Time to Ponder Books: the literary fiction book tag

The Literary Fiction Book Tag is making the rounds in my blog reader feed. I’ve not commented on a single post discussing “literary fiction,” but I’ve been reading them. I’ve read several, in fact. Some readers elevate literary fiction to something fit for the academic, to be studied around a table of graduate students. I should know what that’s like; I have two graduate degrees in literature/creative writing. Been there, done that — and people are quick to dismiss you if you don’t read literary fiction. Actually, when I wrote a romantic farce and read it in public as part of my MFA program, my thesis adviser looked concerned and said, “We need to talk.”

Others argue that literary fiction means it’s simply “written better.” Perhaps they focus on the language the writer used to convey the story. Genre fiction is just plot, plot, plot. Well, not exactly. The thing about the Literary Fiction Book Tag that honks my hooter is the way readers naturally tend to “other” literary fiction as something for smarter, better readers. I want to waft away that cloud and bring us back down to reality.

Firstly, literary-genre fiction. What is this? It appears to be a cross between books that are written beautifully that use genre conventions: If it’s fantasy, there’s going to be magic of some kind. If it’s a fairy tale, it comes from folk lore. If it’s romance, somebody be fallin’ in love. Etc. But by calling it “literary-genre fiction,” aren’t readers basically saying, “I don’t usually read such tripe as genre fiction, but this book is superbly written enough to satisfy my distinguished tastes”? Maybe that’s not what readers are saying, but that’s what they’re implying. Plus, calling a book “literary-genre” essentially pilfers that work from the genre’s pool of novels. Good readers have rescued the beautifully-written work from the garbage that is genre fiction and elevated it to something they can be proud to read.

Take the example of work by Sally Rooney. Reviewers in big publications love Sally Rooney’s book Conversations with Friends. It was on lists for big literary prizes, too. But the cover makes it look decidedly “chick lit,” and no way can that be taken seriously. Right? Carrie Mullins at Electric Lit notes:

There’s nothing wrong with debating the quality of a book — literature is meant to be discussed — but it’s easy to fall into the is-she-or-isn’t-she-literary rhetoric and harder to step back and ask what we’re really talking about. . . .

It’s frustrating that women who want to read literary fiction end up ignoring many of the stories that reflect and explore their own experience just because they’ve been shelved in a different section of the bookstore, but it’s hard not to internalize the implication that women’s fiction isn’t very good or else it would be called literary fiction.

I’ve pointed out the above article and its argument to any blogger I follow whom I noticed read Rooney’s work. The response was always “That’s terrible!” or “That’s unfair!” But isn’t the Literary Book Tag doing the same thing — elevating books to something more “acceptable” by calling them literary and separating them from the genre in which they may fit neatly?

And let’s admit that what is “literary” isn’t above being embarrassing and low-brow, either. Have you read The First Bad Man by Miranda July? Yeah, the therapist in that novel urinates in used Chinese food take-out containers while talking with patients. Dubbed literary-horror, in the novel Bird Box, by Josh Malerman, a mother hangs herself with her infant’s fresh-cut umbilical cord (which makes me think Malerman has never seen one). Ever read Chaucer? The most distinctive moment in his work, to me, is when a woman coerces her husband to climb up to window to the room where she and her lover are together post-coitus. In the dark, the husband thinks he’s going to kiss his wife’s cheek, and instead smooches her lover’s ass cheek — and then farts in the husband’s face. The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich is considered award-winning literary fiction, but readers find her book incomprehensible and poorly written, and generally a waste of time.

I think we need to reexamine our humble reading roots. What did you read in middle school? Why? Which books kept you up all night as a teen? As you were reading them, were you concerned with whether or not they were “literary” enough to make you look like an elite reader to your peers? Unlikely; no one wants to be that kind of book nerd in high school. Realistically, you were reading books to escape the drudgery that most book worms feel is high school.

Perhaps instead of trying to elevate ourselves — and I am 100% guilty of this myself — as readers with a word choice that puts genre readers on the defensive, why not call it what it is: general fiction. That is, fiction that does not fit neatly into a genre. Will you still read the same books if they don’t sound as important as they did when they were “literary” and thought they gave you some kind of reading cred?

Believe me, I’ve come off as a snob at Grab the Lapels. I’ve proclaimed that I don’t read young adult fiction because I’m not a young adult and it’s too simplistic for me. It turns out, I was reading uninspired YA. The genre has fantastic, thoughtful, beautifully-written works, but had I not started reading YA as part of my reading fat women quest, I’d be that stubborn fool still thinking of YA as something “easy” and not intelligent enough for me. Ugh. I feel like verping after reading what I just typed.

I’m also guilty of calling amazing women’s fiction “literary fiction.” Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, and The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton are three books I’ve read this year alone that I called literary that are truly about women’s experiences, hence, women’s fiction. I’ve been trying to shift the way I think about book labels for a more positive experience in the book community.

Consider shifting the way you think about books. How does categorizing them as “literary fiction” vs “general fiction” (or a fitting genre you would “never read”) change the book? Your experience reading it? How you perceive other readers? Is it just your ego that’s different, or did something else alter?

I would be thrilled to continue this conversation (civilly) in the comments.

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56 comments

  1. An interesting topic for discussion. I agree with you that labels sometimes do not make sense and “literary fiction” is not for some smart people out there who love beautiful prose. It is only on wordpress that I realised that there exist this big of a demaraction between literary fiction and other books. I have never thought of that seriously as a reader all my life. I have realised that I read a lot of literary fiction, but I also read just as much “general fiction” where language is not considered “beautiful”. My general fiction reads will be “cheap” French thrillers. I do not think many mystery detective stories will be considered literary fiction and yet I read a lot of them too. Perhaps, we should all think less about defining what kind of a book we read and just try to enjoy it 🙂

    My afterthought is that I think some books tend to explore deep issues and complex themes more than other books and since I like that type of a book I tend to gravitate more towards this “complexity” – whether these books tend to be all literary fiction – perhaps.

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    • I get what you’re saying, but my point is why can’t a genre book be complex or getting into challenging themes and issues? For example, doesn’t Margaret Atwood do so in The Handmaid’s Tale? And isn’t that women’s fiction, as it is about issues that face women? But because women’s fiction has been deemed the garbage about lipstick, boyfriends, and shoes, a lot of people would be pissed if people said they were into women’s fiction, for the feel such a label attached to them makes them look like a shallow reader.

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      • Yes, I am against labelling, generalisations and pigeonholing books. The Handmaid’s Tale is a good example you provide, and I also think about Gone with the Wind – it is now considered to be more or less exclusively a housewife reading material. It has romance in there, but it has other stuff there, including the war.

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        • I’ve heard so many things about Gone with the Wind, including that it is exceptionally written, but have not read it! Maybe I should. I have a background in African American lit, so I’ve read a number of works from this time period and am worn out on them. They appear to espouse the same themes, so I don’t feel like I get much out of reading more of the same books. Would you recommend I read Gone with the Wind?

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  2. Well argued! Not that I totally agree with you. I think Literary Fiction is ART. That is, the writer tries to say something about writing as well as tell a story (stories on their own are just decoration). I don’t doubt though that some Lit.Fic. is genre – Pride & Prejudice is early Chick Lit., Whatever Atwood says, The Handmaid’s Tale is SF. And coming from the other direction SF writers like PK Dick, JG Ballard and Doris Lessing were definitely literary – that is the writing was innovative and transcended its origins in genre.

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    • That is defining literary fiction very broadly. P K Dick writing was sometimes downright awful. If innovative writing is a precondition for literary fiction than many books can be included in the category. And then, how you define an “innovative” writing? What you simply say with Philip K Dick work or Ballard’s or some other is that these books stood the test of time – and most of the time because of their ideas and NOT their writing.

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      • To Diana: that’s definitely the point I was trying to make with some of my “literary fiction” examples. Sometimes the writing is downright questionable! And people can fisticuffs with me all day about it, but if you look closely at the writing in Fahrenheit 451 on the first few pages, a lot of it literally does not make sense. I see what you’re saying.

        “Innovative writing” is a tough one for me because I went through an experimental writing MFA program where we frequently talked about innovative writing. To be honest with you, MOST of it was utterly unreadable. The rest of it played with form, such as including a what looks like a hand-written diary. Then there were the people who really broke out of the mold in content and style in books like The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. However, just what I’ve been typing now suggests that “innovative” writing is hard to pin down.

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    • The Doris Lessing I’ve read is all definitely women’s fiction. She wrote about a mother and wife who was so tired of both labels she started renting a room to sit utterly alone once per week. And in that room she killed herself. I would also argue that writing that says something about writing is metafiction; that is, the writing makes you aware that you’re reading writing about writing. Thanks so much for joining in the conversation, Bill! You read a lot of work that is hard to define.

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    • Laura, that is a WONDERFUL post, and I’m so glad you shared it. I think it was published before we started following each other. Side Note: Joanne Harris definitely comes off as a shit stirrer on Twitter, and I’m not surprised she was callous about genres.

      I don’t come from the camp that believe literary fiction and commercial fiction should feel threatened by each other, but more so that literary fiction steals the prestige of genre fiction. If a work of genre fiction is really good, people tack the word “literary” in front of the genre. I’VE DONE THIS FOR SO MANY YEARS MYSELF. However, it feels to me that by adding “literary” in front of a genre, readers are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want to read good genre fiction, but they won’t concede to the fact that they’re reading genre fiction. Why can’t reader say, “This was an amazing romance novel” — period.

      I’m also interested in your use of the term “commercial fiction.” I know what it means and what you mean, but it also implies that literary fiction is the stuff that will never sell well because it’s too esoteric or hard. Granted, there are loads of readers looking for exactly that, and thus small presses have flourished.

      Okay, I have more to add but I’ve already gone on long enough. THANK YOU for participating in the conversation!

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      • Thank you! It’s a good point about ‘literary crime fiction’ etc. I also do this and I can see from a marketing point of view what publishers are indicating when they do this, but you’re right – it does imply that crime is inherently non-literary, and I don’t agree with that. I probably will continue to use the term ‘commercial’ if only because I tend to think about books from a marketing standpoint, and I can see why the term ‘commercial literary fiction’ exists, even if it is problematic in both directions.

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        • This conversation with everyone led to me asking librarians at my work their opinion about the term literary fiction. We got into a big conversation about how libraries are starting to organize books the way stores do, so the terminology is very important. Those labels are highly contentious, and I’m going to talk about one of in a future blog post.

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  3. It’s very interesting to read such a different take on this, but as someone who loves literary fiction, I obviously disagree.

    I’m totally with you re: the existence of snobbery against genre fiction in certain circles, which makes me sad. But implying that literary fiction exists as a genre or term purely as a means of boosting people’s egos is an equally generalised and dismissive outlook. Language is nuanced and reading is very personal. Different genres, styles, movements, etc. will speak to different people, and that’s something to be celebrated.

    Literary fiction isn’t an attack on genre fiction any more than fantasy is an attack on realism. There are enough genres and styles for everyone to read and discuss the books that make them happy, stimulate them intellectually, or provide escapism; whatever it may be that they look for in their fiction.

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    • Hi, Callum! You’re right; asking about ego is definitely dismissive in a way. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to discuss your thoughts on literary-[genre]. As I pointed out to Laura, this is something I’ve said so many, many times: literary fairy tales, literary horror, literary women’s fiction. These phrases are all over Grab the Lapels’s search engine because I’ve used them to no end. But the conversation on the internet around the way hyphenating a genre with the word literary is trying to have one’s cake and eat it too is intriguing. Are we trying to steal the best books from a genre and make them seem more acceptable to read?

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      • There could be something in that. Some readers are reluctant to embrace certain genres, and perhaps adding the word ‘literary’ makes them feel more comfortable reading outside of their usual wheelhouse. It works both ways though, I suppose. Just as it’s unfair to dismiss genre fiction as ‘lesser’, it would be unfair to dismiss literary fiction (which is widely recognised as a sub-genre/artistic style by readers, writers, publishers, and book prizes alike) as purely elitist. There’s room for a bit of everything.

        Whatever the case, it’s a shame that so many people feel constrained by genre, style, etc., rather than simply picking up the books that appeal to them and enjoying them for what they are. Categorising books is undeniably necessary, but I see no need for it to cause as much angst as it does, lol.

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        • You’re absolutely right about readers being reluctant, and now I’ve got the wheels turning for a post about why they’re reluctant. I think part of it, for me, was that I read so many poorly-written, yet absolutely loved, books growing up. When I got to college, especially Notre Dame, I was barely scraping by financially (it was 2008, height of the recession), and felt that I had to look smart to prove I wasn’t “trailer trash” and deserved to be there. Granted, the fact that the MFA program accepts less than 5% of applicants should tell me something, it didn’t — there was a lot of classism within the program! *Pauses* Callum, are you a sneaky therapist?

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          • Classism and preconceived ideas everywhere we look; it’s a real shame. If only we could all do, read, study, and enjoy the things that interest us without feeling the need to justify or overthink them.

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  4. I have to admit that I tend to think of literary fiction as “weird” or “requires effort” or “unusual writing style” when I think of it at all. Oh and usually “depressing.” Also I sometimes think of literary fiction as the books that win the awards. Like the Women’s Prize for Fiction or the Booker etc. For example, I just read ghost wall which has an unusual story structure, plot, and ending. I am still pondering me thoughts on that one. Another example is the vegetarian by han king which I loved. Both award winners. Both weird in structure and concepts.

    Sometimes literary fiction can be classics in all genres. The ones that are read in college programs and analyzed. I went through a time where I read lots of classics and award winners. Have no regrets. But I love sci-fi and fantasy which can be thought of as fluff or whatnot. Some is and some isn’t. I like me popcorn reads and I like the books that make me think. But what I want depends on me mood.

    I do think that books that be different in terms of style can get hype for the unusual writing alone and excellent writing does not automatically make a good book. It be like the current diversity trend. I prefer diversity in me writing but just having a fill-in-the-blank character or world does not thus make the book good. I only know that I like what I like. Other folks like what they like. I love books with talking ponies. I don’t care what anyone thinks of that. Read what makes ye happy.

    x The Captain

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    • I love that you ended with “I love books with talking ponies.” That made me smile so hard, Cap. 😀

      After going through an experimental writing program, I agree that after a while literary fiction started to feel like it had to be weird or hard. Or someone had to tell us that what we were reading was fantastic, even if it was barely readable. I tend to lump what you’re describing into “experimental” or “innovative” writing rather than literary fiction. Another point I didn’t make in my post: does it feel like saying “literary fiction” is basically saying “literature fiction.” That’s . . . redundant.

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  5. I think a lot of people do call something ‘literary-mystery’ or ‘literary science fiction’ because they want to say, “Wow, this genre fiction is pretty darned good, but I don’t want to admit to liking this lowly genre”. When I review a work of ‘literary fiction’, I don’t call it ‘literary’. I just call it fiction. That’s what it is. ‘Literary’ seems like a term for books where the structure of the prose is the primary emphasis, and not plot (or character, to a lesser degree). Literary snobs will declare that these are the only books that really investigate the human condition, while genre fiction is just a base story. Case in point, Ian McEwan declaring that his latest novel, Machines Like Me, isn’t a science fiction novel (it’s an alternate timeline and about a robot) because it’s about the condition. This just tells me that McEwan has never really bothered to read science fiction. Otherwise, he would know that beneath the veneer of spaceships and aliens, science fiction is also discussing the human condition.

    When it comes down to it, most books are about the human condition. To perhaps overly simplify things, mysteries ask why people kill each other. Science fiction asks what people do with technology and what it does to us. Fantasy asks what we would do if we had magical capabilities. Thrillers ask what we would do in extreme circumstances. Even our stories about animals are subtly about us. There’s no need to be snobby about genres. Just like what you like, and let other people like what they like.

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    • I don’t tend to read a lot of mysteries (though I literally started reading one TODAY) simply because I have a really, really hard time keeping up with them. There are subtle hints along the way, so my brain gets paranoid and thinks that I’m just too stupid to get what’s going on, where the author may not have even really give the reader anything to go on yet! HA! Okay, but the thing I’ve noticed about the mysteries other book bloggers read and review is they seem like there is a definitely a pervasive question about how much we even CARE that someone is murdered. In older works, like Agatha Christie, I’ve noticed that the person murdered is someone whom “no one” would miss. Or it’s a prostitute not living a worthy life, or a junky, etc. I find this really interesting, and I think it’s incredibly telling about the human condition.

      In fantasy novels, especially the Valdemar books, I’m starting to pick up how magic brings people together. They may not like each other, but they need each other. Magic helps, but the limitations mean people will use different skills to get a job done.

      One genre I didn’t mention in my post that I likely should have is experimental fiction. I’ve read loads of it in my experimental fiction writing program. Some of it breaks boundaries in ways that blows your mind. Some of it is absolutely nonsense, but tried for the sake of trying (one man reading an entire county phone book aloud — but just the first three letters of every single last name — comes to mind). I don’t think we should ask writers to stop trying what is oftentimes unreadable, because creativity is important. But I’m not going to call it literary because the only people interested were other academics (an no, I’ve never seen this kind of experimentation outside of academic circles).

      I’m 100% with you on your comment about literary-[insert genre] fiction, and it appears to be a place that trips up those arguing for literary fiction as a genre.

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      • I don’t worry about picking up on the clues in mysteries. If I get them, great, if not that’s fine. I’m not worried about figuring out whodunnit before the detective does. I’m just along for the ride. I’m not reading them because I want to solve the mystery. I’m reading it because I enjoy the lead characters.

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  6. This is such an interesting take. I both agree and disagree, respectfully. I do think it can be harmful and disadvantageous for everyone involved when literary fiction is held up as “better fiction,” though I don’t think every lit fic reader considers it that way. I’ve only seen a few lit fic tag posts so far, but every one that I’ve come across is careful to state in their definition that it’s a slippery term without concrete boundaries, and is just another genre, not “the best.” I think my gripe would be more with those egotistical readers who eschew genre fiction for its supposed simplicity rather than with the term literary fiction in general.

    One of the reasons I actually like the use of lit fic as a genre (though I agree, the term does seem weirdly redundant) is because the only alternative in some cases is something like “women’s fiction,” which is a term I REALLY don’t like. And “chick lit” even less. Though it might be helpful in guiding women toward books they can relate to, there’s not really a “men’s fiction” counterpart. There’s “women’s fiction,” and then there’s fiction proper, which feels like an unfair box to put women in, and suggests that men should steer clear, though there are plenty of books by men and about men that are held up as ideal reading for both genders. Okay, I’m getting off topic and gendered reading is a whole different discussion. I just mean to say I haven’t come across a good alternative to lit fic yet- even “general fiction” just seems too… general?

    Bottom line for me is that I agree that holding up a particular sort of book as “better” is not a healthy practice, though I do think there’s a place for the term. I just don’t think it means the same thing to every reader. I certainly don’t mean to indicate that a book is more important or prestigious when I list lit fic as its genre in my reviews, though it is helpful to remember that some readers can take it that way. And, honestly, what I like about the lit fic tag is that the first prompt demands each participant to define the term for themselves, so readers can adjust their expectations for the post or avoid it accordingly. But either way, an interesting point for discussion!

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    • I’m thankful for the reminder that there is no counterpart to women’s fiction. I tend to forget that because I read so few books per year in general by men (only women authors appear on Grab the Lapels). There is boys’ fiction, typically the adventure stuff, and girls’ fiction, which focuses on friendship at the center, but you’re right to bring up that there is no men’s fiction. So what do we do? I think using literary fiction as an alternative to women’s fiction is a way to elevate stories about women, but, on the other hand, it’s a genre we could reclaim by presenting strong, thoughtful books by women, about women, repeatedly into the public’s mind. See the article linked about Rooney’s work.

      In the last couple of years, I’ve also heard gripes through the book blogging community if a novel that is too close to a genre is on a list for a big prize (especially the Booker, which many acknowledge is a snobby group, and the Women’s Prize for Fiction). The shrieks over the graphic novel on the 2018 Booker prize list. Oof. There were also questions from critics about why Gone Girl never made the list. Etc.

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      • Oops, I had been meaning to go back to that article but moved too quickly to the comments! It turns out that that’s exactly the argument I was trying to make about women’s fiction! And I agree that presenting strong, thoughtful books by women to the public is a great way to prove there’s more to those books than a bit of entertainment for women to relate to- I just also think that calling them lit fic (if they fit they bill) and nominating them for prizes is one great way to do that. I am very much of the belief that Rooney’s work, for example, fits neatly into both the lit fic genre and chick lit/women’s fic/contemporary, and that its placement in both categories is exciting rather than problematic, as some of Rooney’s readers seem to see it. I love seeing Rooney nominated for prizes.

        On a related note, I was also really excited to see the variety of genres on the Booker Prize list last year- the graphic novel, the thriller, and the poetry… I would’ve loved to see Gone Girl on a prize list! I agree that it is bothersome that readers (and even critics!) should hold lit fic up as “better” or “non-genre,” though ultimately I still think it’s a problem with the way the term is used by some readers rather than a category that shouldn’t exist. But I don’t really know how anyone would go about correcting the use of the term without changing it, so I can definitely see your point.

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  7. Super interesting post!
    I get confused about what literary fiction is supposed to be. My impression is that it’s the kind of book shortlisted for a literature prize. Usually the writing style or concept of these appears to be unusual and designed to be thought-provoking rather than thrilling. But I don’t know, I’m not at all keen on books to be divided into genres or defined as ‘women’s fiction’ or even ‘book club fiction’.

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    • Ahh, no one has mentioned book club fiction. While I’ve never thought of it as a genre, it’s definitely a type of book. Reviewers will even write, “This would be a great pick for your book club!” I think what they mean is easily digestible, but leaves some stuff for people to debate.

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      • You’re right, that appears to be the definition of book club fiction. I’ve never been in a book club so I don’t know the criteria for choosing the books… I think if a book is labelled book club, that makes me not want to read it because someone is saying that’s what I ‘should’ be reading.

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        • Most books that were chosen for a celebrity book club, or that have sold really well, have book club discussion questions in the back. They’re always (from what I’ve seen) comprehension questions. Which tells me a bit about book clubs.

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  8. I love this post! It articulates something I’ve felt for a long time but didn’t have the words for. Women’s fiction does not get the respect it deserves! But Sally Rooney is not my cup of tea – there’s something snooty about her work. Probably why it’s on all the Prize lists…

    I used to feel the same way about YA too! Glad we’ve both grown.

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    • I haven’t read Rooney, but I am interested in the way her work is given different labels based on how smart it is vs. what it’s about. For that, she’s a good example. Margaret Atwood has also argued that Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t fit any label but most readers would argue it’s women’s fiction, science fiction, even dystopian fiction. I think by saying her novel defies labels, she’s pulling the book away from genres in which it does clearly fit and saying something more about those genres than about her book.

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  9. Ever since you announced you were talking about this a few days ago, I’ve been thinking through various possible definitions of “literary fiction” that get beyond value judgments, though none of them have been wholly satisfying. For example, perhaps literary fiction is defined by institutions: books fall into that category because certain groups (e.g., critics, awards committees, academics) deem that they do. This has some intuitive appeal; one hears about literary fiction a lot from this crowd. But institutional theories run up against the artistic equivalent of the Euthyphro dilemma: either the lit world has reasons for its judgments, in which case it’s really those reasons that define the category, not the lit world; or it doesn’t have reasons, in which case its decisions are arbitrary. Now, perhaps its decisions really are arbitrary, but I think I’d rather exhaust the other possibilities before settling on that sort of answer.

    One more example: perhaps literary fiction is more like an approach to engaging with a book, a reader’s mindset going into it. When we call a work “literary fiction,” perhaps we’re saying something like, “A person who prioritizes the quality of the prose above other concerns is likely to enjoy this book” (to grossly oversimplify things). On the one hand, I like this because it seems generalizeable to other genres, e.g., “science fiction” would mean something like (again, oversimplifying), “A person who prioritizes explorations of technology’s impact of humanity above other concerns is likely to enjoy this book.” We could further say that to call something, for instance, a literary–science fiction hybrid is to say that it appeals to the two groups just mentioned for their respective reasons about equally well, rather than something like “science fiction that’s well written” or, conversely, “general fiction that’s engaged with science”. Maybe this idea has legs, but on the other hand, I still can’t shake the feeling that someone adopting this position is saying that they read Playboy for the articles. It may be true for that person, but it may also be an inherently defensive position. (I might want to develop this more in a future post. Maybe.)

    I do love this kind of philosophical discussion, though I must admit that, as someone’s whose background is in poetry and not fiction, I feel a bit orthogonal to it. At base, I just want literary fiction and science fiction and every other category to get along, influence each other, break bread, etc. I think we’re moving in that direction, if the attitudes of my younger MFA colleagues are any guide, but it’s still a process.

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    • Since you and I are both influenced by MFA programs, I’m glad we’re in conversation. At my MFA program, “literary” was not the focus. I was in the writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which has an experimental writing focus. I went into that program because one of the professors wrote interesting experimental works that still spoke to the human condition. Entitled VAS: An Opera in Flatland, the book is a good example of busting out of boundaries and trying something new to convey a feeling and idea. It’s created with diagrams, instructions, old articles, etc. and ultimately make up this “story” about the history of sterilizing “undesirables” and how a vasectomy is now a choice, but at what cost (if any) and is this now a privilege for families with more money and/or agency. Many of the classes, though, assigned works so experimental that many of them were honest-to-goodness unreadable, or not meant to be read but experienced, or had zero concerns with story, characters, or setting. The rest of my classes focused on a time period or place: Chaucer, Modernism, Nietzsche, Contemporary Experimental Fiction, Victorian Literature, etc. What we read was either works by one author (Chaucer, Nietzsche) or a variety of authors from different perspectives instead of what is canonical (graphic novels, hyper-text novels, essays, novelists who were popular at the time buy have fallen off the radar today, etc). So this idea that a book is “literary” means absolutely nothing to me. Not once in college has a professor said, “I’m assigning you literary fiction.” The focus was more on what was representative in a variety of forms. And so this idea that someone is reading “literary fiction,” to me, sounds like someone saying they think they’re reading “smart” books. And “smart” books are not always representative of the human experience at a give time or place. There is an elitism there that honks my hooter, so to speak, as literary fiction doesn’t actually mean much of anything. I was also interested in people’s definitions of literary fiction until I realized they are so unalike, so poorly able to capture a genre of books — and that people are basically saying they’re reading “smart” books, smarter than those that sell well to the general public, which has “no good sense about what to read.” I do like the way you philosophize ways that genres could cross because a person has an interest in two aspects of a story/writing, but then I wonder why a reader wouldn’t acknowledged that they’re enjoyed a beautifully-crafted science fiction novel instead of calling it literary-scifi. I think you imply that that is a dilemma for you, too.

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  10. This is such a great post and conversation to have. I participated in the tag as something fun and without thinking too deeply about it and because most of what I read seems to get classified as literary fiction. I know I am/have been guilty of elevating “literature” above “genre” (and this is so, so common in Writing Programs, including the one I went through). I’ve read some fantastic science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc but in general I’m not drawn to those types of books. I guess I kind of view literary fiction as its own genre, with its own flaws and tropes and strengths. Sometimes I enjoy a book because it’s beautifully written and surprising and speaks to me deeply and sometimes I enjoy a book simply because it’s fun and easy to read and, in my head, that’s where I draw the line between “literature” and “general fiction”. But you’re right to question why we draw those lines at all and what we think that says about ourselves.

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    • This is an interesting comment because tropes generally indicate a genre, whereas writing style indicates that a reader has engaged with a strong writer. That’s what throws me off — good writing isn’t a genre, it’s criteria by which we often review books. I think it sounds like you’ve been playing with terms lately, and that’s always a good thing! I try to figure out what terms best fit a book to give readers an idea of what they may get if they pick it up. For instance, Irvine Welsh’s books are often called literary, but I call them drug culture books and sometimes men’s fiction (there is ZERO concern for a genuine female experience in Welsh’s works that I’ve read). To me, literary doesn’t really mean ANYTHING. I’m so glad you weighed in on my post. And I also did NOT know you went through a writing program!! Will you tell me more about your experience?

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      • I’ve lost track of it now but someone above made a comment about literary fiction being a way to elevate books by women since “women’s literature” or “chick lit” is a genre but “men’s fiction” isn’t. (Except it is, as you point out re: Welsh’s work.) I think of literature as having tropes but maybe that means I also think of literature as including books attempting to be lit but actually not very well written. Is that a genre? Is that just general fiction? All of these definitions seem so arbitrary! I’m beginning to agree with you that literary doesn’t really mean anything.

        Also, thinking more about it after I commented last night, I know that I was often applauded from a young age for reading literature (aka reading above my age/grade level) and I think some of my striving to read Big Important Books still stems from that desire to impress. Perhaps that’s true for a lot of readers?

        And yes, I have a BFA in Creative Writing. I studied mostly fiction and poetry. I loved my time in the program, though sometimes I wish I could go back and do it again now that I’m older and more widely read. I would have loved to do my masters as well but I couldn’t really justify it financially at the time and it hasn’t been a priority since. Maybe one day…

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        • My MFA program was nothing like what I thought it would be. They got so many diverse people into one room that it never felt like we got anything done because all people did was argue from their perspective. I realize how shallow and short-sighted that sounds, but it’s also frustrating to write a story using your experiences to craft a story and then have someone tell you your story is too x, y, and z because it doesn’t consider their culture and perspective. It felt like two years of “how to be woke in your fiction” before woke was a thing.

          I hadn’t considered the way we are praised for reading above grade/age level, but I do remember that feeling, too! I also remember this one girl in particular who read WAY BETTER than I did, and I was so jealous that I felt like giving up reading (and did so for a while), so perhaps part of me is defensive of those who claim they read literary fiction and imply they do so because it’s harder/smarter. SHE WAS SO SMUG. OMG, she was smug through college and everything. She’s still smug! She actually wrote on my Facebook wall a few years ago that she looks down on people who don’t type two spaces after a period because it doesn’t look as “academic.” WTF does that even mean. The two spaces after a period were designed for typewriters to make the sentences and spacing clearer. I’ve gone on a tangent.

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          • Hahahaha! Oh man, the 2 spaces after the period…I did that for a while and probably felt pretty smug about it. And was probably very smug with a lot of people as a teenager about the books I read. University humbled me a lot on that front.

            I graduated in 2008 and I think I missed a lot of that “woke culture” thing. It would have been good to maybe have a greater variety in the instructors (I can only recall one prof who wasn’t white) even though I liked the majority of them as teachers, but I can imagine how frustrating that kind of debate would be in a workshop setting.

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            • The MFA program at Notre Dame had students from all over the globe. I’ve ventured into the bits of Canada that are shaking hands with Michigan. I was not well-read, well-traveled, or a great study in culture when I went to college. I’m not sure I should be punished for that, as my experiences are also a facet of the country and tell people something about America.

              The environmentalist in me who HATES waste was so mad about the two spaces because I thought it was wasting loads of paper. LOL!

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              • I went to school in Victoria, which is a small city known for its elderly population. It’s far less diverse than Vancouver, where I grew up. At 17, I thought I was very well-travelled and well-read but many (not all) of my classmates were older or returning students and had a lot more life experience than me. I’d almost forgotten this but I used to get criticized for including too many obscure Biblical references because I had no idea what the average person knew about the Bible!

                Workshopping can be such a lesson in allowing a variety of experiences to be heard and given value to, including the so-called “average” ones.

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                • I know there are studies that conclude that students who take a gap year after high school and do something meaningful with it (they could have a not-wonderful job like most young people end up with but also do some volunteer work or travel) is a huge indicator of success in college. I think the idea is that students get out of high school and go right into college more excited about the new experiences they’ll have and less focus on their studies. There’s also a SURPRISING amount of home sickness.

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  11. The real tragedy about the whole “literary” designation is that it might stop someone from reading a good book. Same with any other label I guess – oh no, it’s “science fiction” so I can’t read that, or it’s YA so it can’t be any good for a “grown-up”… etc.

    I do have a shelf on Goodreads labeled Literary Fiction and I don’t even really know why I do that. Sometimes I struggle with whether or not a book belongs to that category – I guess it’s like that old definition of porn – I know it when I see it! Ha ha!

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    • To me, what a lot of people are describing as the characteristics of literary fiction are just criteria I use when reviewing a book: the plot, structure, writing style, themes, etc. I know that definition of pornography; my husband was a broadcasting major and told me about the requirements of what makes something pornography and the retort of “I know it when I see it!” It makes me laugh because it’s such a stupid thing to say (because it’s so subjective what people think is sexually offensive) and yet it makes PERFECT sense because you know exactly what that phrase means!

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  12. I mostly read genre fiction, so I don’t know how many deep thoughts I have about literary fiction. But I tend to think of literary fiction as contemporary adult fiction that is probably overly complicated and that literary critics love, but the general public does not. Probably the book is not actually that deep, but it talks about sex and drugs and so critics are impressed. Or it’s not that deep, but its awful prose is so incomprehensible that readers assume THEY are the problem, they are the ones who just don’t get the genius–when, in fact, a really good writer would make themselves comprehensible. Um…does all that make me sound bitter?

    I’ve never heard of literary genre fiction before, but the idea makes me chuckle a little because it’s like critics are trying to deny, as you suggest, that genre fiction might, you know, actually be good. But if they give genre fiction an extra adjective,it’s now acceptable to read? Hilarious.

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    • Thus far, I think some comments make interesting points about what literary fiction might be, but I’m not sold that it’s a genre at all. I think your “bitterness” highlights the frivolity of insisting that literary is a genre because the books have strong writing or certain themes. Those are criteria for a good book, not features of a whole genre. Your comment made me ask my manager, who is a librarian, if literary fiction is a genre. She didn’t answer my question, but instead sent me down a rabbit hole that has led to another blog post I’m going to write, and the topic BLEW MY MIND!

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      • I never saw literary fiction as a genre, except that, as I mentioned, I would normally assume the term is being applied to adult contemporary. But I think “contemporary” is a broad category that is usually divided into things like “contemporary romance” or maybe “realistic fiction” or “issues fiction.” Contemporary is, in some ways, in my mind, a non-genre; it’s where stuff goes when it doesn’t necessarily have another convenient label. It’s a story set in the present day, but it’s not fantasy or sci-fi or mystery, etc.

        And I agree! Beautiful prose or “universal” themes and all that can apply to anything. I would argue The Lord of the Rings has both. But no one’s ever called LotR literary fiction, that I’ve seen!

        I’m excited now for your next post!

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        • Thanks, Krysta! I know that when I hear “contemporary fiction,” I assume the books in that category will change because they are whatever has been published quite recently. Another thing no one has commented on: a lot of “literary fiction” fits into genres that cover a style and time period, such as modernism, post-modernism, antebellum, etc.. I never see anyone call a book these designations that I learned in college.

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          • I think the last time I saw someone describe a book as “postmodern”, it was in reference to “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, and in tone it was more like, “You may not have realized it as a child, but actually….” I’d imagine, given how often “postmodern” is used a snarl word, that convincing someone to sell a book as such would be a difficult proposition!

            I’d actually been thinking about something somewhat similar yesterday: a big chunk of books I see marketed as “literary fiction” could conceivably be recategorized as “historical fiction,” or at least as period pieces. Out of curiosity, I went on Goodreads to see how users categorized a bunch of novels I’ve read in the past few years, ones that could conceivably be shelved as “literary” or “historical”. To my surprise, for all but one of them (Elfriede Jelinek’s “Wonderful, Wonderful Times”), more users shelved them as “historical fiction” than as “literary fiction”, and often substantially more. About 9 times as many users, for example, shelve Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” as “historical fiction” than as “literary fiction”. This even holds true for something like Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which has the litfic imprimatur of a Pulitzer Prize but is still more often shelved as “historical fiction”.

            I did note that a lot of these books tend to be set either in somewhat niche periods of history (e.g., the 1930s New York City comic book scene) or over expansive swathes of it (e.g., the entire history of the African diaspora). I imagine that fewer people are specifically looking for books about these time periods than, say, WWII or the Roman Empire, so I wonder what the term “literary fiction” does for them. Does it bring them to a wider audience than would otherwise seek them out? Or does it push a potential audience away? (Or is it neither and I’m just overthinking this one?)

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            • The terms I heard the most when many of my book blog friends read Homegoing were “saga” or “African fiction” or both. Oddly, I’ve found that readers who don’t use the term “literary fiction” (and many on here who claimed they actually don’t think much about it) tend to label what they’re reading fairly simply. I’m wondering if that means those who don’t read fiction that is sold as a certain genre choose to label it “literary fiction” because that term sounds like it means something more than “general fiction.” That, and literature prizes don’t like to concede that genre fiction is prize-worthy (as you note, it’s often prizes that determine what is “literary”).At the end of the day, I try to remember that “literary fiction” really breaks down to “written fiction” anyway.

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  13. I find the labels we use to categorize books very frustrating. It’s often meaningless. To me, so-called “literary fiction” is for boring books that claim to be more important than they really are. They aren’t the books that keep me reading well into the night. They aren’t the books I recommend to my kids, and they aren’t the books I talk about on my blog (with a few exceptions because there are always exceptions!).

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