The Sunday Salon: Rant — Literary Fiction

And now for something a little different—a video rant about “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” (both literally meaningless labels). Emo!Ten, our cardboard cut-out of the Tenth Doctor (he survived a near collision between Sasha, the small Honda Civic, and a MARTA bus; his sadness attracts disaster), looms over my shoulder, Demora Pasha’s fan is really loud, and our window of dramatic lighting, well, lights dramatically.

Incidentally, my voice is half an octave lower in my head.

I finally finished Marriage, a History and Wicked this week; I’ve requested Sabriel from the library, considering that Tim Curry narrates—he’s the patron saint of my college’s bad movie club, so I’m obligated. I received Dark Jenny in the mail; it comes out Tuesday, so I’ll be finishing it up to try and have the review up tomorrow! Wish me luck.

InkWing is giving away a free Mistborn or The Stormlight Archive t-shirt until tomorrow, so hustle! Kristen at Fantasy Cafe is giving away a copy of Department Nineteen until Thursday. Allie at Hist-Fic Chick is giving away a signed copy of Madame Tussaud and a pair of earrings until Friday. Eli at The Tainted Poet’s YA Book Review is giving away copies of Need, Wings, and Blue Bloods until April 14th. White Tree Press is giving away five copies of Lembas for the Soul until April 16th. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

31 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Rant — Literary Fiction

  1. Do you feel the same about the phrase ‘formula fiction’ as you do about ‘genre fiction’?

    I’ve always wondered exactly what literary fiction is. The best definition I’ve found is –

    In short, the “literary plot” is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable.)

    http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html

    I can absolutely see a difference between a novel like that, and a novel by a romance author who follows a formula for each annual book, and only changes the characters’ names, and maybe the setting? Or a detective novel that follows a formula?

    I’m certainly not shunning any of those — they serve their purpose. And you’re right: it’s all fiction. But there’s a difference, certainly.

    I agree on “genre fiction.” It’s a meaningless label.

    • “Formula fiction” and “genre fiction” are both equally meaningless. If we take “formula fiction” to the logical extreme, it covers anything that fits in the traditional three-act format or has a beginning, a middle, and the end.

      That definition of literary fiction doesn’t apply to many examples of literary fiction I’ve been given—Atonement hinges on one stupid decision by a young girl, The Lovely Bones focuses on the aftermath of a premeditated murder, and The Blind Assassin is more about human foibles than fate. I think this shows exactly why it’s a meaningless and arbitrary label—there’s no definition that covers all of what’s considered “literary fiction”. (Examples taken from here.)

  2. Great rant, and I’ll throw in my favorite sub-rant: so-called “literary” Pygmalions who condescend to write genre novels, and are then credited with “elevating” the lowly genre to literature (“The Passage” and “The Road” are two examples). Crucial to this is that the author and mainstream critics go out of their way to avoid saying the books actually belong to the genres they’re supposedly lifting up, coining terms like “speculative fiction” to avoid saying “science fiction.”

    • That is so true—Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood went into this a year, a year and a half, ago, starting with LeGuin’s review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, but their dialogue actually helped Atwood realize the problematic elements of refraining from calling her work what it is. It’s a dialogue that needs to spread to others, I think.

      Incidentally, I like the term speculative fiction as an umbrella term for fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural fiction, but using it to avoid calling a spade a spade is just silly.

    • This reminds me too of Chabon. I haven’t read him for a while now, but last time I checked in with him he was putting together/contributing to those “Fantastic Tales” sort of books & issues McSweeney’s was putting out. Everyone seemed to view Chabon’s interest in genre fiction as a positive thing, but his stories bored me to tears and that his writing a speculative short story got so much attention seemed insulting to the people who write these stories regularly, and write them well.

      I tend to think of “literary fiction” as a genre in itself. I mean, it is, right? Just as there are certain expectations for romance novels, mystery novels, horror novels, there are certain expectations for novels that fall under the “literary fiction” umbrella. And (I’ve gotta disagree with you here) – seeing that a book is marketed as literary fiction often does tell me something about the book. Maybe not in terms of subject matter, but in how it’s gonna go about its plot, its characterizations, its writing style, I’m going to have a sense of the book.

      I share your frustration over the the “privileging” of literary fiction, but…when I take a step back, I don’t think it’s something to be too concerned about. After all, with a few exceptions, it’s the “genre” fiction that beats “literary” fiction in terms of sales, every day. That’s something that marketers and writers are going to have to grapple with sooner or later, because I think there are a lot of readers – myself included – who are frustrated with the sameness of “literary fiction” and the sense that it’s being written for the keeper of the literary establishment rather than for readers.

  3. Yes, yes that was worth the wait. Thank you.

    To the points, as a “genre” writer, I kind of see it as an Ivory Tower situation. Granted, for a long time I’ve thought of (and still to some extend do think of) publishing/authoring as an ivory tower, but there towers within the towers, and right now the Ivory Tower of “Literary” fiction is so true to the full connotation of the phrase that I wouldn’t want in if I knew of a way, right up there with the towers within Literary where Europeans have the opinion that Americans can’t write. (In particular, the Noble Prize for Literature scandal-quote).

    Unfortunately, the mass public reads like it votes: based on broad generalizations and pundits, and non contemporary/historical fiction is kind of seen as the Libertarian or Green party, and the book-pundits can always find the “exceptions to the rule” or “numerous examples of the rule”.

    I am actually randomly reminded of a book a friend (who does not read “genre”) recommended to me because it was a genre book she really liked. It was “The Road”, and I could not get passed 5 pages, mainly because of the formatting which was apparently not unique to the printing I had. No punctuation beyond periods, no paragraphs. Dialogue was just hidden in the stream of sentences. That and the fact that it was seeming like a “cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic” made me want to gnash my teeth. The cheery on top? Oprah’s book club, which it proudly announced via a sticker on the cover.

    So… yeah. I hate the fact that there are the terms, but I have decided to just pick my side and join the troops. Occasionally there are good pieces of “literature” out there, but I’ll stick to my wizards, spacemen, and steam-powered cyborgs.

    • I’m glad you liked it!

      Oh, I hate it when proper grammar and sentence structure is thrown out the window for the sake of art—it’s usually just pretentious.

      If we have to pick a side, I’m with the wizards, spacemen, and steam-powered cyborgs.

      • Oh, I hate it when proper grammar and sentence structure is thrown out the window for the sake of art—it’s usually just pretentious.

        Oh, I love Faulkner. I think it’s awesome, playing with the tools like that. And “pretentious” sounds suspiciously like… a label! 😉

      • I stay far away from Faulkner and he does me the same courtesy. 🙂

        And yes, it is. I have nothing against labels that actually mean something—for instance, the labels “French-American”, “asexual”, and “cisgendered woman” tell you meaningful things about me. I usually find proper grammar and sentence structure being thrown out the window to be “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed“. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done well, but it does mean that a lot of people try it out without succeeding. See? Meaningful label. 😉

      • I can forgive some grammar play. One thing I’ve always loved about narrative writing is that you follow the rules of English, except when you don’t. My meter-stick, though, is that it must be easily understandable. So one or two twists isn’t too much to mess with the mind, especially if you are doing it with meaning, such as showing the stream of thought through a characters head. I don’t know about you, but I rarely think in complete sentences (and let’s not get into how I dream and brainstorm plots). And I can even see some reason to eschew some things, like a comma that might have normally been used, or even capitalization (Rothfuss had a character in The Wise Man’s Fear that used no capitals at all when talking, and it made sense for her breathy-otherworldly nature). And I absolutely loved “House of Leaves”, which is a formatting nightmare, but it made sense to the story.

        But too many at once, or omitting punctuation and formatting that has the sole purpose of clarifying and idea, no that is book throwing for me. Same with editors that let fantasy authors call every sword a rapier, and then have the characters use them as cutlasses. GAR! … sorry, one rant at a time ;)~

    • That is our cursed cardboard cut-out of the Tenth Doctor. He incites disaster and has already tried to end things once this morning while I was cleaning. You are the second person to ask, but my roommate and I went in halfsies so he’s not completely mine. (She didn’t spring for the Legolas, alas.)

  4. omg, that was such a good vlog. NO ONE CAN DO A BETTER VLOG EVER now you have to do all of them because it/you was/are awesome. :U You used the word “nebulous.” ♥

  5. I don’t know what ‘literary fiction’ is like in the US, but in the UK it tends not to sell as well as ‘genre fiction’ unless it ends up on the Booker shortlist…

  6. Oh, I meant to also say, your voice has a very reasonable pitch. I always think mine sounds appallingly shrill when I hear it on a recording, but yours isn’t at all shrill even a little bit. Promise.

  7. That was quite the entertaining and informative rant! You’re so animated! I enjoyed “meeting” you via video.

    To me, terms like these only have meaning on a person-by-person basis and only if the person using them knows what the terms are being used to mean and can explain it. I think they’re labels that get tossed around an awful lot simply, as you say, to influence how the book is perceived. Certainly, there are different calibers of fantasy, just as there are different calibers of contemporary fiction, romance, etc. If any distinction is to be made, it seems to me it should apply across genres instead of only to separate out what is now considered “literary fiction.”

    You mention the classics label, which is a term I struggled to define when I decided to use it as part of my own classics project. It is, as you say, a label that has to be applied by a reader to a book, but I do think it’s useful when the reader knows what makes a particular book a classic for her: if it’s over 50 years old, for example, or if it holds some significance for her personally, or a combination of the two, etc. With each reader playing such an important role in defining her definition of “classic,” it’s hard for the term to be used universally the way it often is.

  8. I’m feeling a profound desire to give you some sort of gesture of appreciation, but since it’s presently infeasible to hug/high five/brofist/pat on the back over the internet, I’ll have to suffice by applauding from my computer. I simply couldn’t have said it better myself.

    This completely worthless, presumptuous and pretentious dichotomy between “real literature” and “genre trash” is, as you say, nothing to do with actual categorization and everything to do with elitism. I haven’t come across a single definition of “literary fiction” that distinguishes itself from many works in “genre fiction,” the ones listed in the comments here included. (The appeal to the dictionary definition of “literary” and “genre” also plucks mercilessly at my heartstrings.)

    That said, “classics” to me simply means “popular works which are now in public domain, and so can be published for a pittance by Penguin Classics.” Not a knock on Penguin Classics by any means, but I notice an awful lot of their works are PD.

    Coincidentally, my voice is actually half an octave lower in my head. Odd, that.

  9. Pingback: Soap box: I see a difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. « A Room of One's Own

  10. Well said, indeed. Raymond Chandler is my favorite example of the lowly genre writer who was raised to the Hallowed Halls of Literature. I suspect the promotion was given reluctantly. At the literary feast I bet he still has to sit at the kid’s table…

  11. My voice is actually higher in my own head. When I hear a recording of myself, it sounds like I’m listening to a bear.

    I think I would prefer it the other way round.

  12. Pingback: Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet « The Literary Omnivore

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