“Literary” fiction? – What is “literary” about?

avatar-readingI’ve come to use the term “literary” as an adjective – like “literary crime” or “literary sci-fi.” Sometimes a book has precious little to offer other than literary value – interesting structure, lively, appropriate metaphors and other tropes, distinct language, thought-proking themes, etc. And this literary quality is usually wrapped around some character development scheme and ends up being, as far as I’m concerned, “contemporary fiction” – or “classic fiction” maybe – or “20th century fiction.” I could use “general fiction,” I suppose. A novel with neither genre (meaning category or type of story-line, NOT formula!) nor literary value (see above) is not much of a novel, imo. But a book with both some kind of genre – category of story-liine) and literary value can be a marvel.

For me to simply say I enjoy “literary fiction” is kind of meaningless, imo. It’s probably more accurate to say I appreciate a good literary touch to the novels I read.

On this blog I’ve used “literary dystopian,” “literary crime,” “literary fantasy,” “literary romance/erotica” and even “literary horror.” – lol – but they really are.  Only one, Nora Webster (Colm Toibin), in the last month or so – 15 books? – couldn’t fit anything I thought up, so i gave it a “contemporary fiction,” label. – (Nora Webster is based on autobiography so it can’t quite be historical fiction.) I suppose I could have used “literary romance”  but there are folks who are just plain allergic to that word, too.  (lol!)

Categorizing  books is sometimes tough but if you can’t distinguish Margaret Atwood (literary dystopia) from Marlon James (literary crime) or Colm Toibin (literary general fiction) maybe you ought to read more.

Why can’t crime novels be literary? – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is certainly a crime novel, but it’s literary enough to win the Booker Prize this year. Or there’s Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura about a criminal in Tokyo.

Literary is not a genre – it’s about the techniques and style of a novel – like gourmet isn’t a kind of food, it’s a kind of cooking. – I want some turkey stuffing – will it be formula by-the-bag  or gourmet – with special bread, spinach and shitakes?  Literary is to the novel as gourmet is to food.

I think it’s a tough call to write literary crime because too much literary and it spoils the plot while too much plot messes with the literary. The author has to know just how to advance the suspense without getting bogged down in his own literary voice.

Moraltiy Play by Barry Unsworth has a murder at its center and it’s even a who-done-it but that has some really outstanding literary interest. Shoot, Crime and Punishment is a crime novel – it’s just not a who-done-it and certainly not “formula” like Michael Connelley or someone. And Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is at least somewhat literary.

Newer literary crime: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, The Paying Guests by Sara Waters, The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, and a few years ago there was The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (brilliant). The novels of Thomas Cook are said to be quite literary author and those of Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) definitely are. And wasn’t Arthur and George by Julian Barnes a rather literary crime novel?

– Of course the definition of “literary” is kinda subjective by nature – but formula fiction, no matter the genre, will never be literary.

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