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What is literary fiction?

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In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2009 8:19:35 AM PDT
Toni Seger says:
What a great point! We know figure skaters MUST practice long hours in order to leap and spin the air and yet, so many accept the notion that the art of writing is merely something spontaneous and undisciplined.

I also believe there is far too much emphasis on plot over character and virtually every other aspect of writing. Yet, some of our greatest writers were those in whose plots nothing seems to happen like Henry James and Samuel Beckett. Antonioni's film "L'Aventura" is one of the greatest films to show at Cannes, but at its debut the audience jeered because it didn't seem like anything was happening...

Our most foolish assumption, in my opinion, is that the most commercially successful writers are, by definition, the best writers. It's understandable that we'd all like to be successful, but success or the lack of it is no judge of art. Time is the best judge. The passage of time singles out greatness. A hundred years from now we'll know who the greatest authors of this era were...

Toni Seger
The Telefax Box

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2009 1:40:32 PM PDT
I like your jib. I feel less alienated reading this and other posts to this discussion. I note that it began on May 25. I wish I knew how to archive the "stream." I am a techno-dodo.

Much resonates with me. Although I did not study literature, I wrote and edited student work, elementary school to graduate level. Like Toni I always wrote, usually poems and the beginnings of stories that I seldom finished. I am a classically trained singer, nine years voice, solo and choral performer for forty years, plus piano and clarinet. I attended Juilliard for a time. I've said the my sense of rhythm and flow is informed by the music, as well as a stint as a chorus dancer to help pay my way.

A "Swan Song" recital was scheduled at my UU Fellowship for May 3rd. I canceled due to the pain of spondylosis since December. I should not type. Story telling by Mother ranged from 19th century classicists, to family tales from several generations. I think of myself as a "writing griot."

Preparing to make a presentation tomorrow at a UU retreat on anti-racism, I looked into my first novel for something to share. Obvious, to me, is a writer who loves language.

I do wonder at the proliferation of specialized advanced degrees as the sole determinate of a writer. Some of the schooled (stylized) MFA writing is, for me, technique without substance. I try to read it, but get nothing that keeps me "turning pages," or remembering. sort of like six of us who saw the film Star Trek." Atfer initial enthusiasm, the most informed trek fan said, about a week later, he did not recall any of the film. He watched an early show (Gene Roddenberry) at home. He has them all. His four year old daughter spontaneously said, at the end of the hour, "Captain Kirk did not kill the man because he didn't want to kill." What remains of significance is, for me, the mark of "literature," and more.

In reply to an earlier post on May 30, 2009 4:30:13 AM PDT
Yes, Toni, an artist's work "sells" after s/he is dead, and the longer dead the greater the auction (slave?) price. We inhabit such a topsy-turvy planet it makes me dizzy/sad/angry/disgusted, saying, "Stop the world at the next train depot, please."

Enjoy your weekend.

Posted on May 31, 2009 2:59:59 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Gwendoline, I disagree. If my work sells after I've moved on to wherever and whatever, that's a kind of immortality. I like that thought and I don't overmuch care whether someone is profiting or not. Much of this discussion is focussing on the work and the economics of literary fiction. Maybe part of the definition of literary fiction lies in the motives of the writer. Can someone who deliberately writes to the market -- someone whose primary concern is profitability rather than plot or character -- produce literary fiction? And is that why we're not seeing very much of it?

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2009 8:49:32 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 31, 2009 8:51:34 AM PDT
In some way my intent and meaning in my last post have been misconstrued. At no time and in no way would I suggest disregard for immortality for one's writing. The opposite thinking is cornerstone for my attitude and work, hence my often reference to the role of the medieval monks in preserving the culture and writing and culture

My concern is on the point that this culture, in recent history in particular, does not value the intrinsic worth of literary writing, frankly, I say, of any human expression beyond the bare minimum with the greatest monetary profit for those with scant heart and mind. In many ancient and "old" cultures the story-teller-artist-healer was honored by the community. The problem-issue, as I see it, now, is the inability of a creative/literary artist to pay the rent and food bills during her/his lifetime. this is how we end up with "classics."

I often listen to NPR as I write (classical music) and am hearing several programs (Bill McGlaughlin +) on Josef Hayden and his indenture to the gentry (House of Esterhazy) during his lifetime, even to being refused opportunity to accept an invitation to visit and perform in England due to his obligation. At least an outstanding artist, then, might find a patron, and survive.

So, my comment has to do with the ability of a writer to live (survive beyond poverty) on the ability-work s/her does best, instead of it being a part-time or second job.

I hope I am clearer. It appears that when I try to write more frugally, I do not communicate as well. And this medium, sans tone and nuance, is limiting. Sorry. I thought my statement, "Stop the world..." made my point.

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2009 10:33:33 AM PDT
Toni Seger says:
G & G,
Basically, you're both right. It's not one or the other.

People who've worked all their life to perfect an art form should be respected for what they've done, enjoy enough of a reward to pay the basics, at least, and still be remembered after they're gone.

When none of the above is the case it's a bit much...

I'm just glad the Internet gives me a chance to store the stuff...

Toni Seger
The Telefax Box

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2009 11:12:36 AM PDT
We are "both-and" people, I see, Nevertheless, I do respond if I think I've been misinterpreted--as in about half the time and more.

As my trust in the ever evolving electronic media is less than secure I hope to print my writing: essays, poems, short stories, unpublished work, and put it in an old fashioned box.

Meanwhile, I was asked to donate my "papers" to Texas library A&M archives. This is a possibility for all writers; give your work to your alma mata. My sons are instructed to submit anything I leave to my undergrad alma mata. It has an archivist and good storage. Why? Not that I think I'm the greatest writer since Sappho, Bradstreet, Walker or any writer. I am a social scientist and historical revisionist and who can ever know to what use a thing will be in some distant period, if found.

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2009 3:28:38 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Okay, here's the thing. It would be wonderful if the world was the way it "should" be. (My late husband called this shouldism) It isn't. The world is the way it is. And it's tough for people who write literary fiction. It almost always has been. Having read Gwendoline's posts, I couldn't help noticing that she "almost never" reads fiction. And that's fine. I know lots of people who don't read fiction. But I wouldn't expect to find them contributing to a discussion about literary fiction. If you don't read it, how can you possibly comment meaningfully on the genre?

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 8:04:20 AM PDT
I know the world is as it is, but as a designated "Change Agent." M. Ph., Roosevelt U, and "Interdisciplinary Social Scientist--dancer-singer-traveler-metaphysician, and organic/holistic thinker, I have joined with many others to do what we can to make "the world" better for more people. You do not seem to get the point of a person who perceives the possibilities of non-limitation, of freedom from the concept of genre, as nothing more than efforts to limit creativity and freedom of expression. learn the rules, enlarge the rules, create new rules are the vision of really creative people in all "genre," Literary fiction, by implication, and history aims for that kind of goal. I realize that we are not using the same "language."

I have two published literary fiction books; the first two are published by Pelican Publishers, the original Faulkner publisher and is noted in "The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Yearbook: 2002, as "outstanding," by its editor, George Garrett, "the Dean of Southern Writing," formerly head of English at the University of Virginia. My endorsers and reviewers include, but are not limited to, Lee Smith, one of the most important southern writers, Steve Eberly, professor of literature, Robert Gover, award winning author and teacher, Susan Kopplemann, professor of English and author. These people are qualified to designate who is a literary writer. Before denigrating, please research.

My third novel will be published shortly. I hope to garner similar acceptance, for one hopes to improve as one progresses at the work.

I intended to convey by my comment on fiction reading that I almost never read fiction, NOW, because I am involved in reading socio-political information and writing on it, such as Naomi Klein,'s Shock Doctrine, the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. I buy and read good novels by friends, such as Joanna Catherine Scott. My bedside table and floor runneth over--novels. non-fiction and poetry--bookmarks everywhere.

I never intended to become embroiled in comments such as yours on this topic. I have left sites that were used to crititise others. I do not do that, and do not so misuse my energy, time and effort

Unfortunately, you appear not to have comprehended anything that I have written in this venue. I regret that. I think the misconception is because some people read for specifically familiar "buzz" words and concepts. I'm not of that ilk.

When I ceased teaching and decided to write I read every book by women and minority writers in three public libraries. This interest continues in that on Saturday, 5/20, I gave a talk at a UU retreat, Anti-Racism workshop. To hold an audience there must be a "fictive" (story-telling) flair to the presentation, fact, with an attitude.

I recommend an "old" book (1986) Stealing the Language, The emrgence of Women's Poetry in America, by Alicia Suslin Ostriker. I like to think of myself as a poet who wrotes fiction,using poetic sensibilities as the floor of my fiction.Built on a base of liflong reading, the special teachers with whom I worked, I crafted fictive skills, not to imitate, but emerge orgnically from that blend. Inever want to "copy.: To have someone say, "Your work sounds like...) is snot necessarily a compliment. Yes, we ae influenced by what we read, but to move frther in the cretive process, as Buckminister Fuller did, one must "forget" what others have done in order to create one's own. This is not to say that you become a blank canvas, but that "imitation" is subconscious," and what emerges is an enhanced flow of vision, conception and expression.

This, of course, is exactly what "the business" does not want. Tradition is always interested to continue the tradition. Only after a breakthrough into new territory is accomplished is the phenomenon acknowledged. This breaking new ground, on, but beyond the known and accepted, is a primary role of literary fiction, of any creative art and enterprise. So I have learned. As a continuing essayist, blogger, speaker, and activist for socio-cultural-political change, I find the entire world a work of "fiction"--ah ha!

I grew up reading fiction, but had to put my love of it on a back burner during years of teaching--up to 200 students, per day--along with administrative work, and rearing three sons and their dad. When I realized that I was reading less fiction, I vowed to, and did increase the activity. I would read more fiction and poetry, if my schedule were not as it is.

I write quite good fiction, according to reviewers and readers (except the cultural nincompoop at Publisher's Weekly, who reviewed my first novel.) I think-visualize, conceptualize "in story," in dialogue, and, in some ways, see no substantial separation between fiction and non-fiction, if one has a holistic perspective. Life is one big fiction, in our denials, fantasies, omissions and misconceptions. I do, consciously, write differently in the various forms: poems, fiction, short story, novel and essay. As Satchel Paige said, "It keeps the juices jangling." The blend of the best of all world's is the goal.

When I did read four to five books at a rime, my reading speed--and eyes were much better. At the current stage of my life, I read a lot slower. I've had both cataracts surgeries.

This excursion has been fun. I think it is time to get back to my world.
I'll visit your website Toni, and read the books profiled here, as much as I can.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2009 8:56:41 AM PDT
Toni Seger says:
Had to address this.

The world is the way it is, but I have to say however stupidly this country treated writers previous to 1980's, it can't compare to the way it's treated them since. William Faulkner would never surface in this environment.

re: Reading habits. Speaking for myself, mine have fundamentally changed over the years. As someone who read voraciously growing up including wolfing down the widest range of fiction<------>literature as I could, my reading habits changed in the 80's.

Basically, I got fed up with being repeatedly disappointed with the product of what I increasingly viewed as publishing mills churning out a forgettable product and the academic additive has only made matters worse. I contend schools are best when used for research and analysis. They are NOT good environments for creativity. Universities make a healthy profit from creative writing programs and it's inevitable if publishers are going to abandon all responsibility for literature, writers are going to conduct a read guard action from academia. However, in my opinion, these programs have glutted the market with a flood of obviously overlyworkshopped fiction/poetry that should have remained in the desk drawer. (Sorry, I'm showing my age. Remained on a hard drive.)

As for the Reviews/Quotes Hype! machine promoting this stuff, I've gone from bafflement to disgust about the current 'literary' world. My conclusion: It's the Emperor's New Clothes and I have better things to do.

At some point about 25 years ago, I stopped reading contemporary prose and poetry and stuck to long dead, classic authors. Have I missed some good stuff? I certainly hope so. Still, I can't sort it all out in one life.

Toni Seger
The Telefax Box

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2009 9:20:19 AM PDT
I continue to think/feel that we have met somewhere in this cosmological journey. Your perceptions and comments are "familiar." in that they resonate. Your make "points" point I failed to make. I, too, found much contemporary fiction "empty, overly workshopped, an echo. so, who is encouraged to read more? I call it the MFA syndrome. Age? I say, not. Maturity and evolved taste.
Thank you.
Gwendoline Y. Fortune

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2009 9:26:32 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Toni, what can I say? You're right, at least about the difficulty of finding a good, contemporary read. The MFAs are clones -- you can spot an MFA graduate instantly! The last two book groups I belonged to reverted to reading the classics because they were fed up the trendy, "ethnic" self-absorbed garbage that was masquerading as serious fiction. In fact, some of my friends use reviews in reverse -- if certain reviewers praise a novel, they avoid it. So what's a writer to do? Keep writing and keep reaching out, I suppose. I'm on a book tour right now and the best part of it has been the discovery that the real readers (as opposed to the pretentious pundits) are still out there, still reading and still buying literary fiction.

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 4:13:00 PM PDT
Because I was concerned by a quotation that "Gwendoline... 'almost never' reads fiction," my curiosity returned me to the forum. Twice, I read each of the 16 comments I wrote between May 13th and June 1st.

I did not write that I "almost never" read fiction." I wrote, "I do not read many contemporary novels," and, "I never thought of literary fiction, specifically." I, then, discussed the concept of literature in a plea for holism, not merely delineated genre. My discussion focused on the richness FOR writing fiction that can be found in a variety of places/sources.

It is not in my writing or speaking lexicon to use "never." I try to censor that usage.

Then, I read,
"Toni, what can I say?...The last two book groups I belonged to reverted to reading the classics because they were fed up the trendy, "ethnic" self-absorbed garbage that was masquerading as serious fiction."

It is amazing how I manage to stir animosity. Perhaps, it may be comprehended in the word "ethnic." Darn it, why did I mention the title of my first novel or say anything about myself? That novel was in mental process and preparation for forty years, age 15 to 55, after I thought, "Every story I read about my people, they are barefoot, pregnant, in the field or ghetto. I know a different world, and I never read about the kind of people I know." This concept is, "write what you know." The novel was written between 1985 and 2002, when Pelican took it. This time included reading, workshops, mentoring, writing and copious editing.

I wrote on language, literature, the culture in which we find ourselves that denigrates "literature."

I thought the discussion was fun--until then.
Really, good-bye this time.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2009 5:05:41 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Hope this doesn't come as too big a shock, but everything isn't about you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2009 11:15:04 AM PDT
Toni Seger says:
It's certainly possible. I wouldn't rule it out.
Thanks for your response to this. I thought I might stir up animosity for saying it... (I've gotten plenty of flack for saying such things...)
BTW, poet William Logan has a new book of essays out that tears the current poetry world apart with the exception of Geoffrey Hill, an extraordinary and challenging poet who is too often overlooked because he is so challenging. I felt relieved that finally someone was saying the things I'd felt for so long.
"The Telefax Box" is the first in a trilogy of novels that satirize our overly mechanized lives. Race is also an important element that is thoroughly satirized as well.
This trilogy is a young work, too much from the head, (later, I learned how to write from the heart), but I still like it and am grateful I lived long enough to be able to share it. I hope to see all of my babies get born...
Thank you for a spirited and memorable discussion.

Toni Seger
The Telefax Box

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2009 11:41:52 AM PDT
Toni Seger says:
I will admit to having a few prejudices in my life. I do not support nuclear power in any form, for any purpose, and I think that an academic degree in creativity is an oxymoron.
Not that it matters what I think, but this is a subject I have strong feelings about.
MFA's have become the standard bearers for the question we have been discussing; i.e. What is Literature? And, they have somehow made their mediocre standard the only recognized path. e.g. Want to be taken seriously as a poet? You must be associated with a university. If not, prepare to be dismissed unread...
What I've learned to spot in reviews is the deal behind the words: i.e. you like my book and I'll like yours.
I have made substantial sacrifices in my life on behalf of a literary world that doesn't exist, so I boil when I'm forced to witness how corrupt it has become.
BTW, this is a preview from my film, "The Force of Poetry" which I think you will enjoy.

Toni Seger
The Telefax Box

Posted on Jul 4, 2009 2:13:43 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 4, 2009 2:17:08 PM PDT
An editor once told me that commercial fiction is plot-driven, while literary fiction is character-driven. Go figure.

Posted on Jul 4, 2009 10:05:42 PM PDT
I'd agree with that, Norma.

I don't think literary fiction is so much a genre as a standard, really. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James Cain all wrote what could be classified as both genre fiction and literary fiction.

Posted on Jul 5, 2009 9:05:34 AM PDT
Toni Seger says:
I'd agree with it, too, and, even better, I think Aristotle would as well.

In the "Poetics", Language and Character are considered far more important than Plot.

Toni Seger
The Force of Poetry

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2009 10:44:26 AM PDT
Edward Klotz says:
I think "literary" sometimes gets jumbled with "general" fiction. In my opinion, it is simply the reader's decision as to whether a novel should be considered "literary" rather than "general." I like the "test of time" comments I'm seeing. I agree somewhat with that position.

Posted on Aug 28, 2009 1:02:33 PM PDT
What did I miss? Why has Amazon deleted all these posts by people? Can anyone circumvent enough to tell me the content that had to be deleted?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2009 1:27:34 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
"Test of time" is good, but not infallible. I suspect many excellent novels that might well have passed the test of time never got the opportunity to do so -- they went out of print, they disappeared. And of course, the test of time doesn't help the reader who wants to invest her (or his) time in a "good" book but doesn't know which one to choose. That's where, I think, the "literary" tag comes in handy. Speaking only for myself, I would not invest hours in reading something that was identified as a romance, or a thriller. I tend to enjoy more serious, demanding fiction. Maybe the category needs a new name. Serious fiction? But then someone's going to ask, What exactly do you mean by serious? And we'll be back where we are now.

Posted on Aug 30, 2009 6:17:15 PM PDT
E. Smiley says:
To jump in on the discussion here--

It seems to me that, marketing-wise, literary fiction is the better-written subgenre of "general fiction," which is anything that falls outside defined genres. Thus, if your book shows a certain level of competence with the English language, is intended for adults, is set in past or present-day Earth without major supernatural/magical components, does not follow romance or mystery structures and conventions, and conveys a level of intelligence/thoughtfulness on your part, you're probably going to be called literary fiction. The general fiction that doesn't meet intelligence/linguistic standards falls under "pop lit." (Or "thrillers" if it's non-stop action, or "historical fiction" if it happens to be set in the past. I don't think of historical fiction as genre fiction, since it's so diverse and because it's never separated out in bookstores or libraries.)

I tend to define it a little differently, though; I think anything with original ideas, well-developed characters, stylistic prowess, and intelligence is literary. I've read some works of genre fiction that fall into this category, primarily fantasy books--I would say it's easier for great fantasy or sci fi to be literary than for great mysteries or romance, simply because the latter two have such strict requirements for structure and seem to stick more closely to conventions (whereas the best fantasy is completely original). But then, I'm hardly the expert on either genre. Still, I have no patience with critics who turn up their noses at all genres in favor of general fiction--as if writing about middle-aged people having identity crises is infinitely superior to or somehow more original than writing about the solving of murder cases or epic battles to defeat evil.

Long-winded, but there's a definition that doesn't invoke the "test of time" rule. I firmly believe that literary fiction is being written right now. :)

Posted on Aug 30, 2009 6:57:15 PM PDT
You may wish to take another look at the Poetics of Aristotle. In that work, he does not say that language and character are more important than plot. To the contrary, Aristotle explicitly says that plot is "the starting point, the soul as it were, of tragedy; and character comes next." Of course he is principally concerned with tragedy and to some degree epic, but I have always felt that these observations apply equally well to novels and even lyric poems.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2009 11:07:08 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
This is the best definition I've heard so far -- it gets away from the "test of time" problem and it is inclusive rather than exclusive -- there is no reason why a particular work of genre fiction can't also be considered literary fiction. Bravo!
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Discussion in:  Literary Fiction forum
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Initial post:  Mar 31, 2009
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