I wrote a post back in February on my writing blog about literary. Reading it now, I'm groaning about my own words. This is what I've thought in the past:
Literary is exhausting. Literary means you look smart, but only appeal to a small group. Literary means you'll never be a hit.
I went on to explain that I know I'm wrong in these assumptions. Of course I'm wrong. When I emailed Scott and Davin about doing a post on "literary" they both said the same thing: It's a pointless discussion. Well, perhaps it is. Scott sent me this in his response:
I like the term "interpretive fiction" rather than "literary fiction" because it emphasises the purpose of the writing rather than the form. Or at least that's what I tell myself. I stole that term from the book "Story and Structure" by Laurence Perrine; it's the text I had in an "Introducion to Fiction" class back when I was a college freshman. He divides fiction into "escapist" and "interpretive" classes, one for entertainment and one for edification, more or less. Naturally, there is overlap between the categories (what's the Iliad, for example?).
Davin has not sent me an explanation yet of literary. Davin, I don't blame you. Nathan Bransford describes literary fiction as:
In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.
He explains that literary fiction moves the conflict and climax in a story through the character's hearts and minds - internal, even if there's external forces. Genre fiction moves the conflict and climax in a story through external forces. "The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens."
Can a book have both elements? Well, of course it can. In fact, most literature that I love has a good mix of both. That's why I'm picky about what I choose to read and why I'm finding it so difficult to write my own book.
So what's with the snakes? Well, literary fiction often seems like one huge pile of snakes, if you ask me. Many people back away from it. It appears inaccessible, frightening, and oftentimes to those who don't wish to untangle it all, a pointless dangerous endeavor better left alone. Maybe for some, it is better left alone, but for others, those snakes can do some pretty cool things, especially under the influence of an expert. You know, one of these guys:
My husband took that picture when he was India a few years ago. I looked at it and said, really? They actually dance to the music? Yep.
In my opinion, literary can't be defined. And I don't think it needs to be. To some people it's a snake - inaccessible and frightening. To some it's a fine chocolate - savored and appreciated. To some it's a report on how a rocket works - just plain confusing and boring. And why is this? Because literary means lots of things applied in many different ways. In the end, to me, literary simply means going beyond the surface. That's it. Some books go deeper than others. Some use more literary conventions than others. The end.
So I should ask my friend if she might be more inclined to come over here if we renamed the blog The Writing Lab. Because that's what literary is - just another convention of writing. And it doesn't have to be scary. Really. Just pick chocolate over snakes.
~MDA (aka Glam)