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  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Colin-M at 13:43 on 07 February 2007
    Are there any chick-lit novels you would describe as truly brilliant novels in their own right, something that really manages to stand on its own? There are usually a few gems in most genres. A few that immediately come to mind...

    Horror: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Stand
    Sci Fi: no idea!
    Fantasy: Lord of the Rings
    Young Adult: Noughts and Crosses, His Dark Materials
    Childrens: Chronicles of Narnia
    Picture Books: Fungus the Bogeyman!

    we could probably all add something.
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Colin-M at 13:45 on 07 February 2007
    Glad you said Dickens wasn't literary. He was the equivalent of Stephen King - brilliant at what he did, but ultimately, writing for the masses. Same as that Shakespear bloke.
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Sappholit at 13:55 on 07 February 2007
    Literary fiction is more subtle.

    That's something I've just decided, today.


    Colin, I'm sorry to disagree so profoundly, but Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the worst books ever written (in my humble opinion).
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Account Closed at 14:05 on 07 February 2007
    I've suggested that before, too, that a definition of literary fiction is something that wants to do more than just tell a story. But I always get shot down for being elitist and a snob and so on.

    What I say is:

    "If a piece of fiction has an agenda beyond storytelling, if the writer is doing something experimental, or unusual, or academic, then I call it 'literary' fiction for the sake of a better word".

    What people hear is:

    "Griff says that anything with the label 'literary fiction' is better than other kinds of fiction therefore he is UP HIS OWN ARSE."

    My favourite example recently is Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem. This is a wonderful book set in the world of Victorian London music halls. There's an arresting opening scene where a woman is hanged. Just before she dies, she says "Here we go again!" No explanation is given.

    Later, I'm reading some history about the music hall days. "Here we go again!" was a popular catchphrase used by Grimaldi the Clown, usually just before he performed any "transformation" in his act. So Ackroyd was telling us that (a) the hanged woman was probably an enthusiast, or performer in, the music hall. He's also making a black joke about life-to-death being the ultimate in theatrical transformations. Does he labour this stuff ? No. Does it help in storytelling ? No. It's there for observant people to notice, an extra layer. That's why I would describe Peter Ackroyd as a writer of literary fiction, and Bernard Cornwell (an equally good storyteller, but one who would never use such obscure devices) as a writer of historical fiction.

  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by NMott at 14:06 on 07 February 2007
    I am tempted to put LOTR in both the Literary and Classic camps. It is only now gaining mass appeal.


    Just before she dies, she says "Here we go again!" No explanation is given.

    It is also possible that Ackroyd was paying homage to Douglass Adams and quoting the bowl of pertunias ;)

  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Account Closed at 14:08 on 07 February 2007
    For a moment I read that as "I want to decribe LOTR as both literary and camp." And I thought, actually, you might be right.
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by NMott at 14:10 on 07 February 2007
    Lol! Griff
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Account Closed at 14:12 on 07 February 2007
    It is also possible that Ackroyd was paying homage to Douglass Adams and quoting the bowl of pertunias

    Or that Douglas Adams was making a joke about Grimaldi, which seems only marginally less likely than Peter Ackroyd having even heard of something so dreadfully common as The HitchHikers Guide To The Galaxy...
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Account Closed at 14:14 on 07 February 2007
    An outstanding sci-fi novel Colin? Got to be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K.Dick, or maybe 1984 by George Orwell?

    The question itself has always puzzled me, but I've interpreted 'literary fiction' to mean high-brow fiction that examines its themes in a humanistic fashion. Literary fiction is not necessarily 'action driven', though I suppose all these definitions just confuse me more. Is literary fiction just fiction that can't be easily categorised in any particular genre?

    J.G. Ballard writes 'literary' sci-fi.

  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Account Closed at 14:17 on 07 February 2007
    Dune is fantastic, too. The opening scene with Paul Atreides and the gom jabbar is one of my favourites in any novel.

    I'm also very fond of H.G.Wells's science-fiction "romances" as he called them.

    And Iain M.Banks's Consider Phlebas is brilliant.
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Account Closed at 14:21 on 07 February 2007
    Still not got round to reading any Iain M.Banks, though have read all his other non-sci-fi books and loved every one.

    Yeah, the Dune series was fab. There are many classic examples of science fiction, such as Arthur C.Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey right through to Jules Verne and well, it could be argued that Frankenstein is actually more sci-fi than horror, though I think it sits somewhere inbetween.

  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by EmmaD at 14:46 on 07 February 2007
    I think confusion arises because what the book trade calls literary and what we call literary are two different, but related, things. I don't think there's any point in trying to extend the argument back beyond Henry James, which is when there first began to be a distinction made in fiction between 'High' Art (i.e. literary) and Low/Commercial/Genre whatever. Blame the Leavises for that if you like.

    Talking about the modern-day book trade, writers and readers, then, a literary novel assumes some of the following in the reader, and is written to suit:

    -more than experience or education in reading fiction (i.e. greater vocabulary, range of references)
    -more interest in picking up abstract ideas and themes
    -a greater willingness to work out what's happening from more subtle hints
    -an interest in how it's written: if we were talking painting, the brushstrokes, as well as the subject
    -this can translate into being slower-paced, or harder to read quickly, (which is when people start being rude about it).

    The book trade would add to this list:

    -not obviously parkable under one or other of the genre labels - Romance, Thriller, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Chick Lit, whatever - where it would probably sell more
    -likely to win literary prizes
    -likely to sell less - with some notable exceptions
    -inconveniently, the author will probably write something completely different for their next book

    In fact, to the book trade, 'literary' is just another genre, and has its market, towards which all cover design, marketing, publicity, sales etc. are aimed. It makes up for smaller sales by prestige on the list and in the world, and every now and then you have a smash hit which crosses over into serious sales territory - Small Island would be an example.

    To me as writer and reader 'literary' embraces all of the first list, but I would add that it has to be GOOD. Quite a lot of literary fiction isn't good, just as quite a lot of genre fiction isn't: in the book trade it's a type, not a badge of merit. In fact, my working definition of 'literary' is quite independent of genre - give me a genre, and I'll give you a Great Literary Work you could label thus. The key, to me, is originality.

    Commercial fiction is often original in ideas - at least as far as psychology and perhaps theme are concerned - but less often in the actual texture of the writing and the way that all the parts are put together. Generally speaking, it remains tied to real-seeming characters, and to actions and events appropriate to the genre, because familiarity is deeply important to its appeal for readers.

    My working definition of literary is a book which has originality in the ideas, and in how they're handled, and in the writing.

    The more original in all these aspects a literary novel is, the harder it may be to read, or at least to read really fruitfully, because we're less accustomed to decoding such things. And because some things a literary writer wants to do are honestly hard to read and make sense of, this obscurity becomes a badge of literary merit. Nick Hornby said that he didn't mind Marilyn Robertson's Gilead being hard to read, because 'She couldn't get it done any easier'. But his contention - which I agree with to some extent - is that much soi-disant literary fiction could in fact be done easier, and there's no literary merit in being obscure per se. I think that wilful obscurity is one of the reasons that some people say they're annoyed by literary fiction.

    But there's highly permeable membrane between literary and commercial/genre/mass-market. What was completely literary a generation or two ago - stream-of-consciousness, say, or all-present-tense - might be the staple stuff of some quite commercial writing now. Literary writers grab and play with the conventions of thrillers, or historical romance [guilty!] or sci-fi, sometimes in a conventionally post-modern way, sometimes just because they want to explore history, or the future, or love and sex.

    Which is why I might be prepared to think aloud, as above, but I think many discussions of the question (never on WW, of course! ) are tiresomely reductive and/or snobbish (and snobbery operates equally tiresomely normal way up, or inverted). It's also not very helpful to writers: you write what you write. As far as I'm concerned I really prefer the book trade's thinking: different people like different kinds of book, so let's hope someone's writing something they want.



    In other words, I'm agreeing with Griff.

    Saying literary fiction 'is trying to do more' is precisely not saying 'better' just 'different'.
  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by debac at 14:46 on 07 February 2007
    which, yes, involve sex and shopping - also seek to explore many more profound themes facing contemporary women, such as juggling a career with a family, post-natal depression, empty-nest syndrome, divorce

    Fair point. This is why I asked the question, because it's all about definitions. What is literary? What is chick lit? What is profound?? What if you address a profound issue in a trivial manner?

    Hmm. As a reader of chick lit, Deb, i'd say i had a pretty good attention span.

    I never said that you didn't. What I meant was that most of the chick lit-type novels I've looked at seemed to be action-dialogue-action-dialogue all the way, with little quiet contemplation. And to me, chick lit means that any themes which are covered are covered in a fairly trivial way. But maybe I'm wrong. This is my impression mostly from the outside. I haven't read much of it because from reading book jackets and first pages I really dislike it.

    It also depends what you put in that category, since there are many novels which touch on those themes which I personally would not call chick lit at all.

  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Nikkip at 14:48 on 07 February 2007
    Wikipedia has a definition of literary fiction

  • Re: Literary fiction - a definition?
    by Jem at 14:49 on 07 February 2007
    I'm not meant to be here - but I'd put down Ray Bradbury (The Illustrated Man) and some of his short stories as literary sci-fi and Margaret Attwood.
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