What is “Literary” Fiction …I mean REALLY

Recently I posted a review on Goodreads that was basically the same as my post F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Mysterious Triumph: This Side of Paradise. In that review and post, I mentioned the word “literary” several times and a Goodreads member put it to me: “define literary.”

And there’s a problem with that. Literary is a made-up word. Like gerfumption. See, it’s not hard. Anyone can do it; and quickly. The dichotomy established by… God knows who, really… is that all literature can break down into the two camps of literary and genre. Genre is thought to be a lesser form of literature. But it sells better! It’s believed to be composed of works that have a greater emphasis on set plots, stock characters and…. tropes.

What’s a trope? It’s a convention in literature like “the scary old house” or the hot, young male vampire conflicted between his true love and his unnatural powers. A trope is basically a cliche on steroids. Literary fiction is supposed to establish new tropes and have more emphasis on characterization and language. 

These explanation really don’t get the job done do they? At the end of the day, literary fiction, the fiction that deserves the accolades and the applause will be the fiction that endures–for whatever reasons. So this is a serious problem. Trying to establish what literary fiction is, is really tantamount to predicting the future–

In the movie Casablanca, the hero, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), is asked by a young woman, “What type of man is Captain Renault?” and Bogart replies glibly: “Well, I suppose he’s like any other man, only more so…” And that’s what I think literary fiction should really be. Literary fiction should be just like any other genre fiction, only more so.

Are you making bank writing novels in a popular genre right now? Take it seriously, my friend. Critics be damned and you may be writing the literary classic of the future. And that’s a serious responsibility. It’s more than just playing the game or asking, “will this work?” 

It’s time to adopt a new way of thinking about the literary/genre dichotomy. Former stale thinking has placed the two in separate spheres never to commingle or coincide. How about a China doll or (mathematically speaking) a self-similarity model. A great novel must start from something popular and of wide and deep interest. This is just the bait. It’s the foundation. It’s what can draw in a large audience and, more importantly, entice them to push beyond the comforts of their current reading experiences.

The way I figure, there are about four levels to the China doll of a great ‘literary’ novel and I learned them from Donald Rumsfeld while he was attempting to explain the Iraq War. There’s the Known-Knowns (the stuff that you know that you know), the Known-Unknowns (the stuff that you know that you don’t know), the Unknown-Knowns (the stuff you aren’t aware of knowing but you really know), and the Unknown-Unknowns (the stuff that you don’t know that you don’t know).

All great, timeless writing should bait readers with Known-Knowns (the comfort zone) and entice them through this whole epistemological hierarchy. 

For example, a reader might start out with a Known-Knows (I know I’ll enjoy another novel in this genre… I’ve enjoyed them before!) and move through her selections to home-in an a Known-Unknown (I know that I’ve never read a book in my genre of choice quite like this before!) and then, while reading, might slip into the Unknown-Knowns (Why am I enjoying this so much? Why is this resonating with something inside me so much?) and then, finally and ultimately, slip helplessly forever into the Unknown-Unknowns (Help, author! What are you doing to me! This wasn’t part of the deal!).

Oftentimes, I think ‘literary’ authors don’t spend enough time rewarding and enticing readers with what readers already know and are comfortable with before they go for the unconventional stuff. What do you think? Wanna share your ‘literary’ reading experiences with me?


About davidwallacefleming

David Wallace Fleming is a U.S. writer, living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of the coming-of-age, social media novel GROWING UP WIRED, and the satirical science fiction audiobook, NOT FROM CONCENTRATE.
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3 Responses to What is “Literary” Fiction …I mean REALLY

  1. Ia Uaro says:

    David, not reading experience, but writing – if you don’t mind. Stop reading if you do :)
    I wish you could help me classify my novel, because this is very hard. As a reader, I know which ones to avoid by looking at the genre, so yes, genre is useful. As an author, I write about real life. And real life covers various aspects. SYDNEY’S SONG has drama, but that’s not all. It has a love story, but isn’t a romance. Has humour, but not all comedy. 90% is made of true stories, but it can’t go to non-fiction. It’s for teens, but also for adults. It has adult moments, but I’m pretty sure the rating is G because kids won’t understand those parts anyway. It covers several social issues, but there isn’t a genre of that under fiction. So where shall I place my work? I’m finding genre a tight jacket.
    Literary will deter many potential readers.
    Writing-wise, an uber agent here praised me as talented, and would represent me if I write mainstream – which you call “trendy” genre. Does being non-mainstream classify SS under “literary”? Language-wise, the literary snobs would say no, as the novel starts with teen’s pedestrian dialogues. However as the “journey” progresses, it moves on to thought-provoking discussions, and it has certain narrations that require beauty. Story-wise, if I say so myself, the “song” is more like a perfectly paced “symphony”. I’m also very confident that people 200 years from now will still enjoy reading SS. In fact, at the beginning, before people convinced me to try publish it now, my dedication said: “For those 200 years from now. This is how we have lived.” (Like Pepys’ Diary, sort of.) I can see SS labeled “classic” by readers one day (I already have another, written ages ago in a different language). But today, in what shelf shall I bring it out?
    There is a “genre” called “other”, perhaps the one closest to SS. That’s not good SEO though – how will people find me?
    Currently on my website I present SS as an upmarket fiction, supposedly literary socio-fiction with commercial potential. Ain’t no such description on Amazon or other online stores though.
    Thoughts?

    • I think you get to choose two genres on Amazon. I believe that’s what we’re talking about here. It sounds like you may want to pick Literary and Mainstream. Mainstream may actually be called Contemporary Fiction. If it’s mostly science fiction or fantasy, I would label it as such. Ultimately, finding the right categorization will take some time and thought on your part and no one else will be able to give adequate advice.

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