Friday 29 January 2010

'Literary' fiction

I was reading a piece today by P D James in which she asks the question: what defines a literary novel? She doesn't have the answer, but I've always found this an interesting question. Is it one of those things you recognise when you see it? Or is it more specific? Is the Booker prize (for example) limited to writers of literary fiction, or does winning the Booker make them so? The Life of Pi won the Booker, but while I loved it, I would never describe it as a literary novel. There are Booker winners which I haven't especially enjoyed, but have recognised as being literary fiction. The well-known 19th century novelists all seem to be considered to be literary (Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, George Elliot, the Brontes etc). Genre novels are rarely considered to be literary; why not? Blockbusting best-sellers never seem to be literary (or is it that literary novels are never blockbusting best-sellers?). Any thoughts?


  1. Is it, I wonder a state of snobbery. If a book wins a Booker prize or a similar sort of prize where it is read by a small group of judges who say it is a literary novel and wins then it becomes one. Where a blockbuster is read by the general public who enjoy a good read and threfore puts it a the top of the bestseller's list. To me, books like Austen, Dickens etc are classics these books have just stood the test of time and may have been or not bestseller of their time.

    I've enjoyed reading your blog

  2. "If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there's a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes." David Lubar (“A Guide to Literary Fiction”, 2002)!

    I think the best literary fiction leaves a lasting impression - something that has changed you in some way by reading it. There's a depth to it.This does not mean it has to be serious -some humourous or witty books can do this very nicely - witness Jane Austen. Of course one book may resonate with me, and not with someone else. But unforgettable novels stand the test of time, so I think the classics are probably literary fiction.

    On my MA Writing course we were told that literary fiction is more driven by the internal needs of the characters than plot-driven, though I would say anybody writing any book of any type, literary or otherwise, needs to have believable characters and a good plot.

    And mostly it is only writers and those in the book industry who care about the 'literary' label - to the reader it's either a good book or it isn't.In fact some readers actively avoid books on Booker shortlist thinking they will be inpenetrable and dull.

  3. Hi Jamara. I think you're right - snobbery certainly comes into it. And there is a chicken/egg aspect (literary = prize-winner versus prize-winner = literary).

    Hi Deborah. I think your MA writing course was very brave to try to define something which is so hard to pin down. I do think that it can sometimes be like the emperor's new clothes, especially in a book like Finnegan's Wake (I think I read half a page before coming to a halt). But you're right. What matters to the reader is a good read, regardless of any label. and as writers, isn't that what we're all trying to achieve?

  4. Good question. Stimulating enough for a post on my own blog when I get around to it, but for the moment I'll just note that some of the 19th century authors you mention weren't considered literary until the 20th century. Dickens was the Stephen King of his day.