Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On the Great Literary Fiction Debate, or Are Some Writers Bamboozling Us?

Once again, I’ve gotten myself in a swivet about literary fiction. To set the record straight, I tend to read what is called literary fiction more than “genre fiction.” Basically, I like novels that are well-written, with interesting, distinctive characters who grow and change, rich dialogue, and engrossing story lines. I enjoy being taken to places or times with which I may be less familiar, but I equally I am happy to indulge in a story to which I can relate. If a so-called genre fiction book fits those criteria, I’m in. And as you may have learned, I am not above reading the odd page turner where all these elements may not be present. Perhaps it is my investment in literary fiction that is causing my current state of rage. In my mind, a few writers, including several who have been showered with awards and critical acclaim, are being allowed to get away with a con job because on the surface their writing sounds so good—the literary equivalent of the emperor having no clothes (and I am not claiming this as an original thought.)

First, let’s deal with a couple of definitions. Wikipedia says: “Literary fiction is a term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e. paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot….. Literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style ("literariness", the concern to be "writerly"). The term literary fiction is considered hard to define very precisely but is commonly associated with the criteria used in literary awards…”

Nathan Bransford in his blog entry entitled “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?”(February 26, 2007) believes that in commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface (in the external world, where things happen) and “in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them.”

So far, so good. So why am I feeling bamboozled? I recently went to a reading/discussion by a well-received literary fiction author (who will remain nameless) presenting her latest book. I had heard of her but confess I hadn’t read any of her books. The first warning light flashed as she explained, laughing, that this one--a very short, light-hearted book--had more of a plot than her previous award winning books (Read—My serious books do not need plot.)

Later that night as I began to read my new purchase, in short succession I encountered no fewer than six characteristics of certain so-called literary fiction works that make me twitch:

1) Switching of point of view mid-paragraph. Unless skillfully done, this sudden turnabout can be very confusing. It suggests either that the writer felt they were above normal writing conventions, or the editors were afraid to suggest any changes.
2) Characters indistinguishable by their dialogue, no matter what the background or personality of the character.
3) Interminable chunks of dialogue using expressions and words that even highly intelligent people don’t use. Few of us are that clever as we speak off the cuff.
4) Internal dialogue that feels implausible for a given character, such as deep insight from a character who is unlikely to have those kinds of insights.
5) Little rationale for why two characters may become involved in each others’ lives.
6) Frequent use of vocabulary that I have to look up in the dictionary, and I pride myself in having a reasonably good vocabulary. It feels like showing off.

As any good sleuth, I searched for clues that I was not crazy or uncultured and uncovered a scathing diatribe against certain forms of literary fiction by BR Myers (The Atlantic, July/August 2001), entitled “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Here are a few of Myers zingers that resonated.

“Many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible.”
“The critics' admiration for [Annie] Proulx reflects a growing consensus that the best prose is that which yields the greatest number of standout sentences, regardless of whether or not they fit the context.”
“A thriller must thrill or it is worthless; this is as true now as it ever was. Today's ‘literary’ novel, on the other hand, need only evince a few quotable passages to be guaranteed at least a lukewarm review.”
“…what unites these writers and separates them from the rest of the "literary" camp is the determinedly slow tempo of their prose.” The article is filled with examples of sometimes nonsensical language.

Myers claim is that the reviewers aren’t looking at the work as a whole, but rather allow themselves to be smitten by particular images or sentences. Of course, there were critics of his piece (especially of his curious choice of a couple of writers who might not be considered “literary” by some standards), but there was also a great deal of sympathy for his thesis.

Maybe I shouldn’t get so upset. There are plenty of good writers who manage to produce imaginative turns of phrase and still create convincing characters who talk like real people in believable, yet complicated worlds. In short, they are writing books I want to read, books I want to emulate in my own writing. Perhaps I’m annoyed because I let myself get conned into wasting a perfectly good evening (and my $22) when I should have done my research. And there is always something to learn, even if it’s just the meaning of a word I’ll never use.


  1. Ronda--Thanks for the affirmation! And congratulations on your soon-to-be-published book. How'd you find my blog, by the way? Also, you may be interested in my 2/14 post on the Twighlight Saga if you haven't already read it. Belle