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What is literary fiction?

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In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2011 10:51:06 AM PDT
Case Quarter says:
sunday morning browsing discussions ... pyat mentions goethe, one of my favorites, marion says good things about pyat and pyat mentions his novel THE SEASONING OF REBECCA and i click on the title, bringing me to the amazon title page and i read flattering blurbs, one in particular, the one by carolyn forche ... well, wow, carolyn forche speaks highly of this book, so immediately i send the title to my wish list, which doesn't mean i'll read it any time soon ... as a reader there are several hundred books any given moment i intend to read ... but on my wish list or written on a scrap of paper somewhere here, it has entered my realm of books to be read, which is pretty much how quite a few books i want to read come to my attention ... these days, by the time a title hits the pages of the ny times br, i've already heard of the book and made my decision to have or not to have ...

Posted on Mar 21, 2011 8:48:37 PM PDT
pyat says:
Case Quarter, in your review of Oates' A Widow's Story, you speak of recalling the ending of a Hemingway novel the night your mother died. You write, "I was troubled with the absurdity that a work of fiction could command my consciousness at such a time." You just gave a very apt criterion for fiction that is literary--work that can command our consciousness during the important events of our lives. EM Forster speaks of such work having a universality that brings down any dividing walls of particularity, reaching beyond the individual identity of reader or author, and speaking to all humankind. One can do without so much that is written, but these works harbor something vital. Whether or not what I write ever hits the NYT pages, I keep writing to approach that something vital.

Marion, as you may have guessed, I post rarely, review even less, and am terribly persnickety about the titles I read. Given what I've read about yours so far, I'd like to read it this summer with an eye toward what you are doing with character development and non-linearity, as these promise to fascinate me. Though one is supposed to garner reviews, I agree with you--let's not set up a mutual admiration society. It would bore everyone. Instead, let's talk shop directly whenever we're inclined.


In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 11:32:03 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 22, 2011 12:06:40 PM PDT
DrGeorge says:
Stefano: The aristocratic fringe is bad only if you want people to read your book. What we may have to move to is 'post-literate' fiction. The point is that, as writers, we simply cannot ignore the marketing side of publishing. It isn't enough to write beautiful stories in an ivory tower that never find an audience. That's mere vanity. As Wordsworth opined above, Stephen King is a hack, but he has found a niche for what he writes, and he sells in volume. (I suspect King can write much better prose, but has adapted his style to what sells. John Grisham has done the same thing.) Publishers want volume sales. As literary writers, we need to find ways to make literary fiction profitable for publishers, or we're out of the game. Some very good writers have already done this, such as Faulkner (Sanctuary, Pylon) and Graham Greene (A Burnt Out Case) and Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca) among others. Once a writer has name recognition in the marketplace, he can venture into more literary waters and find acceptance. This is the only viable way I see for surviving as a literary writer.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 2:31:57 PM PDT
G.K., you're right that we cannot ignore the market. But rather than compete in a market where the game is stacked against literature in favor of volume and discounting, perhaps we should look at creating a new market where literary fiction can dominate. Why settle for the crumbs of a cake we didn't make? Why not bake a cake to our exact liking? Without synthetic sweeteners, artificial colorings, fake flavors, emulsifiers and whatnot. Something more nutritious. Something good for you.

Posted on Mar 22, 2011 2:49:03 PM PDT
pyat says:
Stefano - I have a feeling it will be less of a market than a mesh, along the lines of or, and that sharing/collaborating will predominate. I have heard it said that in Indonesia there is no distinct word for art because what we call art is so integral to daily life there, it makes no sense to extract it. Have no idea if that's true, but what a concept--art as something other than a commodity.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 3:33:50 PM PDT
Pyat, mesh is good. Like a network of connections and possibilities. I'm very very interested in how a medium commodifies a message. We're rapidly moving away from words bound by ink and paper to words unleashed by electricity. G.K. talks about post-literate fiction. That's where I'm heading. I'm working with researchers in Germany to electrify text that can interact with reader's physiological responses. New iPads now have a front facing camera that can track you pupils, side sensors that can track your heart rate. I want to create stories that can alter in real-time to become more mysterious, terrifying, compelling, thrilling as you read them. Stories where words and phrases can change to deliver an individually optimized experience. A stupid, crazy, ridiculously daunting project.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 3:40:12 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
I agree that book reviews are a valuable resource -- the problem is that major review publications will only review books published by mainstream publishers. This eliminates a lot of literary fiction, because -- as has been noted several times in other comments -- publishers don't like publishing literary fiction. Moreover, the review that I read on a regular basis -- NYRB, LRB, Harpers and the New Yorker -- seem to be written by people who live and write in a closed and claustrophobic world. The authors I most enjoy never seem to get reviewed at all. And you hardly ever read a bad review. And speaking of "dreaded phrases" my favorite is "a brilliant debut novel."

About Sea Changes -- ChickLit (as I understand it) is younger women's fiction. My protagonist is middle-aged. If the fact that she's female makes the novel ChickLit, then Madame Bovary is ChickLit, too.

Fantasy -- this usually deals with other worlds, or beings that don't exist. Sea Changes is set in present day Sydney, Australia. There is another, alternative world but much of the point of the novel is the question of whether that world exists, or is delusional -- in fact, the novel itself is about the question of, What is reality?

And I think that -- plus the language and (hopefully) the style, is what makes it literary fiction.

Yes, I've got to do the Kindle version.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 3:49:33 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Yes, definitely with vampires!
Your friend is a good example of what I mean. If she "lives on-line" I wonder how much time she has for actually reading. Buying a book and giving it a prominent place on your coffee table doesn't necessarily mean that you've read it. Maybe she doesn't want to read your book because she doesn't really read anything at all and doesn't want to be caught out!
And, yes. A lot of self-published stuff is awful. The trick is to find the good books, and it seems to me that this is where authors have a real role -- mainstream publishers have failed, and they've dragged chains like Borders down with them.
It's a new world. We need new strategies, new solutions.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 3:55:11 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
If "dumbing down" is the answer, then I don't want to write anything else. Happily, I don't think it's the answer.
We've got to get out of the "mainstream publisher" paradigm. We have to stop playing their game, because it's a game that they're losing, too.
There are other ways of finding readers. They are out there. They want to read good books. The trick is finding them.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 5:48:04 PM PDT
pyat says:
That is intriguing, Stefano. I would like to keep updated on your efforts. Is there a site?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 8:18:31 PM PDT
Pyat, see to see where I'm at. At the moment I'm pushing for a hybrid of screenplay and prose to make my stories "read" better on screens. Increasingly the screen is how we consume text. The tech stuff is a while away (if ever). It's a big ask but I think a big job of fiction is to create the future in people's imagination. Then it becomes fact.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2011 2:56:44 AM PDT
Dragi Raos says:
Gail, I did not mean to imply that Sea Changes were ChickLit or fantasy; I was merely pointing out how easy it is to get pigeonholed based on some superficial characteristic of the work.

"What is reality" question is a rather popular and, to me, a very interesting one. I started to write that perhaps it is not necessary to construct too improbable "alternate" or "possible" reality in order to explore this, when I remembered that one of my favorite novels, Banks' The Bridge, does exactly that.

"And I think that -- plus the language and (hopefully) the style, is what makes it literary fiction.

Yes, I've got to do the Kindle version."

Please do - I am quite intrigued.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2011 3:23:47 AM PDT
Dragi Raos says:
Exactly, Gail. E-book self-publishing (or starting a kind of e-publishing collective) might be a part of the answer.

BTW, I don't think that only "paranormal erotica with weight loss recipes" sells. Márquez, Borges, Remarque, Coelho, Faulkner, Kafka still sell reasonably well. Coelho is almost a celebrity, as is Franzen*. There are masterful bestselling genre writers more interested in exploring human condition than following the defining rules of the genre (like already mentioned P.D.James, or P.K.Dick)...

*) I like these Franzen's "Rules for Writing":

- Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
- The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than "The Metamorphosis".

OTOH, I don't agree with
- When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2011 3:24:59 AM PDT
Dragi Raos says:
"It's a big ask but I think a big job of fiction is to create the future in people's imagination. Then it becomes fact."

A tall order, indeed, but a noble one.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2011 9:27:09 AM PDT
Marion Stein says:
From Dragi on page 1 of thread:

I like these Franzen's "Rules for Writing":

- Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
- The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than "The Metamorphosis".

I'm so happy this thread is still going strong and that there are lit fiction readers in the forums. I look at the indie novels that are doing exceptionally well and they seem to reflect the same trends as the traditionally published -- more people like easy to digest books. Even people who read a lot don't seem to be doing so to be challenged. Yet, literary fiction doesn't sell badly, just not as well as paranormal romance or serial killer sagas. I don't think it's a reason for bitterness. It's the way it is. I do wish that within the lit fiction world -- or elite -- or whatever there was more room for and less disdain and snobbery about indies.

While it's acknowledged that getting literary fiction published by a major house is difficult, people will point to the success of Franzen, Auster, Letham et al as evidence that it can be done and therefore anything self-published is not the real deal. I'll admit the decision to self-publish my novel wasn't an easy one, but was made much easier by my reading some terrific "indie" works including and especially some Year Zero works.

Posted on May 4, 2011 9:43:48 AM PDT
There's been such fierce arguments about this in my writing group. Literary novels are reviewed in the press, commercial novels aren't. Commercial novels get big advances, literary novels don't. There's lots of bad writing in both and lots of great writing in both. There's a lot of envy on both sides. I love reading both. I don't really get it. I'm hopeful these barriers will come tumbling down. I'm right on the edge. My novel was submitted to both literary and commercial publishers at the same time, John Murray meet Harlequin. I loved my agent for doing that but none bought. Now I'm self-publishing and have gone for a commercial cover. But it's a commercial cover with depth (I think?).
Stephanie Zia
Ten Good Reasons To Lie About Your Age (Romantic Comedy)

Posted on May 15, 2011 12:40:54 AM PDT
C Hayes says:
Does anyone feel that the Kindle and its market is actually changing or influencing what kind of books people choose to write? As Marion says people want books that are easy to digest and as a result these type of books are selling well and writers are swaying towards this type of novel (and when I say novel, many are very short indeed!). This could even sway new literary fiction writers away from more dense or challenging writing to a stripped-down, more saleable type of fiction.

Let me know if you agree with me, but there are two types of readers: Literary Fiction and Commercial readers, and whichever you start with you will always be. In the world of universities people only read and write literary fiction. In the U.K. the actual format of the book reveals what type of book it is - if it's tall and thin, i's literary, if it's short and fat, it's aimed at a commercial market.

I think it's important for literary fiction writers to focus on what's on the page first, make sure that their work is as good as it can be regardless of how it will be sold or consumed, and then move to sell it only once it's complete.

I'm hoping that literary fiction will strive on the kindle and that we can find some really interesting work. And I want to get in on any great fiction you find!


The Glass Book

Posted on May 15, 2011 1:31:34 AM PDT
I think the opposite. Authors will have the freedom to write and publish from the heart. They will not be rejected for not fitting into a genre sales platform. This will free the creative even more. Hopefully the whole 'literary' 'commercial' categorising will start to blur. Classic fiction can thrive again without the agent and publisher mantra 'I love it but I couldn't sell it' getting in the way. Also, experimentation in the novel will return. Jennifer Egan's recent Pulitzer winner A Visit From the Goon Squad could be seen as a fore-runner.

Stephanie Zia
Ten Good Reasons To Lie About Your Age (Romantic Comedy)

In reply to an earlier post on May 15, 2011 1:50:08 AM PDT
Dragi Raos says:
Christian, how are $0.99 Kindle bodice rippers different from their supermarket pulp paper cousins? I think that, to the contrary, Kindle lowers the barrier between good literature and wider audience.

I agree that it takes some early exposure to "thinking" literature to develop enjoyment in reading anything but simplistic, formulaic escapist dross. But popularity and quality are not mutually exclusive: one of your favorites, Robinson Crusoe, was a smashing success when it appeared three centuries ago.

Your novel looks interesting, and I bought both it and the one from your only glowing, in not very eloquent review (the favor was mutual, I see). I found something funny: both in your novel's product description and your bio you insist it is a "literary novel". Were you afraid if will be pigeonholed with Harlequin output? :o)

Let me be a bit cynical about all this "literary vs. commercial or genre" stuff: read reviews, and tabulate references to the plot vs. use of words "narrative" (one point) and "discourse" (three points). If the plot references prevail, it is not literary; if reviews are full of "postmodern discourse in their narrative", it is. Ah, yes, "I could not put it down" brings five points on the plot side. :o)

See how ridiculous it is?

In reply to an earlier post on May 15, 2011 2:00:53 AM PDT
C Hayes says:
Thank you for picking up a copy, much appreciated.

I know that that kind of argument could go on for a long time - of course there are great works of popular fiction, and a lot of work published under the heading of classic were huge successes at the time.

Literary fiction is merely a category with its own rules, expectations and limitations and by selling a book as literary fiction you are letting people know what kind of book it is. By no means does it mean it is better or superior to popular fiction. Indeed literary fiction has to really keep its focus on story and page-turning as much as commercial fiction. I would say that many literary fiction readers know what they like and it makes sense to set a book up as being in that category so they know what they're getting.

All the best,

In reply to an earlier post on May 15, 2011 2:07:50 AM PDT
C Hayes says:
That is definitely an up-side, that you can now push books that were previously barred by agents and I hope experimentation, or just hard work and creativity, will thrive where possible.


Posted on May 17, 2011 1:46:48 AM PDT
pyat says:
We are experiencing a great snow. Since the advent of the word processor and the Internet, the vast sea of noise that used to only crowd the slush pile rooms of agents and publishers now directly beats upon every reader's doors daily. Among this vast sea float a few gems here and there, maybe picked up by a house and maybe not, but indeed the labels have become meaningless. For the most part these days, "literary fiction" is used by self-published authors in an attempt to inject a sense of quality into their work. Search giants like Google and Amazon try to spit back to us what we would like. They are often our only filter, and their power of discernment is quite limited, perhaps even dictated by our own ignorance (see Eli Pariser's talk on TED). Appearances overwhelmingly count more than substance these days. It would be close to impossible for this era to produce a Napoleon and very easy for it to produce a million Napoleotics. Rather than one emperor embarrassing himself with his new clothes, you have millions imagining themselves emperors because they are naked. It makes for a great amount to celebrate and a great amount to grieve. There is very little literature being generated right now but heaps and heaps of "literary fiction."

Posted on May 17, 2011 6:08:57 AM PDT
Isn't literary fiction literally fiction about literature? Fiction with a literary bent?

Posted on Nov 14, 2011 2:03:29 AM PST
I just joined this discussion and until I have the time to go through all the posts, I'll have to make do with probably repeating what other people have already said, but it's an important question, at a time when literary fiction is struggling to survive in the publishing world. First, "literary fiction" can never be pinned down; it admits of as many different definitions as there are different novels demonstrating literary fiction in action. I will provide new definitions as they occur to me. Number one: Literary fiction is the literary equivalent of Jean Sibelius's Fourth Symphony: it creates its own time scheme, requiring the reader to slow down and step into a slower yet utterly convincing universe. It creates a unique world. Vladimir Nabakov characterized great novels with a similar quote that I don't have offhand.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 14, 2011 8:51:26 AM PST
Marion Stein says:
I'll admit to not reading all the posts. Regarding the opening, in a way you hit the nail. For agents needing to know what shelf everything goes on, it's where you put things that don't fit neatly on any other shelf. Somewhere in cyberspace, former agent Nathan Bransford published a good definition -- basically character driven rather than plot driven. As a reader, I consider it literary, even if it falls within a genre if the author is clearly going after bigger fish AND using literary devices that are both playful and complex -- shifting points of view, stories within stories, etc.

I think something can be extremely good, even timeless and NOT be literary fiction. I would consider Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels literary fiction for the use of language and metaphor. I would not consider Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes literary, no matter how clever. Patricia Highsmith doesn't pass my test as literary for her Ripley books, but I'd entertain the discussion -- they are expertly done from Ripley's point of view which makes them at the least transgressive.

Aside from all definitions, I think you know it when you see it.
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