What is Literary Fiction?

We all think we know? Or do we?

We know what it is not, when genre labels are easy to apply. The covers with loopy handwriting and book illustrator style, pastel and jolly, are obviously chic lit. Thrillers with their block capitals and misty figures in hoodies or girls walking into a dark forest are easy to spot. But literary fiction? There might be a mention of a prize won, or a shortlisting for a prestigious prize. But otherwise, the book is secretive unless you have heard of it by review or recommendation. And therefore, harder to choose.

We know where we are with genre fiction. It  is a bit of a comfort blanket because we know that there will be a resolution of some sort, a tidying up of loose threads, and when we close the book, it does not leak. As a rule, we do not become introspective and brood on what we have just read, we simply move on to the next book. I will confess I enjoy detective fiction written by writers whose eyes are dark and jaundiced. Heaven knows why, but I find it relaxing. Perhaps it’s because I don’t really care about the characters: I know what they are there for, what they stand for, and I enjoy it as a kind of puppetry. I am eager to find out what has happened and why, and what has been done by whom, but once the questions have been answered the book is hollowed out.

Obviously, there is overlap and controversy – crime writers like P D James and  Ruth Rendell were well-respected for their fine novels, and I read them all voraciously. However, like everything that has blurred boundaries, it is simpler to avoid the soft edges at the middle and investigate the obvious.

My editor daughter has given me her personal definition:

“I know it when I read it and I only read it really…

I think it is not necessarily plot-driven unlike much popular fiction, more likely to be character-driven, may discuss or allude to issues du jour, is likely to be beautifully written or cleverly written so lots of description or if not lots of description then not a word out of place.”

Steven Petite says:

In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves. Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction by Steven Petite https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/

Good old Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_fiction gives us a useful summary:

Characteristics of literary fiction generally include one or more of the following:

  • a concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition.
  • a focus on “introspective, in-depth character studies” of “interesting, complex and developed” characters, whose “inner stories” drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit “emotional involvement” in the reader.
  • a character-centric work (here in a pejorative sense) and, even, portraiture at the expense of any substantive plot. Philip Hensher’s The Fit regularly tops lists of the books held to feature beautifully deconstructed characters who do nothing very beautifully.
  • a slower pace than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.”
  • a concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered”.

For me, the defining characteristic is that these are books that stay with me. I will start with Forster’s ‘Howards End’ where I can no longer listen to Beethoven’s 5th without thinking of:

No ; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,’ breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures ; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness ! Panic and emptiness ! The goblins were right.

These quiet goblins and the attendant nihilism are now inextricably bound up with the music for me.

Then there is ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver where the protagonists become the different faces of Africa in all its complexity. I won’t offer spoilers but there is a  huge and gut-wrenching turn in this book.

‘The White Hotel’ by D.M. Thomas begins as what seems to be a book about psychoanalysis and then goes on to show the psychological damage described in the first half as the physical blows of the holocaust massacre at Babi Yar later on. I cannot describe the impact of this book. I went on to write a poem about the atrocity for Holocaust Memorial Day on  Poetry Super Highway. It is a book which still moves me profoundly.

‘The City and the City’ by China Miéville is a strange dystopian murder mystery set in a cold war setting, where inhabitants of the two cities overlap yet learn to ‘unsee’ one another. It is such a powerful evocation of divided states. Another facet of this approach can be seen in  ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ by Adam Johnson, which I have just finished reading. (Thanks for the recommendation, Imogen!)  This imaginatively creates an account of life in North Korea through shifting protagonists, a tale of torture and brutality, and the erratic behaviour of ‘The Great Leader’,  which is often bizarrely very funny. (I hope this is not just me.)

Marilynne Robinson writes densely textured, powerful, intricate novels. In ‘Gilead’, set in the Iowan town of Gilead, the book is written in the voice of the dying  Reverend John Ames’ through a letter to his young son. It is a deeply humane voice. Then she flips the coin in ‘Home’ using the same setting and some overlap in time to examine the doomed life of Jack, the godson and namesake of John Ames. Though Jack is frustratingly beyond help and we see that love is not enough. It sounds gloomy but her luminous writing makes it all worthwhile,

I could go on and on – back to the classics, forward to more recent works. But the point I am trying to make is to show the almost magical power of literary fiction (oh, and don’t get me on to magical realism and Angela Carter!). And that is its essence: these are books which will never know their place, books that will continue to haunt, comfort, and surprise long after they have been put back on the bookshelf, and this is something that almost all genre fiction cannot do.

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