Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What Constitutes Literary Fiction? by Betsy Ashton

Modern publishing is full of genres. Mystery. Romance. Thrillers. YA. Chick-Lit. Women's Lit. And each of these have multiple sub genres, so many that I can't wrap my head around them. I understand that genres were important when brick-and-mortar stores were where we bought our books. We found what we wanted based on where they were shelved.

I understand I can search Amazon by genres, only to find books listed by multiple genres, some of which are truly a stretch. Even Mad Max Unintended Consequences is filed four layers down as "detective." Really? She solves her daughter's murder, but detective? No wonder some readers are disappointed.

But this is not about me. It's about what constitutes literary fiction. I finished [title omitted] by [author omitted] published by [publisher omitted]. The first half was plagued by endless pages of narration. The writer told me the story. S/He explained everything that was happening to the protagonist. I wanted to know what was happening, but more important I wanted to know what the main character was feeling.

In the second half of the book, the author shifted from narration to more dialogue, thus enabling me as a reader to empathize more with the plight of the protagonist. And the plight was dire.

Why does a publisher take a book with a powerful theme (spousal abuse) and wrap it in pages of mind-numbing narration? I wondered where the editor was in the publishing process? Did the editor actually think that all literary fiction should be rendered with limited dialogue?

I'm probably out in left field here, because my book club reads literary fiction the likes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. You get the picture. Great writers mixing action, dialogue and pitch-perfect narration.

Is it just me or do some publishers think that labeling a novel as "literary fiction," it will elevate it and make it more desirable?

I am so confused. Can anyone help me out?


Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Jannine Gallant said...

Let's see...literary fiction is what people say they're reading when they don't want to admit they're reading genre fiction. Or, an alternate definition: Literary Fiction - books guaranteed to put you to sleep, highly recommended for insomniacs. My book club (which disbanded because no one was actually reading most of the books) liked to read literary fiction. I skimmed because they were so darned boring. But when I suggested reading entertaining genre books, everyone was appalled. I'm thinking if we'd taken my suggestion we might not have disbanded...just saying.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Yep. Jannine pretty much nailed it. Literary fiction is what people WISH they could generate an interest in, genre fiction is what really floats their boat. I will say some literary fiction books look great on coffee tables. As long as no one takes the time and trouble to open them. So sad. All that paper and ink virtually wasted. Good thing those of us who write genre fiction have legions of those like us who love the stuff.

Brenda Whiteside said...

So funny, Jannine, because I was in a book club for a while. At first, I thought it was good because they chose books I never would've read so I was exposed to more. BUT the boredom took over and I quit. My time is too valuable to spend reading something boring.

Rolynn Anderson said...

This is a tough one for me. I was an English teacher, so I may be too accepting of all sorts of genres and all kinds of writing styes which have 'developed' over time. I am a patient reader, for the most part, willing to let an author develop character angst until they/I am wallowing in reflection. I love clever turns of phrase and fresh comparisons as well as the unusual characters we often read about in literary fiction. So I'm still in a book club and we still read some of the ponderous tomes, which we intersperse with fun stuff (including my own works). But here's the deal...in discussing these books (and we ARE critical), we learn more about each other than we do about the books. I'd never quit my club because the books we read build our relationships. And we always eat great food and drink wonderful wine together. Nuff said.

Brenda Whiteside said...

I think if the club I was in had chosen variety, then I might have found it more beneficial. The trouble I found with my club was pure snootiness. Some of the books chosen as literary, were not really. I do like many real literary works. But reading 300 pages of a man's thoughts as he sits on his front porch staring into the forest each morning and each evening? Just because it's hyped as literary? That was the problem I had. I actually find the narrative of some literary novels quite intriguing. And the rigidness of the POV restrictions and non-narrative styles we have to write in the romance genre frustrating at times.

Leah St. James said...

I must confess I don't read a lot of literary fiction, and the titles I have read left me not only bored, but disgruntled. I think I picked it up from the parade of griping protagonists! Give me action, adventure, and of course romance, every time.

Alison Henderson said...

On the recommendation of a friend, I took a big gulp and dug into a HUGE, Pulitzer prize winning literary novel last year. The premise and characters were fascinating. The frequent changes from first to third person were not. The language was brilliant and inventive. The constant re-phrasing of the same idea was not. Where was the editor for this tome? Was s/he too afraid of this big-time author to cut a single word? Out of sheer stubbornness I forced myself to finish the book, but I have never read anything in more desperate need of ruthless editing. I wasn't surprised to read that it topped Amazon's list of books most frequently started but not finished.

Betsy Ashton said...

Looks like we all kind of agree. Too much "literary fiction" covers up bad or boring writing. I lack the patience for what I think is bad writing. I have to agree with all of you, but with Alison the most. Where are the editors? My books currently are classified first as women's fiction, because they aren't genre works per se. That said, I have no clue what constitutes women's fiction either, other than a strong female protagonist. Guess you should label me a curmudgeon.

Susan Coryell said...

Old English teacher--I have to add my two cents. Some literary fiction is dynamite: Their Eyes Were Watching God; Cry, The Beloved Country; The Great Gatsby; Catcher in the Rye; All the light We Cannot See; People of the Book; Crossing to Safety; Bel Canto--etc. Some is a snooze. Conversely some genre fiction is dreadful--no theme, once you discover "who done it" there is nothing left to think about--or discuss in a book club. I read widely and criticize openly. There's my two cents!