d thought genre authors have stated that they write literary fiction.
What does that mean to you, literary fiction? Do you think it exclusive or inclusive of genre tropes, spec fic elements, or story patterns usually found in genre?
For many hearing that, I suspect, the knee-jerk reaction is What a pretentious claim but that’s only if you assume that ‘literary fiction’ is superior to category fiction. (Or assume that the writers are claiming a superiority over everything else published.)
So what is literary fiction? On some lists, Anne Rice is now listed as literary fiction, but (speaking just for me) I find her fiction unreadably awful. At one time Norman Mailer was considered literary—superior—at least, according to criticism I read during the sixties, when I was a kid. A few years ago I saw him denigrated as a sixties hack.
I sometimes wonder if, to a person learning English, ‘literary fiction’ sounds like a redundancy. Yet we know what it means: the word ‘literary’ is supposed to signal works with merit superior to other types of reading. But what does that really mean, literary merit?
Definitions I see most often include the words Serious. Critically acclaimed. Dealing with universal dilemmas.
Writers can, and do, set out to write novels with those aims. They are published, they win awards.
I think that goal can also work against a writer when the urge to say something important supersedes the story. And this isn’t an issue confined to new writers; I can think of many authors who, on finding themselves famed and acclaimed, could not resist writing their one masterwork, the serious, important one that would stand as their greatest achievement . . .
And just about all those works are forgotten, while the one that gained them fame still persists: Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Anthony Hope, Fanny Burney, just to name four whose great masterworks I tried in turn, to find them tedious, stodgy, dreary. Fanny Burney, in her attempt to reach the cerebral pinnacle of prose, forced her narrative voice from its natural, vivid and sprightly expression to tortured, long-windedly twee. The others could not resist stepping out from behind the story to earnestly lecture the reader on the verities of life.
Then again, someone can set out to write the literary novel, and it might languish at its time, but it ends up speaking to another generation. That certainly happened to Herman Melville, with Moby-Dick. Or a book might indeed speak to its generation, and then gradually slide from edgy to old-fashioned to quaint to no one reading it outside of college courses, except for the curious. I think Trilby, by du Maurier, fits this pattern.
Writers and books fall in and out of fashion . . . and so do the arbiters of taste in literary fiction. But I do think it’s interesting to delve into readers’ discussions now and in the past to see what they mean by literary.