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What is literary fiction?

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In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 9:48:16 AM PDT
1) Yes. Yes, I believe it.

2) No. If I had, it would no longer be a notion but a fact. But my notion is backed by the fact that children would learn Latin and Greek in school, forty years ago, or even further back. They would learn about mythology, history and yes, literature. All subjects that helped lay the base for further studying. Today? They are lucky if they learn how to read and write.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 9:59:18 AM PDT
Dragi Raos says:
Katharina, are you sure that other fact about schools is actually a fact, and not just an artifact of the fact we are growing older? :o)

How many children learned Latin and Greek forty years ago? (BTW, at least 20% of kids in high school still learn Latin where I am from.)

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 10:34:29 AM PDT
I did write forty years ago or further back in my last comment. Most children were taught Latin and Greek in elementary/grade school in the sixties in Europe. It stopped in the seventies and on when knowledge was deemed less important than working in groups and making clay animals. Latin is still taught in high school, but on a very basic level.

"Latin and Greek were the mainstay of education in Ireland and the UK until as recently as 30 years ago when it was decided to drop Latin as a University entrance requirement. As a result, the teaching of the languages in second level schools declined and beginners' courses were introduced at University level. Few students, therefore, outside and sometimes even within the discipline of Classics itself, have the time to acquire more than a passing knowledge of the languages."

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 11:58:13 AM PDT

I agree that popular comedy, as well as literature, has lost a lot of brain mass in forty years. If there's one thing you can say about Monty Python and the original National Lampoon magazine, it's that it was anti-know-nothing. People these days who watch Judd Apatow movies are just after cheap laughs. Should that be all comedy is about?

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 2:01:14 PM PDT
Katharina, Del, I'm not so sure popular comedy has lost a lot of brain mass in the past forty years. I think popular comedy has always been populist and a little on the dumb side. Hence it's broad appeal. "Monthy Python's Flying Circus" was never as popular as "Gilligan's Island." Bill Hicks never had the audience of Bill Cosby. Part of the appeal of smart comedy is that it isn't wildly popular. Sure Judd Apatow movies go for the cheap laughs but at least they try to lay a little humanity in there. I think the real problem for culture is shows like "American Idol" moving from filler to front and center. From to side shows to lead shows.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 2:30:46 PM PDT
<<I'm not so sure popular comedy has lost a lot of brain mass in the past forty years. I think popular comedy has always been populist and a little on the dumb side.>>

I'm not going to dispute that there's always been stupid comedy, Stefano. However, I think it's also hopeless to dispute that the intellectual range of popular comedy has narrowed in the decades since Monty Python and National Lampoon were cult favorites. Edgy comedy on TV went the way of the dinosaur after the Smothers Brothers got the boot. Saturday Night Live was smart and a little nasty when it started, but it wasn't long before it devolved into a catchphrase factory. Even the National Lampoon went from a cool magazine to a raunchy movie franchise. If there are modern equivalents to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, I don't see them on TV.

And the same happened in literary fiction, particularly the satirical kind. In the 60's, Joseph Heller and John Barth were on the best-seller list. Crazed satire is hardly fashionable nowadays.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 4:09:56 PM PDT
Dragi Raos says:
"since Monty Python and National Lampoon were cult favorites"

The operative word being "cult".

I remember three other British TV comedy series of those days we were watching over here in Croatia: often quite provocative Dave Allen, mindless slapstick Benny Hill and sitcom On the Buses. All four very different, with different expectations from the viewers, all had their audience.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 5:40:48 PM PDT
Del, you're right that there's no modern equivalents of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl on TV these days. No Bruce Sterling (sly and funny in his own way) or Paddy Chayefsky. No crazed satire. I suspect this is a problem of the medium. When TV first began, all bets were off and experimenting was in. Over the years in became milder and milder until cable TV had to step in and up the ante on the the S&P minders in the major broadcasters. Hopefully the current generation of Bruce and Sahl are slashing up pixels on the interwebs where all bets are off and nobody knows where the hell we're heading.

Interesting point about the crazed satire. A lot of Bruce's and Sahl's work was point out the hypocrisy of the times. That's getting more difficult these days when fact is often more bizarre than fiction. I mean, how can you satirize the likes of Romney (who, all jokes aside, is running for president). Hypocrisy has reached such some sort of satirical saturation point.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2012 2:51:46 PM PDT
Richard G. says:
I also prefer an inclusive definition of literary fiction, but come down to it being a work of fiction that is primarily character-driven rather than plot-driven. That works for me in that genres are typically defined by a characterization of plot and the definition allows for literary fiction to emerge from the genres without any definitional constraints. To me, the concept that literary fiction is defined by being written for the sophisticated literary elite doesn't work, as so many literary classics clearly did not have that audience. Similarly, the presence of expicit or implicit references to earlier works now considered to be literary fiction doesn't meet that test either -- some literary classics are riddled with such references, others not at all. However, the image that literary fiction is either written for literary snobs or by literary snobs certainly helps explain why that label is often regarded as the kiss of death for commercial success. Perhaps the label is simply misleading -- literary classics are books that tell you something significant about the human condition through the thoughts, actions, emotions of their protagonists. That, rather than, literary references, class of readership, style or genre make them worth reading.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2012 11:04:57 AM PDT

I appreciate your response. You define literary fiction in the same way I've heard a lot of people define it, so I guess the character-driven angle is common to a lot of fans of lit-fic. Fair enough.

I just wanted to point out that I never said literary fiction is the exclusive domain of some lofty intellectual elite. The way I define lit-fic has to do with the existence of a literary canon, and the shared pool of knowledge and inspiration that it represents for writers and readers alike. I don't think the lit-fic label applies to literary classics like Oliver Twist; this work is part of the canon whose influence literary fiction in some way recognizes.

Also, the notion of literary snobbishness isn't necessary to my definition of lit-fic. As I've said many times: plenty of good reads aren't literary, and plenty of works of literary fiction aren't good reads. I don't consider the term "literary" a judgment of quality. The term simply describes a wide range of literature that's geared toward readers who are already familiar with a wealth of classic literature, and who have expectations concerning its subject matter, its tropes, and its vocabulary.

Posted on Jun 8, 2012 10:12:49 PM PDT
Frank Mundo says:
Literary fiction, like porn, is something I can't clearly define, but I know it when I see it.

Posted on Jun 15, 2012 10:01:39 PM PDT
There have been many informative comments posted on this thread since it started. I have felt all along, however, that the question of what literary fiction is cannot easily be answered in a short post. Yes, I know it when I see it, but let's do a little more here than dipping our toes in the water. To really do justice to the topic, one would need to write a book on it (many have been written), a book if eloquent enough would itself qualify as literary or literature in its own right. For those who are interested in a slightly longer take, I have just posted my own thoughts on the question in my website attached to my Amazon profile page. It's a 4,000-word essay, so obviously I couldn't post it here. In short, I believe fiction is literary when it invites deconstruction. Although I practice deconstruction, what happens when we deconstruct the deconstructionists?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 15, 2012 10:44:13 PM PDT
Thank you, David. Excellent essay on how literary fiction disarms the language. Yes, metafiction is the first trope of literary fiction. But you delved a good deal deeper and shun a light further.

I particularly liked (and I quote), `The drama and suspense that normally builds up to a climax in the plot of conventional novels, in Kafka is to be found in the unremitting suspense separating one minute from the next, one sentence from the next. Drama is realized through style, through texture.'

Perhaps that's the definition of literary fiction. Drama through text, not context.

Posted on Jun 16, 2012 4:08:47 AM PDT
Thanks for your feedback, Stefano. Note that I am addressing this question from my particular angle on only a few writers. It's not meant to be a final or conclusive statement on the issue. The nature of the question of literary fiction cannot possibly be reduced to a pat formula but is inevitably open-ended.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 18, 2012 7:11:12 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 18, 2012 11:23:42 AM PDT
<<I have just posted my own thoughts on the question in my website attached to my Amazon profile page. It's a 4,000-word essay, so obviously I couldn't post it here. >>

Anyone interested in reading Deconstruction Davy's monotonous jargon salad please be warned: if you click on the link to his website, you're welcomed with a full-frontal nude picture of the author.

You're welcome.

Posted on Jun 29, 2012 12:14:41 PM PDT
In my book work of literary fiction, Poker Tales (yes, it's a book about gambling), I challenge the exclusion of poker from the genre of literary fiction. Poker Tales is the bestselling work of literary fiction on poker on Amazon, but that's not saying a lot, as there is very little literary fiction on poker on Amazon. This continues to surprise me, as I believe that the act of reading a hand of your opponent's cards at the poker table is similar to reading a work of fiction. I channeled Chaucer, Melville, Wodehouse, and others into my novel as I wrote, and I would do it again.Poker Tales

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 6, 2012 11:39:49 AM PST
Avid Reader says:
I think it's all about the quality of the writing and a love of the written word that just shines through. I just wrote something for Kindle, "A Deconstructed Heart" that I would hope is literary fiction. If it isn't, I'm sure someone will tell me on the review widget! I personally don't want to read anything that is not literary fiction, and I aspire to write something that is.

Posted on Dec 11, 2012 11:38:03 PM PST
Aristotle in his 'Poetics' wrote that for a poet "...the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars." - genius being the informing spirit of creativity and not evidence of a superior intellect or of being a "know-it-all". That greatest thing applies to literary art overall, in my opinion, and extends to all figurative language used by a writer.
In addition to this a unified sense of a works overall form conveyed by all of its parts - language, imagery, characterizations, plot, embodies the writer's world. It's the strength of that world, whether it's convincingly alive which separates literary art from mere "page turners" - work that relies on a satisfying reader's expectations by relying on stock expressions, images and ideas.
A writer's work in a specific genre can be highly literary - John LeCarré's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" for example. Nor does popularity keep one from being a fine literary artist - Anne Tyler has proven that. Literary fiction is simply the highest quality writing from writers that demand the best of themselves. That inner aesthetic integrity is part of their gift.

The Mortal Window

Posted on Dec 12, 2012 11:14:27 AM PST
Beverly says:
Wow! I agree! Anne Patchett as well with her Bel Canto and State of Wonder. Do any of you know that the Lyric Opera of Chicago has commissioned an opera to be written from Bel Canto?

Posted on Dec 13, 2012 1:21:20 AM PST
I tend to agree and love to encounter brilliant metaphors. However, Herbert Read once made an interesting point in his classic English Prose Style that metaphor is only appropriate for poetry, never for prose. I would disagree, but he argues his point with his usual forceful logic.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 13, 2012 9:35:16 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 13, 2012 10:19:28 PM PST
Thanks for sending me to Read. He does make a good argument but I think that argument is against metaphor use in expository prose since "to be definite is the proper aim of expository writing". He considers excessive or what he calls "decorative" metaphor to be vague. He also states that "metaphor is the swift illumination of an equivalence". (Check out Sam Glucksberg's "Understanding Figuarative Language", chapter 1, in which he fully explores metaphor.) Read concludes that "only the illuminative metaphor will be found appropriate in pure prose style". I agree with him. What he calls illuminative metaphor is not only poetic but "necessary for the apprehension and communication of ideas".
Literary art, though (whatever the form), is more than exposition. I think literary art is the re-creation and sharing of experience. The abstract language of ideas can be cold and difficult to see. Figurative language enlivens ideas by giving them substance and is, in my opinion, the lifeblood of literary art.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 13, 2012 9:40:47 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 13, 2012 9:41:19 PM PST
I don't know Anne Patchett's work but thanks for giving me another writer to explore.

Posted on Sep 13, 2013 2:46:48 PM PDT
Good question! I've been wondering that, too, because:

Spirited Away - A Novel of the Stolen Irish is a 2013 finalist in The Kindle Book Review's Best Indie Book Awards, Literary Fiction Category. This historical novel, which paints an intimate, compelling portrait of 1650s Irish slavery in the Caribbean, now has 83 five-star reviews on its Amazon page (a total of 164 reviews, with an average of 4.3 stars).


In May 1653, fourteen-year-old Freddy O'Brennan trusts the wrong stranger on an empty beach in western Ireland and inadvertently places herself in the crosshairs of Cromwell's notorious Reign of Terror.

Freddy awakens in the cramped hold of a slave ship bound for Barbados. Ripped from her loved ones, she endures a gruesome voyage and a vile auction. Freddy, sold to the highest bidder, alone, and far from her beloved homeland, faces the brutal realities of life as a female Irish slave on a seventeenth century Barbados plantation. Amidst the island's treacherous beauty, she must find a way to bear her cruel, drunken Master using her as a breeding slave and kitchen drudge.

Heartsick with yearning for her family and the farm life she knew, Freddy reaches deep inside herself for the strength she needs to protect her young spirit from being broken. As she struggles to survive, she risks for the sake of loyal friendship and love.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 14, 2013 5:03:43 AM PDT
Dragi Raos says:
Maggie, congratulations, but no self-promotion outside of MOA forum, please!

Posted on Sep 30, 2013 8:36:51 PM PDT
Ick. Literary fiction.

Whenever I've had to read something called that, I've ended up wanting to go to sleep. The local magazine about town sponsored a contest, and what won was "literary fiction." I couldn't even read two pages of it. It was just rambling boring description that went nowhere.

In my mind, "literary fiction" exists mainly because some people have ideas about beautiful language, and precise combinations of syllables and sounds, ideas and description that they find has artistic merit. And those people tend to look down on mainstream fiction, and mainstream people, because they consider this type of thing "aht" and we should all read and appreciate according to these rarefied sensibilities.

Although I have read a few things I've seen labeled "literary fiction" which I found worthwhile (White Oleander comes to mind), most of the time I just blank out on this stuff. I don't read for precise combinations of syllables, sounds, images, and "beautiful language." If it doesn't have a character I care about, doing something I care about, and an actual STORY that GOES SOMEWHERE, I don't want to read it. I'm bored. Sorry. IMO this kind of writing calls too much attention to itself. It's as if an author, and most paid $20,000 for an actual degree to write this stuff, sits down mainly to say, "Look how smart I am! I can do this with the language! I'm smarter and more brilliant than you with my MFA!"

And I'm like, Who cares?
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Discussion in:  Literary Fiction forum
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