Sunday, June 8, 2014

what makes a novel considered a literary work?

  Photo taken 2 weeks after breaking my nose. I am not sure if it's different, but it's okay, well, still a little sore if bumped. I am treating it quite carefully as I sure don't want to bump into something and break it again.
 
What makes writing considered to be literary is a question worth considering. Even though it's not exactly a genre as such, you can find which books are considered literary in a bookstore as they won't be with genre books. They are in a section called literature (where incidentally you will find chick lit and pop fiction but not romance). Are these books there because they are better written? I don't really think so having read literary and those from many genres. But there is a snob appeal to the literary work which lends itself to being chosen by book clubs where a romance would not be.

So I went looking for some general rules on what might deem a work to be literary.

First in any book come two main things-- characters and plot. In a 'literary work,' the characters will be emphasized with in depth portraits, complex personalities, sometimes unlikeable personalities-- that never get better. If one or both are terminally ill, even better shot at being considered literary. 

In short if you are reading about obnoxious people, those who fool themselves as to who they really are, where the story is heading toward tragedy, it likely is what has been considered a literary work. If you spent 90,000 words reading about someone who is a miser, likes to cheat others and will die in the end, you can be pretty sure it's not a romance.

As for plot, a literary work could have but does not have to have a plot. It's about the characters and their thinking, their motivations because a literary work wants the reader to be emotionally involved... Well, all writers want the reader emotionally involved. Even a Tom Clancy where you may know little about his hero's inner thinking, you should care about his saving the world from whatever diabolical plot has most recently been hatched.

Literary novels are regarded as being elegantly written, sometimes lyrical, layered words and  meanings. Lots of fancy words. Funny how a romance novel is ridiculed for fancy words, but it likely depends on what fancy words we are talking about.

Literary fiction is often serious, frequently showing the more depressing side of human life. If you want a happy ending, literary fiction guarantees you none-- but there might be one. If you want justice in what happens, skip literary fiction as you might not even be sure what happened (Life of Pi being one example-- and yeah, I liked that book but exactly what did happen?). A lot of literary novels involve coming of age stories told, of course, by someone years later as they recall their childhood and some significant event. If the one telling the story is dead, even better.

"Literary genres might be characterized as the 'tyranny of the subject'" because of the focus on the "subject, the self, psychology," suggests Samuel R. Delaney.

Those who read literary fiction not only don't demand action and constant events. They glory in a book taking forever to get anywhere. I think it makes them feel superior as readers that they will stick with it. "Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way," said Terrence Rafferty.
"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." Clare Dudman
So who knows. But even well-known authors don't routinely like genre requirements. John Updike lamented, "the category of 'literary fiction' has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I'm a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit".

Neal Stephenson, author of speculative fiction, has said there is a cultural distinction between literary and genre fiction, and it's to whom the author is accountable. He said that literary novelists are typically supported by patronage via employment at a university or similar institutions, with the continuation of such positions determined not by book sales but by critical acclaim by other established literary authors and critics. Genre fiction writers seek to support themselves by book sales and write to please a mass audience.

Literary fiction has prestige attached to writing-- and reading. It's the book a person will review for friends or have on the coffee table to be admired. Many readers of romance hide the fact. Mysteries, sci fi, fantasy, young adult, all are acceptable but not so romance novels. Unrealistic goes the argument. 

Except all fiction is fiction. It might express itself with confusing and arty terms. It might go somewhere or nowhere, but whatever the fiction work, an author created it whether to make it seem like life or to take you into space like Star Trek.  



I read all kinds of books and yes literary fiction also-- although not books full of horrible characters. I get enough of that from the newspaper. I took a photo of a couple of keepers from my shelves-- except maybe some of them are chick lit.

The one thing to remember about what makes it 'literature'... Jane Austen was not thought of highly in her own era. I suspect some of the romance writers of today will end up considered literary... whether the writers like it or not. And some books regarded as literary may end up seen as much ado about nothing to critics of the future.



4 comments:

Cheri Clifton said...

Hi Rain,

Very interesting read on what makes a novel termed "literary." I certainly agree with your explanations and opinions.

Rain Trueax said...

Thanks for weighing in, Cheri. I think the genre thing is something all writers wrestle with. What I hadn't realized before this is the literary label for a genre might not be something the writers even in it really wanted. I think writers would prefer there not be genres but it's a marketing tool that helps narrow down the available choices when there are so many. I think we are stuck with it

OldLady Of The Hills said...

I think I am with John Updike on this one......I hate "labels" and here is another confusing one....OY!

Write what you want and need to and who gives a flying whatever if it is considered a Literary Novel or what label or name the so called famous "THEY" put on it....!

Rain Trueax said...

I agree, Naomi :)