What is Literary Fiction?

I was recently in the small town of Milan, Missouri, at the auction of my late uncle’s effects. I fell into conversation with a man who, after learning that I write, wanted to talk literature. I suspect he just wanted to chat me up, but it’s a topic that is fairly easy to engage in with a stranger. Not long after this, my friend Chris (you remember Chris–I talk about her a lot) mentioned that she was feeling sad about the recent death of Sir VS Naipaul, a Nobel laureate in literature. Her sadness stemmed in part from never having previously heard of such an interesting person, and in part that after “reading the titles of his famous works and the names of the famous writers who disagreed with him, I suddenly believe I have never read a book.”

Chris and my husband and I then engaged in a conversation about what literature is and what literary works are. Of course, most of us have been subjected to “literature” in high school and also, perhaps, in college, some of it painful to read and worse to analyze and dissect. Not to say some of them weren’t great. It’s just that school often isn’t the best way to meet some of these authors.

But what is passing for real literary accomplishment these days? I began to gather lists of works by Nobel laureates–Barnes and Noble and Goodreads have good ones. Librarything.com gave me a list of the “Best Literary Fiction Around the Last 30 Years.” It was somewhat gratifying to learn I had read quite a few of the books on both lists, so perhaps I’m not a complete illiterate. I figure if I’ve seen the movie based on the novel, I get half credit, but it’s not the same as immersing myself in the carefully created words of a great piece of writing.

In theory, literary fiction is introspective or comments on the human condition or in some other way has merit. The thing is, what is great literature can change over time. I have a large collection of the “world’s great literature.” Some of it is amazing and life changing to read; some, not so much. I was appalled to discover The Red and the Black by Stendhal is a soap opera. Ulysses by Joyce can be read, but wouldn’t you rather have all your teeth extracted without Novocaine instead? Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby just pissed me off. But who doesn’t love Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey? I mean, “Roadtrip!” or rather, boat trip.

On the list of modern literary fiction, it’s great to see that genre fiction has begun to get a toehold. To find Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman included is, to me, a triumph. A romance writer recently interviewed on NPR stood up for her genre saying Jane Austen wrote romances, and no one doubts that her works are among the greatest, most beloved literature. But, to be honest, genre fiction was created within great literature. Edgar Allan Poe wrote mysteries, horror, and science fiction–you can’t get more genre than that.

My opinion? Stretch a bit now and again, trying out the kinds of books you’ve never read before–something by a Nobel laureate, perhaps–butĀ for the most part, read what you love. And never stop reading.

Image: Books by dead white guys. By Marilyn Evans.

 

Number Two Nearly Done!

My second novel is nearly finished and currently is being read by one last reviewer (who may require massive rewrites, but I’m up for that). My first book took about 30 years to finish while this one has taken months. I have to say, that shocks me. I was expecting to take forever, but that’s not how it worked out. To my dismay, this book is demanding a sequel (how very rude!) Problem is, there are other books I want to write, but they will either have to wait, or I’ll have to work on books simultaneously. I suppose that beats not having any ideas at all, but I’m impatient to get on with writing. My husband pointed out that one of his favorite authors writes several books a year (and they’re all good, dammit). I think I may have to stop having a life and just lock myself in my house and never emerge except to do book promotion stuff. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

In truth, this is the third “second” book I’ve started because I was having a little trouble settling on what to write next. Everyone will tell you to follow a genre fiction book with one of the same or similar genre. I researched and worked on one fan fic sort of thing and one historical novel. I set both aside in hopes I could manage something paranormal and romantic with suspense similar to the first book. While I was casting about, I remembered once upon a time I had an idea for a story about a shop run by a couple who dealt with paranormal issues. “What if,” I asked myself, “they aren’t a couple yet?” It sort of grew a life of its own from there.

The book went quickly and has been easy to adjust as I get feedback (thank you to the wonderful people who help me with reality checks and typos). Now, the hardest part for me is coming up with the blurb–the synopsis that shows up on the back cover and on the Amazon description. How do I boil down my novel into something that will grab people and make them want to read it? Honestly, it’s harder than writing the story in the first place. How much to tell, what to leave out, how many subplots to touch on…the book is a mystery so there are subplots, all interwoven, and this book has a much bigger cast of characters. Once all that is done, it’s off to the publisher, more reviewers, a cover design to approve, galleys to read, and on and on. I hope it will be out before Christmas, but I’m not holding my breath.

My reviewers are saying it’s a much better book than Beloved Lives. That pleases me, and I agree. It means I’m learning how to write and write better. But one reviewer insists there is going to have to be a third book–a spin off with some of the side characters. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this….

Image: Yes, the next book is a mystery. Me at Scotland Yard, 2002. By Jonathan Hutchins.