More Thoughts on Literary Fiction

Thank you for one of the more challenging discussions I've had in a while on the subject of literary fiction. I've been thinking about the problems with defining it all night. In some ways it's frustrating, because it lacks a solid unified definition, especially when you start asking about past works of literature and whether those could be considered literary.

I still tend to define literary fiction as:

  • Not genre
  • Language based
  • Character driven (not plot driven), although good literary fiction should also have a plot--we'll talk about plot more in the weeks to come.
  • Not guaranteed to show life as fair.
  • Not bound by conventional story structure, with the intent instead to cast light on some aspect of "the human condition."

Here are a few other sources that I've recently found useful in thinking about the subject:

Author and former agent Nathan Bransford collects the different definitions of literary fiction from writers on a panel at a writer's conference.

Author Anita Felicelli talks about her own journey with the notion of literary fiction and names books that she believes destroy that distinction.

A student-written article about it in Boston University's student paper

All in all, I'd like to make two things clear:

Literary fiction is not "better" than genre fiction. I rather passionately believe that they both have equal value. I do think that literary fiction is more focused on writing as an art form, and by learning to write literary fiction in the early days of your writing education, you can build a solid foundation to do any sort of writing you want. This is why, for this class, we're going to write a literary short story.

There are some major attitude problems on both sides. As someone who is permanently stuck between these two worlds, I see this all the time. Some writers of literary fiction can be pretentious, sneering down at commercial fiction and those who write it as inferior. I understand this inclination, actually. Literary fiction doesn't tend to make writers very much money--so the value in writing it is not monetary, but comes from a sense of contribution to writing as an art form. Genre writers, on the other hand, can sometimes scoff at literary fiction as being, well, pretentious. But in doing so, they can often miss the level of craft and mastery that writing literary fiction involves.

So that's my two cents for the day.

Oh, and here's the link to the name exercise. Please finish it and email it to me at both email accounts before Thursday. I look forward to our class.


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