What’s Your Favorite Literary Fiction

By Nancy Jane Moore

“Literary is a genre.”

Chip Delany said that when I was at Clarion West, and I’ve never forgotten it. He meant, I think, that literary fiction — like science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc. — has its own set of rules and isn’t necessarily any better than other forms of literature even if some in the ivory tower act as if it’s the only fiction that matters.

The trouble with labeling this particular genre “literary” is that the term implies that all other genres aren’t really works of literature. And that, as I’m sure most of the readers of this blog would tell you, just isn’t true. Great literature has nothing to do with genre; it has to do with beautiful writing and and transcendent stories.

When I started reading science fiction seriously, it was because most of what was being published as literary fiction at the time bored the hell out of me. The stories I read into seemed to all be about failed marriages and failed lives in the latter half of the 20th Century. I just didn’t care.

The books that get labeled literary point up some of the absurdities in genre classification. I mean, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly science fiction, but calling it literary means that it gets taken more seriously by the powers that be in literary circles than, say, the work of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Then there’s Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which was published as literary fiction. It’s got aliens and space travel, for God’s sake (pun definitely intended). Great book, certainly literature, but how did it get singled out?

And of course, those who write fantasy labeled as “magic realism” get a pass: Both Jose Saramago and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have Nobel Prizes.

I confess to not being sure I understand the genre rules for literary fiction the way I understand the ones for SF/F or mystery, but it’s pretty clear to me that beautiful writing and a great story aren’t the only criteria. They are, however, my criteria. I am curious about yours.

So let’s recommend works we consider literary. Here are the rules:

1. No genre limitations. You can define literary as currently set by the academy or define it as works you think will endure or just define it as work that has moved you intensely. If your definition is eccentric, explain it.

2. This is the place to list classics, so all you Jane Austen fans should be sure to weigh in.

3. Let’s not forget the Russ Pledge here: Great literature by women is frequently overlooked. Great literature by anyone who isn’t white and either European or from the US is even more frequently overlooked.

4. Ten items: novels, collections, individual stories.

5. YA is still OK: There are some very great books aimed at younger readers.

6. If you listed it under one of the other genres, you can still list it here.

OK? Here’s my list to get you started.

Doris Lessing, The Four-Gated City.

Toni Morrison, Beloved.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway.

Jane Austen, Emma.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams.

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate.

Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club.

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Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, will be released by Book View Cafe in early August. Watch for the official announcement.

My story “Gambit” appears in the new anthology No Man’s Land, now available from Dark Quest Press. You can read an excerpt on Book View Cafe.

My novella Changeling is available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

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What’s Your Favorite Literary Fiction — 17 Comments

  1. I have to confess I don’t have much to add to this one, but here’s my small contribution:
    To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
    Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Lizzy Bennet is still one of my all-time favourite heroines)
    At the Bay – Katherine Mansfield
    The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera

  2. “LIterary Fiction” drives me up a wall, precisely because of its implication that only that sort of work is “literary.” I wrote about this in my SF Signal column some weeks back and, although the piece has a few problems and needs filling out, it encapsulates what annoys me about this idea, particularly when some folks apply it to whatever they want to increase the prestige of a book they like.

    At the end of the day I consider all works of fiction literary, but here are ten that I particularly admire:

    Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
    On Wings of Song, by Thomas M. Disch
    The House of Discarded Dreams, by Ekaterina Sedia
    Valis, by Philip K. Dick (hard choice out of several)
    Kindred, by Octavia Butler
    Tuf Voyaging, by George R.R. Martin
    Three Guineas, by Virginia Woolf
    The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
    Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
    To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

  3. The Regeneration trilogy – Pat Barker (I’d call it historical, but pretty much historical is the sort of literary fiction that appeals to me. Modern, not so much.)

    A Room with a View – E. M. Forster (A romance really, but so much more than that.)

    In This House of Brede – Rumer Godden (Really, this fits no Genre category. Nuns.)

    Morpho Eugenia – A. S. Byatt (Delicious)

    Between the Acts – Virginia Woolf (It just took me by surprise and didn’t let go.)

    I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith (Absolutely classic.)

    The Makioka Sisters -Junichiro Tanizaki (Family drama is universal, but rarely this enjoyable)

    Little Men – Louisa May Alcott (This is YA. ;))

    All Creatures Great and Small series – James Herriot (Where the hell else does it go?)

    High Rising – Angela Thirkell (Profoundly not-literary, but profoundly not-genre as well.)

    I think for me, what my list suggests, is that literary is the hodgepodge repository for everything that can’t be counted in a genre. In a way, genres are lucky, because if you’re desperate for a little bit of magic or a little but of murder, you always know where to go. But if you’re desperate for a WWI historical (non-romance), or a light-hearted comedy about an English small town, where no one dies, you can’t just turn to the English countryside section of your local library.

    Also, I don’t read books that tell you how bad things are today and how people can’t communicate. I feel like the peculiar tendency of literary fiction to go that road, starting, possibly, with Richard Yates, and having Joyce Carol Oates as the headmistress of the class, is very damaging to the love of books. There are so many complicated, beautiful, positive books, that make you cry your eyes out, and then look at the world and love it, so why bother with books that make you miserable?

    Literary fiction for me is about great writers, and small personal dramas, even the most horrific ones caused by war, or the happy ones caused by childhood. It’s not about doing things, or about things happening, it’s about characters and feelings and personal trials. And these are the books I will never forget.

  4. Good topic! I share your frustration with the frequent assumption by people who only like LitFic that theirs is the only genre that is literature, but I do love literature of any genre that rewards a deep analysis. Here are a few of mine:

    The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
    • Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy
    Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
    Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
    Hyperion by Dan Simmons
    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    • The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
    • You didn’t mention plays, but it seems criminal to leave Shakespeare off the list. My favorite of his plays is Hamlet.

  5. Lovely lists and comments so far. I can’t believe I left off To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s probably just that it’s been so long since I read it.

    I left plays out on purpose to avoid the Shakespeare problem. But maybe we should do a play list. The trouble with plays, though, is that while reading them can be enlightening, seeing good productions is really the best way to judge plays.

    John Stevens, I completely agree, which is why I started off with Chip’s observation that literary is a genre. Please provide a link to your column on the subject — I’m sure we’d all love to read it.

  6. With you on 100 Years of Solitude though some of those others don’t float my boat, and I think the first 90% of Mansfield Park is way better than Emma–but like you said, everyone’s got perspective.

    I second Harper Lee from the next list,and add:

    Marilynne Robinson Gilead

    Elizabeth Gaskell Wives and Daughters (which would be, I believe, far better known if she’d lived to finish that last chapter)

    George Eliot Middlemarch (influenced by the above)

    Rudyard Kipling Kim

    C.S. Lewis Till We Have Faces

  7. I think of beautiful use of language when I think of literary fiction… two works that are standing out in my mind at this moment are The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, and Dancing at the Rascal Fair, by Ivan Doig.

  8. I have grown increasingly allergic to the list compilation tide, so I won’t add any names.

    On the larger issue, I think the dichotomy is not between literary and genre but between literary and hack. Writers can write either across categories and know when they’re doing hackwork. NB, it has nothing to do with high/middle/lowbrow; instead, it has to do with the artists’ stance towards their sources and their audience.

    Some of my (too) many thoughts on art classifications and/or women’s writing:

    The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=2128

    A Plague on Both Your Houses
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=4622

    Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=4742

  9. “There are so many complicated, beautiful, positive books, that make you cry your eyes out, and then look at the world and love it, so why bother with books that make you miserable?”

    “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” by Alma Alexander won’t be published until August 1 as an e-book and a couple weeks later in POD from Skywarrior Publishing, but it is one of the most beautiful and thoughtful books I’ve had the honor of reading. It should be picked up by mainstream literary. It really should.

  10. Don Quixote — Cervantes

    The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman — Laurence Sterne

    Many of the works of Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas — the honored creators of historical fiction; also much loved by Louisa May Alcott, whose March Family Chronicles did so much to introduce me to the literature of the past — well, she knew so many of the authors since she was a child ….

    Villette – Charlotte Bronte

    Middlemarch and Silas Marner – George Eliot

    Anna Karenina – Tolstoy (much influenced by George Eliot)

    Orlando – Virginia Woolf

    The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

    The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

    There are so many!

    Love, C.

  11. Foxessa: I’m currently about halfway through Villette, which I’m finding fascinating. (It would probably make my list if I had finished it.) I’m also about halfway through Anna Karenina in the splendid translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but I can’t bring myself to finish it because I know what happens!

  12. In Delany’s schema, “literature” is just another name for the genre “literary fiction.” What SFF, mysteries, porn, comix, etc. all are is “paraliterature.” I’m not sure whether I agree with this terminology but it has its charm.

    Anyway, favorite “literary” novels:

    To Kill A Mockingbird
    Ulysses
    Tristram Shandy
    The Confetti Man (technically a romance, but…)
    Prince of Tides
    A Prayer for Owen Meany

  13. Literary? By which we mean, maybe, straight fiction? Respectable fiction? I like the notion of literary as a genre, but as the lists above suggest, it contains many subgenres. My ten (today, at least):

    Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
    Persuasion, Jane Austen
    The Cider House Rules, John Irving
    Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
    100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    The Magus, John Fowles
    Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges
    Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford
    The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
    To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

  14. Nancy — I envy you reading Villette for the first time! It is one of the most enduringly fascinating creations among novels I know. Most of all I admire the courage of the author to deny the romance convention expectation memes that the novel form had, by her time, and even more so now, created and spread through the the populace of the European worlds.

    Love, C.

  15. Ironically, Athena, it was my annoyance with all the “top ten” lists and NPR’s combined list of 100 best SF/F books that got me started on doing this. I wanted to see something more open-ended that didn’t set itself up as the ultimate arbiter of taste.

    I think you’re dead-on when you say the proper distinction is between literary work and hack work. Unfortunately, there are too many people who assume that genre=hack, which is part of the problem.

  16. My definition of literary is somewhat broad and simultaneously narrow; it’s not exclusive of other genres. A literary work must have a preoccupation not just with story, but with how that story is told. The use of language, structure, ideas–there has to be something besides a good story, a conscious evoking of the idea of literature. Thus, some “straight” fiction doesn’t qualify for me; being non-paraliterature isn’t enough. Some things I can recognize as classics, but I don’t find them literary.

    “The Last Unicorn,” Peter S. Beagle
    “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf
    “Chocolat,” Joanne Harris
    “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Bronte
    “Wolf Hall,” HIlary Mantel
    “The Awakening,” Kate Chopin
    “Crime and Punishment,” Dostoyevsky
    “Gulliver’s Travels,” Jonathan Swift
    “Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe