Monday, April 11, 2011

Literary Fiction Is Not Literary Fiction

Last night I went to a reading of short stories from Stacey Levine's The Girl With Brown Fur. I was very impressed with the writing. Over and over again, Levine's stories caught me by surprise with unusual details and insights that made me think more deeply about life. The stories fell into what I consider to be literary writing.

I heard six stories in all, and by the time the third one started, I was still impressed with the writing, but I suddenly became aware that the stories were fairly plotless. From what I heard all of the stories did have plots, but they were thin, serving more as a carrier for the writing, which I personally still find satisfying.

But, it made me wonder. Are plot and this type of literary writing incompatible? I tried to imagine a book that had both a heavy plot and the insightful details that Levine had, and I got the impression that the two would clash somehow. As I think about it now, I wonder if maybe what makes that insight powerful is the fact that it comes from nothing. Like in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, it is the mundane aspect of the story that makes the insight powerful. Maybe Woolf ushered in this new type of fiction that is now called literary fiction--I haven't read enough to be able to know that for sure. John Updike does a similar thing in his Rabbit books. Over and over again I'm captivated by the insight of his details, the little moments. Meanwhile, the overall plots are far less interesting (though more substantial than some other books).

Then, I think about the classics. Many of those seem much more plot heavy as well as being heavy on character. I think of Moby Dick or The Iliad or Kreutzer Sonata. I would definitely call these books literary as well, but I realize all of a sudden that the qualities that make these books literary to me are not the same qualities that make The Girl With Brown Fur or Olive Kittridge or Unaccustomed Earth literary to me. Hardly any of the characters in Unaccustomed Earth are memorable to me. That's not Lahiri's focus, at least in my opinion. The skills of the classic literary writing revolved around developing so many other things besides the insightful detail.

I think what was literary yesterday is not the same style of writing as what's considered literary today. They're two different genres.

I suppose in all art there are different movements. In music and painting and sculpture and writing, new writers change the value and standards of old writing and so the transformation of literary writing can be seen as this same sort of evolution. But, somehow I think this isn't the case. I think classic literary and contemporary literary are not the same thing at all. They haven't emerged from the same branch. I'd say Scott G. F. Bailey's novels fall more into the classical literary style while what I was writing up until last year fell more into contemporary literary. (My recent stories are more plot driven and I've been missing something in them and I realize that it is this thing I talk about here.)

So...what does this mean? It's sort of a weird realization for me. I feel a bit lost. I feel like the elements I've been focusing on, this sort of platform based on insightful detail, is perhaps a completely bad direction to have gone in because it cuts off so many other possibilities of story. It's almost like contemporary literary writing is a genre that I don't feel like pursuing anymore, like maybe it's too narrow, even though I still enjoy reading it. I've been confused a bit of late because all literary writing was starting to feel similar to me. I thought maybe I was just becoming more attracted to other genres of fiction. But, I think it's actually still literary I'm after, but a different literary style than what's currently en vogue. Maybe from here I go somewhere new. Or, maybe from here I go somewhere old.

I hope it's new.

Does this make any sense at all? Am I crazy?


  1. Try reading Cormac McCarthy or or Flannery O'Connor (although if you want really fast plots and incredible insight into the human condition read Raymond Chandler).

    It's not that literary fiction doesn't have plot, it's that they may not be as easy for you to relate to. Updike is very concerned with being middle aged and the state of his penis. You might not be that bothered.

    LF tends to be more personal and personal preferenes then play a greater role in how well you engage. The plot always means something to the writer, but writers, especially good ones, are strange people with odd obsessions.

    Moody Writing

  2. Domey, if you're crazy, join the club, because so am I.

    My tastes in reading are highly eclectic and that broad (confused?) range shows in my writing. I actually don't know what is literary writing and what isn't anymore. Lately, I've taken to having two categories for the books I read: like and don't like.

    This is not a case of me deciding whether a book is good or not, literary or not, just whether I enjoyed it or not. And the interesting thing is that I find gems in both plot and character driven stories. It's all in the author's execution, I suppose.

    Judy (South Africa)

    PS I hope you don't mind if I mention that there are 4 x US$25 Amazon vouchers up for grabs in my blogpost celebrating the release of my booktrailer.

  3. All I know is that I love novels that deal with serious themes in a manner that keeps me turning the page. I'm so tired of trying to define everything by genre, something I never thought about until I started writing novels and realized I had to define myself by such. I loved BLOOD SAFARI, by Deon Meyer and considered it "literary" though it is action-packed with a definite central plot. I guess I'd have to surmise that I don't want to simply read flowery prose without memorable characters. I agree about Lahari-a beautiful writer but not a character to care about or remember, thus not a favorite of mine. About your final question....yes, by certain standards, you are certainly crazy. Crazy for the written word.

  4. Of course you're crazy. You're a writer. As for the whole "old literary, new literary" or even "literary, non-literay" thing, I never could get it exacty straight which was which anyway. So I say, just read and enjoy and let the chips fall where they may.

  5. Far from crazy. You've described the different aspects of writing, especially in literary-writing, as well as the dilemmas really well. I don't have too many thought at this moment, except that it reminds me of the kinds of things I think about when it comes to "classical music."

    This is the kind of post that I will be re-reading and thinking about.

    Thanks for that.

    I'll check back to see what others have to say, and maybe I'll have sorted out some thought about these issues then.

    Thanks again for sharing your insights.

  6. It's hard to say, isn't it? And, I think different people will have different thoughts on what exactly is literary or not. I sometimes joke around and say 'any book I don't understand is literary' but that's not really true either. I recall the first time someone said my LOVE novel had a literary bend. I was surprised and unsure I agreed but now I think it does have a bit of that to it. Sometimes the scene is more about the emotion of the words than the actual plot and that may be what they are talking about.

  7. Well, I think you can go back as far as Henry James for the interior life taking the main place in fiction, with his "a woman standing at a table, looking at nothing in particular is an event." I agree with old Henry, and certainly the Modernists like Beckett and Woolf prized emotional states over physical ones. But I don't know if there's any sort of real line of demarcation. Back when Dostoyevsky was alive, the English writers of the time all were saying the the problem with Russians was that their books never had plots, just comments about people and society. So this is nothing new.

    Still, Mighty Reader and I were talking just last night and I said that I was having a hard time falling in love with any novels being written today. When I'm between books I tend to find myself leaning toward the 18th and 19th century classics, or the first half of the 20th century. So you're dead on about what sort of fiction I'm trying to write; that might make getting a book deal tricky these days.

  8. I just finished reading Olive Kitteredge and Shelley’s Defence [sic] of Poetry, and perhaps as a result this is what I feel is literary: literature that captures the exquisite though mundane details of daily life at the same time that it incorporates that “image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” [Shelley]

  9. Mood, Regarding Cormac McCarthy, I've read All The Pretty Horses and The Road. The Road in particular, I'd say, doesn't have memorable characters. The plot in that book also isn't as strong, in my opinion. To me, that's another example of a book more focused on insight. I haven't read them, but I think Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men may fall more into the classical category I mention here. That's a good point.

    Judy, first up, definitely mention your contest and book trailer. I'm excited to check it out. I agree that it's easier and clearer to simply decide if I've liked a book or not. For me personally, there is something relevant about this literary history though. I'm not sure why I think it's important, but I'm working on that.

    Yvonne, do you find that the classics are more enjoyable for you than say Lahiri or Elizabeth Strout or Paul Harding? I'd be curious to know. What I like about Lahiri, is that I feel like I learn something about life.

    Chuck, if only it were that easy for me. I do wonder about these things. More importantly, I guess, I wonder if I can have it all, if it's possible to have the insightful details I love while also having a driving plot. They don't seem compatible, but maybe I just don't give it enough pages.

  10. Yat-Yee, I was wondering if this would apply to other arts. I wonder if you can compare Cy Twombly to Rembrandt. Maybe it is just the normal evolution.

    Tess, for me, that's exactly what I'm talking about. I haven't read your entire book, but based on what few passage I've read of your writing I would have called you literary, so I guess I'm basing that judgment on details. Maybe my own ideas of literary are changing.

    Scott, I'm thinking now, though, that this classic form should come back. I feel like the new literary has too narrow of a focus. Your writing can and does have strong details and insight, though it fits into more of a plot. Maybe it's a matter of degree. In some new literary it seems like every single details is manipulated until it's insightful and maybe that is overworking the story too much.

    Judith, for me, that interpretation fits very well with, say, Lahiri or Strout. If you're into that, I'd recommend Stacey Levine to you, and--one of my favorite writers--Kathy Fish.

  11. Characters. Story. Plot. In that order.

    I'm not a well-educated lit guy, so I can't speak to the "literary" aspect of writing, but I lump everything into one group with the three elements I listed. I tend to gravitate to books that put things in that order.

    Thin characters with a strong plot works, but you need a good story. Tolkein comes to mind on that point. Strong plot. Somewhat thin characters. But a GREAT story.

    Without the first two, a plot simply won't work, ever, no matter how good it is.

    - Eric

  12. Domey,

    I really enjoyed this post.

    Read The English Patient recently and this line "I am a man who fasts until I see what I want" seemed to me the most amazing insight i have ever read in a book.

    And yet, I was bored out of my mind for the majority of that novel.

    I've come to think that a great novel reconciles "literary" qualities with a great plot and struggling to do that might not be such a bad thing.

  13. But there's also Nabokov's Pale Fire and Transparent Things and Camus' The Stranger and Beckett's Molloy trilogy and William Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night and Kafka's The Castle and Gunter Grass and and and...

    I'm not so interested in plot these days. I don't know if I believe in plot, at least not in the way we usually talk about it. I think that movement is important, and that movement is a function of theme and voice. Development of ideas and beautiful writing. That's literature. Or, that's my definition of literature today. This morning, anyway.

  14. Scott: Movement. I think that is it. The way a story has to progress, and not necessarily bound to plot.

    Function of theme and voice: seems to feel right but I'm not sure I know what it means. Will add it to the thoughts provoked by Domey's original post to chew on.

  15. Judith quotes Shelley, "literature that captures the exquisite though mundane details of daily life at the same time that it incorporates that 'image of life expressed in its eternal truth.'”

    This is exactly the problem I have found trying to incorporate "literary" techniques into my genre, fantasy. Since what I am trying to illuminate is not "mundane," that makes it difficult to connect to the reader through the evocation of a common language of the mundane. Details, for my story, are always a form of world-building, always a revelation of difference, not commonality. Readers will only accept so much.

    Nonetheless, some sf/f genre writers have written literary pieces. But often at the sacrifice of plot, just as you say. Especially "epic" plot.

    Maybe it's just me, but I find it hard to both write about a succession of mundane details about my characters and also describe them fighting ghouls, scaling cliffs, attacking enemy forts, rescuing prisoners, jumping into shark-infested waters, and riding orca-back to shore pursued by kraken, and still have deep, insightful writing.

    On the other hand, I do envy the ability of literary writers to evoke real feeling.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate - only $.99
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  16. Eric, Thanks for your thoughts. I'd be curious to get a sense of what types of books you enjoy reading that meet your requirements. Do they call into older classics or more contemporary genres or something else?

    Mayowa, Yes! That was the experience I ended up feeling last night. It was still satisfying because I got the good lines, but then half of me was looking for more.

    Scott, I wonder if our two views of writing are changing. I almost feel like we're switching places. Or maybe we'll meet in the middle. Meeting in the middle seems like the best alternative regarding this point.

  17. Yat-Yee: I'm thinking less in terms of story than I am of narrative these days. Sort of the way I imagine Beethoven or Brahms thought of the sonata as a whole, rather than as theme A and theme B. That's not a great analogy, but it's the best I have right now.

  18. Tara Maya, I'm feeling the same way. They're just not compatible. That really bothers me. I don't know what to do.

  19. Big D: I was just thinking that very thing. My use of the term "movement" is influenced by your use of it when we were judging stories for Genre Wars.

    Maybe I've grown comfortable enough with the architecture of plot-driven stories that I want to push the frame around and see what else I can do? I'd be happy to meet you in the middle on this. I'll bring scones.

  20. Scott, I'll bring these little quilt ovens that I read about often in older Japanese literature to keep our feet warm. I have a feeling this pursuit will wind up being a long and cold journey, at least for me. It seems like it will slow down my productivity even more.

  21. Scott: Thanks for the analogy. I think I get it.

  22. I hope it won't slow your productivity, Domey.

  23. Tara Maya, I think I need to keep reminding myself that good things take time. Hopefully it's for the better. :)

  24. Literary is too subjective a word to quantify in this manner. You're over-thinking it, and that's what's driving you crazy.

    True, the standards for today's literary writing are different from centuries ago, but if they weren't different, what would be the point of writing anything new? If the standards are set in stone, then everything becomes a re-hash, which would bore me to tears.

    If Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach were alive today, would their music be different? I think it would. These were very innovative minds, and I believe they would take advantage of the new tools to create soundscapes and melodies that show their genius, but those compositions would be vastly different from their Classical compositions.

    Writing is different than music, of course. We can't auto-tune a book (nor would we want to, right?!?) But we must take into account the changes in our socio-economic climate and how those changes impact our stories. These factors will drive our plots and our characters, for the latter they impact the environments they encounter and the ways our characters can react to those environments. What was once taboo is now the norm, and some things that were once normal are now taboo.

    The most important thing is for each of us as artists to determine the tone, style, voice, and depth of plot/characterization we feel is necessary to tell the story we want to tell, and then to tell that story.

  25. Rick: "The most important thing is for each of us as artists to determine the tone, style, voice, and depth of plot/characterization we feel is necessary to tell the story we want to tell, and then to tell that story." That's failing to engage in an exploration of how the literature around us (and maybe coming out of us) differs from the idea of literature we carry around in our heads. And I think such an exploration is important. I think that just saying "books are different today than they were in the past" isn't helpful (and it's not really historically accurate, because a lot of the experimentation done now has been going on for hundreds of years, and trends and styles of all sorts co-exist and have co-existed for centuries). So asking "how is my writing--and the writing I see around me--the same or not the same as my ideas of writing" is important, if only to get to the state of determining what we feel is necessary to tell the stories we want to tell. Saying that Melville would write differently today than he did 100+ years ago misses the point, I think.

  26. Also, some of us just have fun talking about this stuff.

  27. I don't mean to be picking on Rick, but I see this: "If Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach were alive today, would their music be different? I think it would." argument all the time, and there are two (at least) problems with it. First, it's not in any way provable. Second, it's not important (because they are part of history and are usually invoked for their place in the history they helped create). Third, there are in fact living composers who are composing original works in the Romantic style of Beethoven or Brahms. The fact that heavy metal guitarists might like Paganini doesn't demonstrate that Paganini would like heavy metal music, for example.

  28. Rick, I had to read your comment a few times. I think what you're saying (and please tell me if I'm wrong) is that, say, in a contemporary a protagonist is much more likely to steal grapefruit from their neighbor's yard than to, I don't know, take over a kingdom or something. Is that what you're saying? I think, though, that there are other parallels that could put our characters into equally dramatic situations, such as going to war or something. Cormac McCarthy dealt with something that took place in a future but that resonated to me with more classical journeys. I'd just argue that he wasn't as interested in characters that way, say, Homer was.

    For me to frame my point in a different way--and I think I'm saying the same thing Scott is saying--is that this thinking is important for me because it is helping me define what I've been trying to write and what I've been missing in my writing. I feel like understanding this for myself will help me reach my own personal goals.

    I also think writers can improve on a type of writing without necessarily changing it. Stacey Levine, for example, is writing things that are more emotional than my writing. We have the same standards and she accomplished them better than I did. So, reading her work doesn't get boring for me even though we are after the same goal. It pushes me to make myself better rather than different.

  29. I have nothing brilliant to add to this discussion, but I found the post and comments thought provoking. In fact, I think there's something quite important for me here. Something I need to figure out, to define, for the sake of my writing.

    So, thank you for writing this post, and know that I'll be following the discussion.

  30. I bloody HATE books and movies when the ENTIRE story is ALL SYMBOLISM. SERIOUSLY. In some movies, a coffee pot can't be JUST A COFFEE POT. No. It HAS to be representative of the addiction the MC's mother has with being captive, and when she spills the coffee, that represents her frustration. Then the MC meanders down the stairs that represent descending from safety and they see this entire representative scene that would otherwise MEAN NOTHING. And they pack hundreds of pages full of THINGS like that.

  31. McKenzie: Yeah, but I might rather an author tried too hard than didn't try hard enough.

  32. Good post.. thought-provoking, and a great discussion so far, everyone!

    I think there is a balance between the various components of character, plot, prose and providing insight or causing the reader to think about life and issues. The balance does not have the same proportion in every book (and individual readers will disagree on which books "work" and which do not), but any book that is truly great will have a balance which succeeds.

    Recently I read a book with fantastic characters, plenty of plot (and setting! different cultures, etc.) and was written with a very high level of vocabulary and syntax. And it happened to have been near the top of the NYT Bestseller list for over a year. This was "Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese.

    At the very least, this novel straddles the line between commercial success and wonderful writing (often mutually exclusive as we know). Some might not go so far as to call it "literary fiction," but it certainly rose above a genre fiction story of "boy meets scalpel."

    It kept me turning pages for over 600 of them, made me smile, made me laugh, made me think... and I learned a great deal.

  33. Scott, I don't think you're crazy at all. This makes perfect sense. What I love about the word "literary" is that it can mean a lot of things. There will always be literary techniques that span contemporary literary fiction and classical literary fiction.

    Honestly, I'm usually bored to tears by plot. What matters to me is how a story is strung together. I can be fascinated by a grocery list if it's told well. I personally like exciting things to happen in my stories, but they are more of a pretty decoration than the vehicle. If that makes sense.

  34. Bill, thanks for your comment your book recommendation. I'll check it out. I also had someone email me another recommendation: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. I'm not familiar with either of these books.

    Hey Michelle, it's me Davin! :P I do get what you mean. That's how I would have described my own feelings until Sunday night. Now I'm questioning my preferences more.

  35. Davin, please excuse my stupidity. It has been a long morning and a long week already. *FACEPLANT*

    Where is Scott? I was thinking this was today's post. Man, I'm out of it.

  36. I can't get this idea of auto tuning a book out of my head...where's T-Pain when you need him eh?

    Methinks the literary camp gives literary novels a pass on plot (e.g. the glorious reception of the English Patient) and the popular camp gives genre novels a pass on the more "literary" qualities.

    The always annoying distinctions between literary and popular fiction aside, I think these biases (each side giving its output a pass) represent a serious imbalance in the definition of great fiction. To me, greatness in one end (literary qualities for example), does not give one a pass on the other...same goes the other way.

    This is good fun to wade through.

  37. Michelle, no worries at all, of course.

    Mayowa, I've been very excited by this! I've been hungry to write ever since Sunday night.

  38. Davin, on a good note, I will be eating sushi today. All will be right with the world after that. I also noticed Scott just posted. The Universe is once again in Order.

  39. Yes, I posted! Don't expect much; somedays I got nothing except a bland sort of observation about the book I'm reading. This is one of those days.

  40. What we call literary fiction today, seems to be a style that is commonly taught in MFA programs. It's a bit like method acting, in that it's meant to draw a maximum of organic feeling from the writer. I suppose that is why it seems to rely so heavily on first person narrative. James Salter in his Hadada Award acceptance speech claims that the first piece he sent to Paris Review was almost turned down because it was in the first person. Apparently George Plimpton couldn't think of another novel, at the time, that had been written in first person, but Salter mentioned All Quiet on the Western Front, so Plimpton agreed to publish it.

    I suppose first person narration has its place, but I also find it self-limiting, in that it's difficult, for instance, for a first-person narrator to achieve ironic detachment. That is what I was aiming for in my first novel, and the illeistic third person seemed like a much better way to approach it.

    One thing I've noticed about the Classics, though, is that they usually have the full package, whereas works by lesser writers generally do not. My feeling is that "Literary Fiction," as a genre, as opposed to Literature, relies heavily of pretty writing and sometimes, characterization, to cover for weakness in other areas.


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