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What is literary fiction?


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Initial post: Mar 31, 2009 11:44:24 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
My editor, my agent and my publicist all assure me that my new novel Sea Changes is a work of literary fiction.
But what does that mean, exactly? That's it's well written? That it will appeal to serious, intelligent readers? That its subject matter is somehow literary? All of the above? Or something else?
I've come to the conclusion that "literary fiction" simply means non-genre. If it isn't a romance or a thriller or science fiction or fantasy or any other identifiable genre, then it's "literary fiction".
So does this mean that genre fiction can't be "literary"? Absolutely not. Look at P.D. James. Look at Stephen King.
But if genre fiction can also be literary fiction, then what is literary fiction? I'm looking for a definition. Can anyone help me out here?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2009 12:18:58 PM PDT
MVA says:
Any fiction that stands the test of time, and in doing so brings something new and useful to the reader regarding the story's place in time and culture. I think it has to, in its own unique way, give testimony to the human experience somehow undone before, leaving the reader in some small or large way - a better person.

My opinion, anyway.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2009 12:27:45 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
I like the part about giving testimony to the human experience. Actually, your entire definition is elegant. But I don't know about "the test of time" -- that would seem to limit literary fiction to works that were written before one's own lifetime -- which of course means that nobody can say they've written "literary fiction" until after they're dead. It also means that, by definition, my novel isn't literary fiction. In that case, I'm left with the question: If it isn't genre fiction, and it isn't literary fiction, what is it?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2009 9:35:45 PM PDT
Zachary Cole says:
I've heard "literary" described as it's own genre, and I've often heard it used in the same sentence as "mainstream." I view contemporary novels like the DVDs in the "Drama" section of a video store.

Posted on Apr 4, 2009 10:00:14 AM PDT
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Posted on Apr 6, 2009 10:18:15 PM PDT
In my opinion, and in adding to what others have said here, literary fiction stands outside the commercial junk lit. It is thoughtful, well written, insightful, and most of all, provokes intelligent discussion. A work of literary fiction is, more often than not, a "contemporary classic."

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 7:59:41 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Apr 7, 2009 8:01:46 AM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 8:12:50 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Perhaps the problem is that we think in terms of genres, rather than in terms of the works themselves. I doubt that Mark Twain thought of himself as the writer of "young adult" fiction, but that's how Tom Sawyer would be seen -- and marketed -- today. In fact, it probably wouldn't sell at all. When I began to submit my novel Sea Changes to agents, the first question was invariably, What genre is it? I found that a really difficult question to answer, and so, eventually, did my agent. We ended up concluding that Sea Changes was literary fiction, not necessarily because of what it is but because of what it isn't. Eliminate all the other genres, and literary fiction is the only one that's left. I've just read The Terror by Dan Simmons and it was certainly thoughtful, well written, insightful and a work that provokes discussion -- but I wouldn't call it literary fiction. And I'm not quite sure why.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 8:19:53 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 8:36:19 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
Perhaps, to use language artistically rather than merely instrumentally? But then we're looking at an aesthetic determination -- a definition of what the artistic use of language might entail. I'm still concerned by the conundrum that we can only identify literary fiction after the fact -- sometimes, many years after the fact. And I find myself wondering how many contemporary works of literary fiction (works of real and lasting merit) are being pulped unread, because they weren't promoted and consequently, didn't sell.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 8:41:17 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 8:50:07 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 9:11:17 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
The paradigm is changing. The so-called mainstream publishers have given the game away. They're not in trouble simply because the economy is in trouble. They're in trouble because they're publishing books that people who buy books don't want to buy. Editors and publishers no longer exist. They have been replaced by marketers and accountants -- few of whom read other than the Wall Street Journal.
Independent publishers are springing up "like mushrooms after a spring rain" as the Chinese would say. Two hundred years ago, authors were their own publishers. And now it's happening again and I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing.
I foresee publishing co-ops. If a dozen authors were to get together and form a publishing company, there would be huge economies of scale in services such as cover design, interior design, editing and printing -- and because the company would be publishing 12 separate titles, they'd have no trouble finding distributers.
It's exciting. I just wish I was a bit younger!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 11:53:57 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on May 27, 2009 4:10:01 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 2:39:24 PM PDT
Diana Raabe says:
Great question, Gail, and a good discussion. I'd hesitate to use the word literature interchangeably with fiction. The dictionary uses words like "pedantic," "polite," "universal," and "worthy of being remembered." Some books do seem more "literary" than others. For instance, I'd never put Roberto Bolano or Carlos Ruiz Zafon on the same list as someone like Grisham or a romance novelist (I'm willing to stand corrected here as admittedly, I haven't read anything that could categorically be called a romance since I was a teenager). It's difficult to pinpoint a precise definition, but for the most part, I think we know literature when we read it.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 2:44:25 PM PDT
Diana Raabe says:
"because they don't sell..."

Yikes! That's another animal altogether. But to "use language artistically rather than merely instrumentally" seems to bear some literary merit. I would add the ability to make use of a larger vocabulary to the definition as well.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2009 3:13:55 PM PDT
Gail Graham says:
i wouldn't use the word literature inerchangeably with fiction, either. But I'm not sure we do know "literature" when we read it -- especially if it's contemporary literature. Whatever literary fiction is, it seems to be a work that other people agree is "literary" as well. Individuals like Susan Sontag may have been willing to pass unilaterally judgement, but most of us are more reticent. When I'm asked, What sort of book is your novel Sea Changes? I reply, Literary fiction. But what I mean is simply that it isn't genre fiction. Surely, literary fiction has got to be more than what it isn't!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 7:13:33 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 7:14:52 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 7:19:10 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 7:20:23 AM PDT
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Posted on Apr 8, 2009 8:27:36 AM PDT
Gail Graham says:
I was thinking about all this while walking my dog this morning.
Genre fiction (and non-fiction) has always been with us. But it wasn't considered a book's defining characteristic. Until fairly recently, the question was, What is your book about? and not, What genre is your book? So the problem isn't genre per se, but rather that nowadays, every work of fiction is required to wear a "genre label" if the author expects a mainstream publisher to be even the slightest bit interested. I think there needs to be room and recognition for fiction that is non-genre or even meta-genre. Otherwise, we're all going to be writing the same books.
The genre thing is purely market-driven. It makes things easier for the sales department (most of which is made up of men who don't read) and the book store chains. It is not necessary. I'm old enough to remember when magazines were either "glossies" or "pulps" -- but this didn't mean you couldn't have a publication like The New Republic, which was neither.
I guess what I'm saying is that the category of literary fiction is a false category, not only because genre works (science fiction, even mysteries) can also be literary, but also because we are not clear about what we mean by literary fiction.
Our words help to shape our thoughts. So I think that it's important to know exactly what we mean when we use a term like "literary fiction".

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 8:36:12 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on May 27, 2009 4:10:01 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 8:50:42 AM PDT
Diana Raabe says:
Great point, Toni.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 8:57:24 AM PDT
Diana Raabe says:
You're absolutely right when it comes to marketing, and it's applicable to more than books. Bigger and bigger profits too often come at the expense of the consumer's needs/desires.

It seems like the term 'literary fiction' is more than a genre (especially when it comes to sales and marketing) and, perhaps, it exists as a parallel universe to genre fiction and non-genre fiction, rather than an inclusive one. ???
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Discussion in:  Literary Fiction forum
Participants:  108
Total posts:  356
Initial post:  Mar 31, 2009
Latest post:  Oct 7, 2013

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