Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is Literary Fiction?

I once had lunch with Patricia Duncker, and one of the things we talked about was what exactly is literary fiction. Literature, she said, could be classified into seven pillars, and it turned out what I thought was 'literary fiction' (ie wins awards and prizes of the non-genre sort - like the Booker Prize, the long-list of which has just come out today) could actually be considered, in the main, to be 'serious fiction' rather than literary. An example was the work of Ian MacEwan, and indeed the work of most of the writers I admire.

This 'serious fiction' pillar was a wide high one - much larger than the 'true literary fiction' pillar which has a feebler structure (my description). But what is in this literary fiction group and what defines it? I've been trying to answer that question today and have found some good quotes mainly from this website.

Literary fiction:

"... (consists of ) books that really draw you in with language, imagery, character insight and sense of place." Judi Clark

"...(is) complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemas." Joyce Saricks.

"...(is) critically acclaimed, often award-winning, fiction...more often character-centered rather than plot-oriented."

or is it, as Robert McCrum has heard from various people, 'highbrow', 'pretentious' 'unreadable' 'dull' with 'trendy stylistic gimmicks'?

However, I think those first few quotes could apply equally well to what Patricia Duncker referred to as 'serious fiction' too. So these quotes don't really answer my question - what is literary fiction?

Maybe in true literary fiction there is not a story and the focus is entirely style. If this is the case then I am beginning to think that I don't like true literary fiction very much at all. Nothing happens. The characters spend the entire book smugly making clever jokes to themselves for the reader to admire from a distance. There is usually much evidence of literary knowledge, and this is paraded at every opportunity, so that readers with a similar education can smirk knowingly and feel included in some special smug club. I sometimes come across books like this, and after a few pages I throw them down - and once, after being particularly annoyed, threw one particular book right across the room. It landed cover side down and was completely undamaged. Now that, it occurs to me, is probably something you can't do with a Kindle.


Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Literary fiction is where what is said is less important that how it is said. IMHO.

Tue Jul 28, 07:23:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Succinct, Jim - and I think I agree.

Tue Jul 28, 07:34:00 pm  
Blogger stu said...

A rather simpler definition: Literary fiction is the stuff that not only isn't the stuff I write, but likes to pretend it doesn't exist.

Tue Jul 28, 09:54:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

That's simpler, Stu?

Tue Jul 28, 09:57:00 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

This is a great explanation and definition. I think I'll tweet it! (I seem to be gradually, ever-so-slowly getting the hang of this tweeting as a way of recommending something - such as this post!) Thanks Clare.

Wed Jul 29, 02:24:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks for the tweet, Kay!

Wed Jul 29, 08:28:00 am  
Anonymous Gilles said...

All fiction is literary. But there are niches.

Fri Jul 31, 01:54:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Also true. Yes, Gilles - all words one way or another - just the pesky matter of how they're strung together.

Fri Jul 31, 08:29:00 am  
Blogger jem said...

Great post. I was commenting somewhere yesterday that the Booker prize list seems to not just pick 'highbrow' and hardwork titles any more. In recent years there have been some great stories on there too.

I was also talking about the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. Often, hopefully mostly, lit fic can have a good story and characters but will work with lively textured language. Sadly sometimes genre fiction has great ideas and plots but flimsy rather one dimensional writing.

Tue Aug 04, 01:07:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I agree, Jem. I think with literary fiction the basics of writing are likely to be good - in the best genre writing they will be too, but not always.

Tue Aug 04, 09:27:00 pm  

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