Monday, May 31, 2010

What is literary?

This is more of a poll than a post, so please bear with me.

I've been told by quite a few people lately that I have a literary quality to my writing. Aside from surprising (in the good way), it (as usual) made me think. What exactly about my writing is literary?

I don't know that anyone could answer that in specifics without also asking the next question: what exactly makes ANY writing literary?

I've heard some definitions-- it's more character-driven than plot driven. It's more fanciful and musical than others. It's more stylistic.

Maybe it's all of these things, but the truth is, I don't know exactly what it boils down to. I can't point my finger to any one quality and say, "That book is literary fiction." I do know that I've used the phrase "a literary quality to it" to describe other books, so I must have some idea.

Other genres are so easy to put into words. Advanced technology and/or spacecraft? Okay, that's sci-fi. Fairies and elves? Okay, that's fantasy. Someone dies and the main character has to solve the murder? Okay, that's mystery.

But how do you succinctly and accurately describe literary fiction?

No, seriously, tell me! What makes something literary to you?


Joshua McCune said...

If I can't understand it, it's usually literary :). If it makes Oprah's book club, it's pseudo-literary :o.

Half-joking aside, I think literary has a tendency to exist more in the real world and trends toward real-life situations. Kind of commercial fiction without the superficial and/or external tension. It doesn't necessarily need to have "artistic" flow (e.g., musicality, overwrought style), IMO, just a resonance with the human condition (though I'd say the best books in other genres usually have this quality, too).

Matthew Delman said...

The fact that literary fiction is character-driven and genre fiction is plot-driven is a bit of a misnomer.

Yes, literary fiction tends to be more about an individual character than genre fiction, but does that mean genre stories can only be about the plot and not about the character? I disagree.

Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is about the journey both internal and external that Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, takes on his way to the Dark Tower. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (overly mentioned, yes I know) is about Ender's internal and external journey as well.

I think there's more a perception of literary fiction being character-driven over plot-driven because it takes place in the real world and tends to not have a huge plot beyond the internal journey of the character. There's still a plot -- something still happens -- but it tends to deal almost solely on an internal level rather than an external one.

So I would propose that "literary" fiction will sometimes give internal struggle more primacy than external struggle, whereas in genre fiction the two forms are either given equal space or external struggle is given more space than internal.

The definition between the two of them depends, really.

dolorah said...

Matt expressed my thoughts exactly: its about the internal journey, the growth of the main character within a specific circumstance or time frame.

Where the spiritual growth IS the plot, regardless of whatever action is happening around the character. I'm not always sure what is Literary fiction, but I'm better at recognizing what is not (the cynic in me).

For instance, I've heard Cormack McCarthy's THE ROAD described as Literary. I disagree. While there isn't a lot plot going on outside The Man, the character himself attains no internal growth by the journey to the coast. He has the same obsessive outlook at the start as he has at the end of the novel. Nothing changes his perspective internally.

I'd like to query my own novel as Literary - the plot surrounds the growth of Amy's character - but I've been told its definitely not Lit because of the main issues that contribute to her growth - alcoholism and domestic violence.

Its difficult to write a novel with little to action scenes because readers now tend toward action driven plots - something exciting has to always be happening or they lose interest. Which means less internal processing and more external activity. The expectations of the reading community has changed, which means, in my opinion, its time to re-evaluate old genre definitions.

Perhaps with the decline of Literary fiction publications, the rigid guidelines will flex, and encompass a broader stylistic scope.

One can only hope.


Libbie H. said...

It does have a kind of squishy definition, doesn't it?

Yes, literary tends to focus on the character's development arc more than on external effects on the character.

Beyond that, it does tend to be more musical or tricksy in word choice.

The reality, of course, is that "genre" is a totally mutable thing. There is much overlap between various genres, including literary fiction. The industry tries to corral books into genres because it makes marketing easier. But many books are several genres at once.

I will say that the one surefire way to define literary is by how others react to it. I've found that those who don't enjoy literary fiction are quick to label it with words like "overwrought," "flowery," "purple," "selfish," "pompous," etc., and to call writers of literary fiction snobs and navel-gazers. I find that a bit offensive, since I've always loved reading and writing literary fiction. Certainly some of it is bad, but some of EVERY genre is bad. There is a lot of beauty and inspiration to be found in literary writing.

Personally, I'd take any description of "literary qualities" in your writing as the very highest praise possible.

Stephanie Thornton said...

The real question is- what the heck is commercial fiction? I can spot literary fiction- most of the top New York Times bestsellers are good examples- The Lovely Bones, Secret Life of Bees, Olive Kitteridge, etc.

But commercial fiction? What if it's historical fiction, like my book, and kind of literary, but kind of not. What the heck is that?

I need an agent who likes authors that blur the genre lines. Mostly because they make my head hurt.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I won't even get into this at all. The last time I asked this question on the Lit Lab there were 90+ comments and there were arguments and frustrated people and lots of great discussion, too. It was quite overwhelming. I came to the conclusion that "literary" is undefinable. When I say that I write literary work, I mean that I write work that is more interpretive than plot based. There are about 5 billion other ways to describe it, but I'll stop there. :)