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What is literary fiction?


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Posted on Aug 31, 2009 7:12:22 PM PDT
E. Smiley says:
Thanks--I'm hoping it fits your book too!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 2, 2009 2:27:18 PM PDT
Toni Seger says:
Hi Gail,
Nice to hear from you again.

"Test of Time" is more foolproof, but a problem for obvious reasons. We could all agree to renew this discussion in a hundred years, but might not be able to make it...

I don't think being literary is ruled out by genre or ruled in by lack of genre. It's how language is approached and treated. Yes, of course, literary fiction is being written as evidenced by this forum discussion. Unfortunately, it isn't valued by publishing houses.

re: Plot, Character, Language. Plot should develop in service of Character and Language, not the other way around. Today's blockbusters are primarily plot driven; character and language are relatively unimportant which is precisely the problem.

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy
https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/1737557

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 2, 2009 3:31:17 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Hi Toni,
Nice to catch up with you again, too. How are your projects going? Sea Changes is doing better than I dared hope. And I'm pleased that someone started up this discussion again. Hopefully, there won't be any more rants. I hate rants.
I'm at my beach house in Mexico, and a well-meaning friend recently presented me with an armful of novels, none of which I'd ordinarily read. But one of them just happened to be set in Tucson (where I live) and I idly opened it, read the first few pages -- and I was hooked. Reading this novel is not in any sense an aesthetic experience. (In fact, I'm almost embarrassed at how much I'm enjoying it. Sort of like eating vanilla fudge ripple ice cream out of the carton at 2 AM) But the writer has an easy, compelling style and I am enjoying this stupid book. In fact, I'm enjoying it a lot more than I've been enjoying the "critically acclaimed" novels I've been reading, all of which seem to have come out of the same MFA literary sausage-making machine. And that gives me pause. If any piece of fiction is going to stand the test of time, somebody -- somewhere -- is going to have to enjoy reading it. Is enjoyment part of the aesthetic experience? I haven't got my Aristotle here, but maybe you've got some thoughts about this. If so, I'd love it if you shared them.

Posted on Sep 3, 2009 2:54:15 PM PDT
E. Smiley says:
I wouldn't go so far as to say that plot should be in service to character and language; plot needs to be interesting and to make sense. I'm annoyed when, for instance, the main character is selected for a leadership position simply because he/she is the main character and this allows his/her personality to develop (yes, I've seen it happen!), rather than because it seems likely in a given situation. I'd only be more annoyed if such a scene was included simply because the author had written it beautifully and didn't want to delete it, even though it didn't serve the plot OR help develop the character!

A word on the test of time, and why I didn't include it in my definition: that's what makes a classic. Perhaps recognizing the difference between any literary works (including those being written today) and classics would simplify the definitions a bit.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 3, 2009 2:58:38 PM PDT
Toni Seger says:
Hi Gail,
I love hearing from you. I'll admit to many forbidden pleasures that caught and held my attention... just because... When that happens, I tell myself there's something in there that's pushing my buttons and I'll carry something of value away with me. I don't know what this does to my mind, but I know what vanilla fudge ripple at 2 AM will do to my body, so I try to refrain from that indulgence. As for 'critically acclaimed whatever', I've become increasingly suspicious of canned hype as in, 'you scratch my review and I'll scratch yours'.

Recently, I got drawn into a book that was practically life changing. It was a biography of Edward deVere, the 16th earl of Oxford which this fascinating book completely convinced me is the real author of the Shakespeare canon. Apparently, a lot of other writers, actors, etc. were also convinced by it as well and added their endorsements. It revealed a literary scam of appalling dimensions.

As for my own projects, I'm pleased with the way things are going even as the learning curve continues and continues. After a grueling effort, I finally created my first Kindle edition from a chapbook though because I don't actually own a Kindle, I can't check how it looks. I've started developing a web site, but that's going to take a while...

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy
https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/1737557

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 3, 2009 4:11:27 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
The character/plot question sometimes strikes me as a bit of a red herring, at least where literary fiction is concerned. (With genre fiction it is not an issue, as both plot and characters are stereotyped. I suppose the best genre authors are the ones who create something original within the confines of their chosen stereotype) That having been said, it depends upon the work. Sometimes, a character is so compellingly drawn that you want to know everything about him/her, even if it's nothing much. (Ian McEwan's Saturday comes to mind ) And sometimes the plot is so intricately constructed that the story-line becomes more important than the people. When the two come together, it's magic. But even that doesn't make it literary fiction; it just makes it a wonderful read.
One thing that does worry me about "literary fiction" is that people think "literary" means "hard to read" and "boring". It only took me a couple of bookstore signings to learn to say that Sea Changes was "non-genre fiction" instead of "literary fiction"!

Posted on Sep 3, 2009 6:44:01 PM PDT
The Financial Lives of the Poets

Movie style trailer for the new novel by National Book Award Finalist Jess Walter "The Financial Lives of the Poets"

Here's a Youtube link:
http://tiny.cc/wsZJz

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 5:12:29 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 30, 2009 5:14:14 AM PDT
Renwonug says:
I agree with Fitzgeral Fan.

One of my favorite new authors is Annis Ward Jackson. She's written other things (all on Kindle) but her historical novel about Abraham Lincoln's questionable paternity is, using your words, Fan, thoughtful, well-written, insightful, and SHOULD invoke intelligent discussion, although biographers have basically suppressed this story for two hundred years.

Mind if I quote you now and then on your definition of "literary?"

Into The Twilight: The True Origins of Abe Lincoln

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 5:40:04 AM PDT
Literary fiction is more concerned with how the story is told than with what actually happens. Attention is paid to the meaning of the sounds of the words and the poetic associations between various themes and images in the work. In short, literary fiction is prose poetry. A work in any genre can be literary fiction if its style is poetic. I disagree with MVA who says literary fiction "gives testimony to the human experience...leaving the reader in some way...a better person." An Oprah choice book may leave you a "better" person, but it may not me. Literary fiction is not self-help. It stimulates the mind, as all good poetry does, but not necessarily toward a way of thinking that we can all agree is "better." I would not consider it self-improvement, for instance, if a book were to "renew my faith in spirituality" or god, as so many of the books people admire for their "literary" qualities are said to do.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 11:47:06 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Hi Toni,
I was quite nervous about the whole web-site thing, and ready to put it in the hands of an (expensive) professional. Then I discovered something called www.1and1.com they host web-sites, but they have a site-development DIY feature that actually works quite well. I mean, if I can do it, anyone can do it! My publicist was leery, but when she saw it she thought it was great! Mind you, I don't know how elaborate a site you want. I wanted something really simple. But take a look at mine at www.gailgraham.net and see what you think. It might be worth a try. And "free" is my favorite price!

Gail Graham
Author, Sea Changes

Posted on Sep 4, 2009 12:03:48 PM PDT
you want literary fiction?! a free 3 part audiobook youtube excerpt series 'lowdown reading' youtube.com-- worded in a way that'll take the black off your teeth.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 1:04:39 PM PDT
Toni Seger says:
Gail,
Another great new phrase; non-genre fiction. Isn't it amazing how words get mangled to the point where their meaning has been completely reversed?? Just recently, someone who loved to read insisted to me she wouldn't like to read Virgil. Then, I read a short (gorgeous!!!!) selection from the Georgics and the person was hooked! and amazed of course. It's happened with Horace, Cicero and others. I keep saying the same thing. There are reasons why something lasts thousands of years...

When plot is all, characters are merely devices to move the plot along. When characters are fully fleshed out, plot emerges organically from them.

re: Language. In my opinion, John Cheever's Falconer is a flawed book that doesn't completely deliver, but his language was fully developed, highly rhythmic, definitely reaching for the poetry in prose. I can enjoy that book, whatever its limitations, just to enjoy that music.

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy
https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/1737557

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 1:08:27 PM PDT
Toni Seger says:
I would go along with this. As for silly definitions of literature as self improvement, where you put noir fiction? Dark writers, often my favorites, are excluded.

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy
https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/1737557

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 2:24:32 PM PDT
Toni Seger says:
Gail,
Your site looks very good and it's easy to navigate. Your sample chapter drew me in very effectively, too. Nice writing. Very clean even flow. Literary, but never! boring.

I've started putting something together for my husband and I at webs.com where templates are also supplied at no cost. I don't have all the material ready for it, yet, but what I've started to design seems clunky to me right now, so I'm trying to finish up a few things before I tackle it again. If I can't make it work there, maybe I'll try it again at 1and1.

One thing I haven't worked on at all, yet, is a book trailer for youtube. Watching yours and others is getting me thinking about that...

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy
https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/1737557

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 2:53:09 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
I totally agree with the idea that the characters -- rather than the plot -- come first, but that's simply because it's how it works with me. For other writers, it might be the other way around.
And I'm glad you like "non-genre" -- but isn't it a shame that "literary" is such a sales killer! I'd sit there at my little table and someone would come up to me and say, What's your book like? I'd say, Well, it's literary fiction .... and watch their eyes glaze over.
Sooner or later, someone is going to ask me what "non-genre" means. But as yet, nobody has.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2009 3:00:07 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Thank you for the kind words.
I'm finding that the book trailer is wonderful when I do signings -- I have a little portable DVD player and I just turn it on and let it play. People are sometimes hesitant about coming up to an author who is sitting at a table behind a stack of books, but they'll stop and watch a video.
I have seen a lot of really bad book trailers. Actually, I have seen so many bad ones that at first, I didn't think I wanted one. But then Amy MacGregor at The Cadence Group said, Let me put something together and if you don't like it you don't have to pay for it. And I loved it! And it wasn't very expensive. I can really recommend them.
If you ever decide to read Sea Changes, I'd love it if you did a review!

Gail Graham
Author, Sea Changes

Posted on Sep 5, 2009 10:17:51 AM PDT
E. Smiley says:
It's looking like I may be the only one here who reads any genre fiction, but while I realize some readers of exclusively literary fiction are too wedded to their feelings of superiority to be swayed in any case, I'm going to have to defend it for a moment.

Saying that "both the plot and the characters are stereotyped" in all genre fiction is ridiculously untrue. Of course, in some genres it's more true than others--romance, for instance, is heavily bound by conventions, and many readers don't expect realistic plots or characters, but that's only one genre out of many, and even there, you're going to see some plotlines that are different and characters that are human and believable.

All quality fiction, of whatever type, involves three-dimensional characters. There are plenty of these in genre fiction... just as there are plenty who aren't in non-genre fiction.

Regarding plot, it's ironic that people literary fiction gurus are saying it's not important at the same time as disparaging plots found in other genres. When writers value plot less, it tends to be less interesting and more stereotyped; when they value it highly, it'll be more interesting and less stereotyped. There are of course predictable genre books, but there are also highly predictable literary books, and some of the most interesting, least predictable and least stereotyped plots I've seen have been (predictably) in books that lacked literary quality. It's true that genres have patterns that frequently appear, but this hardly means every book in the genre is based on a pattern--and literary fiction has its patterns too. They just tend to be less action-oriented. Nothing wrong with that--but I'm just as sick of the "woman is married to lousy husband, but doesn't want to leave the relationship because she loves their child too much" plot that often appears in literary fiction as I am of the "boy of mysterious parentage turns out to be son of the king" plot that often appears in fantasy fiction.

Luckily for me, both genres have plenty of books that don't follow those plots, so I still have things to read.

What I'm trying to say is: Literary fiction is great, but please don't be a snob about it. Some of us like other things too--not because we want to read the same old stereotyped book over and over (I know I don't), but because not all good books have--or should have--that "literary" label.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 5, 2009 10:43:01 AM PDT
Toni Seger says:
I use a taped interview that way for one of my films. It's a non-threatening way to engage with people. I need to look at more trailers. I have a couple of ideas I'd like to explore.

I'd be happy to read and review your book, but I can't commit to anything because my time is so crammed already. I start out with a list every day and never get more than half way through it. Some of this is good, some of it is necessary and some of it is just plain burdensome, but, for better or worse, that's my situation.

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy
https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD
https://www.CreateSpace.com/1737557

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 5, 2009 2:40:32 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
You're right, of course. And I didn't mean to imply that all genre fiction was awful. In fact, "boy of mysterious parentage" is often more fun than "wretched suburban marriage". I guess for the reader, the issue with genre fiction is the same as the issue with literary fiction -- finding the good ones!
Perhaps the problem with all of this pigeon-holing is that it IS pigeon-holing -- we've handed ourselves over to the marketers and agreed to play (and read) by their rules. Tom Sawyer would never find a publisher today. Neither would Alice in Wonderland.
I think it's up to individual writer to break loose -- to write and publish what they want. And that's happeniing. Few novelists earn a living writing novels, but it has always been that way. I don't think "real" writers write to earn money. The write because they have to write, because the story is there in their mind and it has to be told.
Whatever it is.
That having been said, I derive a great deal of pleasure from a book in which language is used gracefully, lovingly and creatively; in which the characters seem to me to be "real"; and in which the sequence of events is such that I really do care what happens next. And I tend to find that magical combination more frequently in "literary" fiction than in "genre" fiction. And then there are those wonderful authors that fall someplace in between -- James Hamilton Patterson, for example. With him, you get to enjoy both the vitamins and the chocolate! (Or the Fernet Branca)

Posted on Sep 6, 2009 9:35:06 AM PDT
E. Smiley says:
Gail, I think you're right, and you weren't coming across as snobbish at all. Of course there's no question that the use of language in literary fiction is better than that found in the vast majority of genre fiction, and there's a lot to be said for that--I just felt the need to defend it from accusations of not only inferior writing, but cliched plots and trite characterization as well. There is a reason we read the stuff, after all! My favorites are the authors who excel on all three points, difficult to find in genre fiction or out of it.

Posted on Sep 8, 2009 3:28:36 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
While reading an analysis of Egyptian hieroglyphics (don't ask!) it occured to me that maybe we need to scrap all of our old terminology and start over.
The ancient Egyptians apparently identified three different scripts. Hieroglyphic was the highest form, priestly carving on stone. Hieratic was script written on papyrus -- recording what was worth recording (non-fiction?) Demotic was used for trade, writing advertisements and receipts.
Genre fiction is -- to my way of thinking -- demotic. That's not to denigrate it. John O'Hara (anybody remember him?) was a master of the demotic.
Hieroglyphic in this sense really means finely wrought. The language of literary fiction is finely wrought. it is moulded, sculpted, carved. It is not the way we speak. But it's the way we'd like to think we think.
Hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic could also apply to plot, and characterization.
These are the thoughts one has while sitting on a balcony overlooking the Sea of Cortez, reading and sipping red wine.
Just thought I'd toss it into the mix.

Posted on Sep 14, 2009 8:15:10 AM PDT
Please note that I shall be "guest blogger" on www.polkadotbanner.com this Wednesday 16th September with my article "What is literature? What is literary fiction." Comments may be made by readers and I'll do my best to respond.

A. Colin Wright
www.sardiniansilver.com
www.acolinwright.ca
www.authorsden.com/acolinwright

Posted on Sep 15, 2009 4:48:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 15, 2009 4:52:28 PM PDT
rocketman says:
Literary fiction is simply when the story is a product of the characters' everyday actions and personalities. It's known as character-driven fiction. The other end of the spectrum is drama, or suspense, and is story-driven fiction, such as Jurassic Park or The Firm. In story fiction you know very little about the characters and don't care. There is a fast paced story that draws you in and you don't have time for evaluating, identifying with, or being alienated by the characters and their thoughts and feelings. In literary fiction, which is the most difficult fiction for an author to master, the reader is introduced to the protagonist and begins to follow the person and a story develops because of what the character IS. A modern literary fiction work is Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake." There is no real story, just some people who become so interesting you cannot put the book down.
A master of combining literary fiction and story or plot fiction was Trevanian, who wrote "The Eiger Sanction," and "Shibumi," among others. Trevanian was so masterful at developing characters and weaving them into a story that it was hard to put the work into a category, for he was so good at combining the two. In my humble opinion, if a writer can combine the art of character fiction/literary fiction, with plot fiction/drama, then he or she is a master.

Posted on Sep 17, 2009 12:22:39 PM PDT
Case Quarter says:
a buddy of mine writes horror fiction, a category, genre, looked down upon by readers, and many critics, of serious, literary, fiction. now my buddy has no problem working into his fiction aspects of sebold, and, as he's told me, he's trying to write a tale as good as the ones written by henry james. harold bloom writes of considering horror fiction as serious fiction, at least some of it, after all, henry james and edgar allen poe wrote horror and their works are appreciated as literary fiction. these days recognizing literary fiction, as did your editor(?), is a bit of a detective game. in reading your work, she gleans ghostly influences, intended by you or not (henry miller said a writer does not choose a tradition, a tradition chooses the writer), be it jane austen, virginia woolf, edith wharton, gabriel garcia marquez and or toni morrison. or if intentionally you, the writer, sit down with such ghosts staring over your shoulder, wanting to write a story to make proud dostoievski and tolstoi.

Posted on Sep 19, 2009 9:50:59 PM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Sep 26, 2009 8:34:47 AM PDT]
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Discussion in:  Literary Fiction forum
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Initial post:  Mar 31, 2009
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