Spotlight on: Literary Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Literary Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is unique, in that you could hear a different definition for this genre from virtually every reader you ask. I’ve already tried voicing my thoughts on it at least once  (in the Literary Fiction Tag), but I’ll try again here for further clarity. To me, literary fiction (lit fic) is more about style than content- though many lit fic novels interrogate the human condition and/or state of the world, subject varies widely and in the end what I think classifies fiction as “literary” is form or structure that engages with the content. While genre fiction often aims to tell a story, literary fiction aims to tell a story in a particular way, in which the form is integral to what is being told and advances the purpose of the novel. It is fiction that pushes the bounds of how stories work on a technical level. Thus we can have literary [genre] fiction, as a novel can feature both the content that fits within a given genre and a style that marks it as literary. This is my interpretation.

None of this is to say that genre fiction is in any way inferior- one of my main peeves with lit fic categorization. “Literary” is often (mis)used as an elevating term, given to works that are considered “serious” or even just “good.” Preference should not be mistaken for quality. In my opinion, “good” fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do, which can certainly be found in genre fiction and can also be found lacking in literary fiction. It’ll depend on the book, and who you ask; reading is always subjective. The main issue that I think leads to genre snobbery surrounding lit fic is that lit fic is seen as a more intellectual approach to writing and reading, where genre fiction is often more focused on emotional response (which is not to say that lit fic can’t be emotional or genre fic intellectual- I see it as a sliding scale with lit fic on one end and genre fic on the other, and where a book falls on this scale will again depend on the reader). Ultimately, it seems unfair to weigh the two against each other merit-wise when they have such entirely different methods and goals.

My other peeve with lit fic categorization is the use of “lit fic” as a catch-all genre for hard-to-classify fiction. If a book’s content does not fit obviously into one of the usual genres, this does not automatically make it literary fiction. A novel can be, in my experience, simply “fiction,” or “contemporary fiction,” or a mix of genre fictions if more than one apply. Yes, lit fic is hard to describe and define, but this does not mean that anything should go.

That said, I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view, which in this case will include literary [genre] fiction; there are no other subgenres that I normally associate with lit fic.

 

My History with Literary Fiction

Though I would say lit fic is now one of (perhaps even at the very top of the list of) my current favorite genres, its appearance in my reading life is recent. While I was growing up, the school and public library in my hometown did not have much of what I would consider literary fiction, and I don’t think I had a real sense of the genre until I started studying English at college, over the internet, and in my own reading.

AtonementAnd so my earliest brushes with lit fic were few and far between; it’s possible that more of what I read as a teen might fit here but its literary merit went unnoticed by me at the time, and of course I no longer remember all of the books I read in those years well enough to reevaluate with more recent knowledge. The first books I can remember reading in high school that might be considered lit fic were The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

From there, a lot of my studies and personal reading experience with lit fic took me to classics and modern classics, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

Lit fic really exploded into my reading life with my foray into blogging in 2016. As my tastes changed and I discovered a lot of titles beyond what was available at my library, I picked up books like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historyas well as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. The VegetarianThanks to the blogging community, my interest in literature prizes grew; though these prizes don’t cater exclusively to lit fic, there is generally plenty of it to be found among the nominees. I’ve become so invested in reading these books that I read the entire Booker Prize 2018 longlist and 2019 longlist, as well as the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist and 2020 longlist.

 

Literary Fiction Classics

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman’s extreme struggle with mental health as she attempts to pursue a writing career.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley depicts a scientist’s experiment of restoring life to dead flesh; in a brilliant turn through the relationship between creator and created, the novel reveals that the monster is, perhaps, not the monster after all. (If you’ve already read and loved this one, don’t miss Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant modern homage, Frankissstein!)

Emma by Jane Austen uses irony to great effect as the titular character meddles in her friend’s life, trying to secure a marriage for her that just doesn’t suit. Deft characterization allows the reader to see these characters far better than they see themselves.

Sister CarrieSister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser follows a young woman at the turn of the 20th century, intent on chasing a bigger life. As her success increases, the wealthy man who latched onto her while she was most vulnerable finds himself falling from society instead.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee uses a child’s voice to portray the harsh effects of racism in historical southern US. Its sequel, Go Set a Watchman, switches to an adult perspective (aging the same narrator), revealing further complexities in the situation that the child failed to grasp.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier follows the relationship of a newly-married couple; the husband was a dowager, and his new wife worries she won’t live up to the standard her predecessor set- eventually to realize she doesn’t know the full truth of that first wife’s character.The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is perhaps the horror story of a haunted house, or perhaps the tragic story of a psychologically unstable woman staying in said house. Better yet, perhaps it’s both.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald utilizes a secondary narrator to tell the star-crossed love story of a wealthy but deluded man and the woman who escaped him.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is told through the villain’s perspective, allowing the reader to see how a full-grown man can rationalize a heinous act- in this case, sexually abusing a young girl- without sympathizing with him.

 

Modern Literary Fiction Staples and Recommendations

Experimental works have been my god tier lately. If this is you as well, you won’t want to miss Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (a look at manipulation and abuse in teacher-student relationships, set in an art school), Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (a young woman’s tale of abuses large and small, mostly from within her family, and their devastating mental effect), Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (a reminder that stay-at-home moms who bake cinnamon rolls all day and worry about things they can’t change are important too), Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (an exploration of identity where the self doesn’t conform to rules and terms set out by society), MilkmanAnna Burns’s Milkman (an examination of the power of rumor and community, set in the Troubles), and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (an examination of the significance and reliability of memory).

But there are plenty of more straightforward gems as well! Some that I’ve enjoyed are John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (a writer wins his fame by stealing the work of others), Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (a female prisoner reveals the flaws of the US justice/prison system), Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (a reclusive woman tries to convince her neighbors that vengeful wildlife are responsible for a string of local murders), Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (a trio of girls on an isolated island learn that the dangers of society they’ve been taught to avoid have invaded their space anyway).

 

If you’re completely new to the genre and not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to literary fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like history: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, Human Acts by Han Kang

SeveranceIf you like sci-fi/dystopian: Severance by Ling Ma, The Need by Helen Phillips, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you like magical realism: Lanny by Max Porter, Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

If you like short stories or vignettes: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

If you like social commentary: The Farm by Joanne Ramos, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

The PiscesIf you like Greek mythology elements: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, The Pisces by Melissa Broder

If you’re afraid lit fic is just too hard for you, never fear! There are YA options, like Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It; graphic novels like Margaret Atwood and Mary Renault’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina; novellas like Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream; and novels that are so borderline lit fic that not everyone’s convinced they count (they do!) like Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends. Other very accessible options include Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, John Lanchester’s The Wall, or Miriam Toews’s Women Talking.

 

Literary Fiction on my TBR:

Never Let Me GoI’ve mentioned a lot of titles already because I have so many favorites I can’t bear to exclude, but actually I think I could pull a much longer list of lit fic from my TBR. Since I’ve only been deep-diving into lit fic for the last few years, I feel like I have a lot of ground yet to cover here. Some of the books on my “can’t believe I haven’t read it yet” list are: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

 

Why Read Literary Fiction?

It’s good for the brain! These are books that make you think, and that leave you pondering after the turning of the final page. It is literature as an art form, questing for the bounds of what a story can do, and how. If you’re a curious person at heart, if you’re interested in learning and being challenged, if you’re tired of formulaic stories and want to be surprised, if you love seeing an artist stretch their skill, these are the books for you. They’re full of big ideas. They expand the mind. They open doors. They tell us about who we are and what sort of world we live in. And they’re infinitely unique.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for lit fic, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

54 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Literary Fiction”

  1. I’ve had a stab at defining literary fiction myself twice and I’m still not quite happy with the results! I like your argument that the way the story is told is central to lit fic even if it is engaging with genre conviction – though I feel that might expand the category somewhat? I think Emma Darwin’s definition is very good, and also uses the idea of a ‘spectrum’: https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2010/11/okay-so-what-do-i-think-literary-fiction-is.html

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    1. Ooh, thanks for that link! She goes into much more detail than I did, but I do find myself nodding along with her points, and I think she’s articulated the possibilities of what can make a book seem like lit fic quite well. It is a very challenging definition to write, especially because there always seem to be exceptions to the “rules.”
      Some crossover with genre fiction does expand the category somewhat (for me, at least!), but I do like looking at genres as broadly as possible (especially with these spotlight posts), though admittedly that’s probably not the standard approach when labels are being applied for marketing purposes. Where the line is drawn between genres will always depend on who’s drawing them, and for what purpose, I’m sure! I think Emma’s note that it’s mainly readers who argue over the definition of literary fiction is very apt.

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  2. I also find literary fiction very hard to define, but it’s without doubt my favourite genre. You’ve written a brilliant post with some great recommendations, and I love your section on ‘why read?’ – that speaks very directly to me. Some of the books on your TBR list are truly brilliant (I adore A Little Life) so I’m really looking forward to reading your reviews when you get round to them. And you’ve inspired me with many of your picks too!

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    1. Thanks so much! It’s certainly a challenging genre, but can be very rewarding. 🙂
      And I’m so glad to hear more support for my TBR, I really need to pick up those books!! A Little Life is on my 20 in 20 list, so hopefully sooner rather than later with that one especially. I hope you find some great reads too if you pick up any of my recommendations!

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    1. Thank you! 🙂
      It is SUCH a struggle to define, and I’m sure it’s those of us who love the genre that agonize over the particulars the most!

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  3. Great post! I really like the concept of your spotlight-on series. I also have a hard time defining “literary fiction” (even though it is one of my favorite genres), and definitely struggle distinguishing between literary and contemporary fiction sometimes. Time to add some of your recommendations to my exponentially-growing TBR! 😂

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    1. Thank you! It’s a lot of fun putting these posts together, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who enjoys them! 🙂
      I suspect those of us who love it most have the most difficulty defining lit fic- it’s a complex genre for sure, and there are so many exceptions to the “rules”! Sometimes it feels like more of an instinct than a equation, and where the line gets drawn certainly varies between readers.

      I can sympathize with the never-ending TBR dilemma, but I’m always happy to add to the lists. 🙂 I hope you’ll enjoy any of these books that you pick up!

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  4. what a great and comprehensive selection books; i see so many of my favourites here (Emma, The Idiot, Milkman, Normal People)!

    I think trying to a define a genre is a really interesting exercise because you have to find a way to communicate something essential ahout it that will apply to every book within that genre. On the one hand that can be reductive–every book will be doing something different (e.g. Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf has often been described as a kind of literary fantasy)–but on the other I think genres exist for a specific reason: they’re useful shorthands for what kind of content you can expect in a book. ☺

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    1. Thanks so much! Three of the titles you’ve mentioned are favorites for me as well, and though I’ve yet to read The Idiot it’s exciting to see it ranked among others I’ve loved! 🙂

      When I started this spotlight series I thought a little definition at the top would be a good way to make sure we’re all thinking of the same sort of books, but writing that definition has certainly been more challenging than I expected! Especially with lit fic, as opinions always seem to vary. And there will ALWAYS be exceptions to the rule, it seems! I do agree with your point about genres as well- as a reader it can be very helpful to see those labels to decide what we might want to read, though after we’ve read them it can be very difficult reducing a whole novel to a label or two, even though we’d like to steer the right readers toward that content!

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  5. I really enjoyed this post! I tend to get quite bitey in conversations about literary fiction because so many people approach it in a snobby way. I’m going to talk about this further in my book review of Love Literary Style because a couple of characters who write literary fiction surprised me. My heart double-thumped when I read “In my opinion, ‘good’ fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do.” Emily, I love this. You respect the work and interests of all readers while still having a standard of quality. THANK YOU!!

    One thing I’ve struggled with lately is when people lump experimental fiction into literary fiction. I’ve read a lot of both, and while ex. fic shares a lot with lit fic, I don’t think it’s the same thing. In fact, a lot of ex. fic is rather….obtuse. Have you ever read an entire page of a book and not one sentence made sense in the English language? They’re trying something new! It doesn’t always work. It tends to be written by academics, though, people with PhDs in creative writing. They’re so smart that it’s possible that their efforts go far beyond the regular reader. Jaime Gordon’s novel Shamp of the City Solo, for instance. What is that even. But it won prizes and was loved by a small crowd of people.

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    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 Lit fic is, unfortunately, the source of a lot of genre snobbery, and it’s definitely a topic I can get defensive about too if it seems like someone’s approaching it the wrong way. Perhaps lit fic would be less of an insular group if its readers were more open to others’ opinions! There’s just no need to shame anyone’s reading tastes, it doesn’t make any sense to put down whole groups of books that simply achieve different aims.

      That is an interesting point! All of the experimental fiction I’ve read so far fits neatly with my idea of what lit fic is, but I suppose if I read more of the REALLY WEIRD stuff I might change my mind! I think a lot of lit fic is by nature experimental, though most of what’s in this post is pretty tame as far as experiments go. Eimear McBride is the only author I’ve mentioned here whose work is hard to read in the sense that it barely seems like English, but it worked for me because she managed to convince me that the style was necessary to the story and the two dovetailed very nicely. I can see where a novel with a wild form and a low success rate at convincing readers it’s necessary would seem to belong in a different group entirely. At some point I should check out some work like that for frame of reference, though I’m not convinced I’d be in the super smart crowd who likes work that’s experimental to such a degree!

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      1. Some experimental fiction authors would be Debra Di Blasi, Noy Holland, Davis Schneiderman, Jaime Gordon, Kass Fletcher, and Kathy Acker. Salvador Plascensia is accessible but considered experimental. These are all folks with actual books. There are the folks I’ve “read” who do readings of themselves reading the phone book at rapid fire (just the first three letters of every single last name). There are also websites (hyperlink books) like Young Hae-Change’s Heavy Industries. I could lose hours there: https://www.yhchang.com/

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      2. Thanks for the recs, and the link! Internet options are great right now. These should help give me a better idea of the range of experimental fiction out there!

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      1. It’s possible, I suppose, but the definitions I’ve read that people come up for literary fiction don’t fit experimental fiction. They may lean toward each other at times, and I find that’s the most accessible experimental fiction.

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      2. Tbh I hadn’t heard of lit fic and experimental fic being separated before either, though I haven’t read much that’s REALLY experimental so I’m certainly not an authority on it! In theory I do think it would fall into my definition of lit fic, as attention is still focused on form/structure and telling a story in a new way. Something like Melanie mentioned with reading the first three letters of names in the phone book sounds like something I wouldn’t probably classify even as experimental fiction; it may be word art but to me even experimental fiction needs to include some sort of fictional narrative. Maybe one could argue there’s a separate spectrum for experimental fiction with lit fic at one end and more abstract word art on the other? I would definitely need to look into it and ponder more to form a solid opinion!

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      3. True, I haven’t read much experimental fiction, either. I checked out the link Melanie sent, and it was very fun and cheeky (“Art is a lie that won’t die”—I LOVE IT ALREADY!) but I’m not sure I’d classify it as fiction—like you I’d say it’s closer to art. But then, I’m no expert either. Compared to those artists I’m just a basic gal who reads for entertainment, lol.

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      4. Ooh, that’s great! I haven’t had a chance to peruse the site yet, though I’ve bookmarked it (hopefully soon!). I suspect I’d feel the same based on what the two of you have said- and maybe in the end, Melanie might be making the same point! She may simply be calling experimental fiction what you or I are calling art or word art, and all of us would probably agree that this is separate from literary fiction. So, perhaps a disagreement/confusion with terminology moreso than classification!
        I love fiction, but Art is not my strong suit either!

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      5. You’re right. Maybe we just disagree on semantics. 🤣 Yes, art really mystifies me. I feel like the vocabulary to get into it is more difficult to learn than that of fiction, especially because the vocabulary of fiction is more familiar to us—we all tell stories in everyday life.

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      6. That’s a good point! I had a much easier time learning the mechanics of fiction than seeing what visual arts are doing and how they’re accomplishing it. Art classes mystified me, even though I’ve had the argument put to me that it’s just a different way of telling stories. It’s not a method as present in everyday life though, so that could definitely play a role!

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  6. Great post! I always struggle when people ask me what kind of books I read (which is a question I get quite a bit) because answering with “literary fiction” feels sort of…snobbish. But as I look at the book titles you’ve listed here, I’ve read many of them and many others are on my TBR so maybe I just need to embrace it! I think there is a lot of crossover with literary fiction and contemporary fiction in particular. A book like Everything I Never Told You is one I probably would have classified as contemporary but I also totally understand it being included in literary too. People too often equate “depressing” or “difficult to read” with “literary” so I really appreciate your definition of it here! Personally, I’m often drawn to novels with quite a poetical style where the way language is used is very important.

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    1. Thank you! 🙂 It is a shame that lit fic readers are often the culprits of genre snobbery, when there are plenty of us who simply enjoy the books and don’t mean it in any sort of competitive way! I do think you’re right about there being a blurry line between contemporary and literary fiction especially- when there’s not an obvious genre signifier it can be hard to determine which is which, and associations of difficulty and/or depressing subject matter can be enough to convince many readers that something is literary. This is one of the reasons I like to think of lit fic as a stylistic group rather than one determined by content, because it allows for a bit more variance! Since I haven’t read Everything I Never Told You yet I’m not totally sure on how I would categorize it and am going off of what others have said- it’s good to know it might be one of those books right in the middle.
      I also appreciate novels with very deliberate and striking language usage. Have you read Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything? I read that one earlier this year and thought it was both beautifully written and that the language played perfectly into the structural element. Also, I haven’t read it yet, but Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous springs to mind with your description!

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      1. Yes, I like your definition too – of lit fic as a stylistic grouping, not just content. I did read The Man Who Saw Everything and it totally fits that description. And Ocean Vuong is a perfect example of the type of book I was referring to; I liked it a lot.

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      2. Thanks! Sorry I didn’t have a recommendation you hadn’t already read, though I’m glad you enjoyed both books! 🙂

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  7. I love your point re: “Preference should not be mistaken for quality. In my opinion, “good” fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do” 👏🏼 I super agree with this. Doesn’t mean that just because it’s lit fic, it’s automatically good. Though it took me some time to trust my own judgement instead of that of the Establishment’s lol.

    I agree that litfic is usually form/style over content. It’s just so hard to explain that to people though because I don’t want to come off as pretentious. 😂 One (very narrow) way that I explain it to others is that I love reading litfic because it’s primarily concerned about its characters and their actions over plot (unlike say romance, which is also concerned with characters but where a meet-cute, conflict, and HEA are non-negotiable as part of the plot), which I love since I love reading about people. They don’t need to be likeable but the writer must make them understandable. Weirdly enough, how my brother got this was when I compared how good litfic captures characters to how some memes succinctly capture the minuscule moments in life we don’t often pay attention to… Except in a fancier way, and without pictures, and sometimes without the humor. HAHA idk if that made any sense—my definitions usually change according to audience and that was my latest attempt. (He is a basketball junkie so the communication gap was REAL. But then he also often dumbs down basketball stuff for me, so we’re even.)

    I love Ishiguro’s works and I loved Never Let Me Go when I first read it back in college, though I was generally too reverent of litfic back then so I’m not sure now if it’ll stand the test of time. It was slow at the start but once I hit halfway I couldn’t put it down!

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    1. Thank you! 🙂 I think reading across a variety of genres helps put into perspective that “good” fiction comes in different forms. (For me, at least!) And I agree, it can be very hard to talk about lit fic without coming off as pretentious, it’s certainly a genre with a lot of stigma, both among those who read it and those who don’t! I also have a brother who’s very into sports and memes so that makes sense to me! He’s very uninterested in books though so he’s likely to tune out even the most apt comparison, unfortunately. If I can eventually turn him into a reader I doubt it will be with lit fic, lol!

      I do also agree that lit fic tends to be very character focused, and that the character arcs are often unique! I love that there’s no set formula for what should happen to characters in lit fic- it is nice to have that structure in some genres, but I do love to be surprised.

      Ooh, I’m glad you liked Never Let Me Go! I’ve not read any Ishiguro yet, but I keep having them recommended so I’m very curious to check them out.

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      1. Yes, that’s true! I find that Christie’s books, for example, often play with some of the tropes of the mystery genre, which is why I think her books are classics. Also, I find that I’m in a weird position when it comes to litfic—my taste is often too “popular” for most of my literary friends irl (most of them are poets, so of course lol), but also too “pretentious” for my non-reader friends.

        Ha, I think our brothers would get along. He’s missing out on so much by not reading! (Says someone who basically spends all her spare money on books.) I don’t know how it happened, but just once I convinced my brother to read Oscar Wao, and he loved it so much he actually teared up in some parts. I was really shocked, but I think it’s a one-off thing. He hasn’t read anything I recommended again.

        That’s true—I think that’s why a lot of lit fic are described as having “no plot”, because sometimes the plot really is secondary to the language or the characters’ experiences. It doesn’t make it any easier to sell it to my friends, though.

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      2. That is a good point, a lot of classics authors (Christie is a great example!) use a blend of genre tropes and literary techniques. This is part of the reason genre snobbery seems so ridiculous to me- it goes so well when different aspects are used together! Especially as literary [genre] fiction is a great way to make difficult techniques more accessible and also solve that “no plot” complaint that genre readers tend to have.

        I often feel like I’m in a similar boat re: that weird position with lit fic- I had a hard time finding my niche in college because so many of the literary types prefer strictly literary fiction and have no time for the genres, while I tend more toward a mix of genres and more popular fiction. I like a little of everything, which makes it surprisingly hard to fit in any bookish communities that focus specifically on any one “type” of book! This is a big reason behind the start of my blog- I couldn’t find an existing space that all of my tastes fit into, so I decided to create one. The best thing about it is that blogs evolve with the creator’s taste, so it’s always going to be the right fit no matter what happens with our reading! It sounds like we may have very similar tastes. 🙂

        I haven’t read Oscar Wao yet, but I know enough about it to see how it might be a good fit for a reluctant reader. Putting even one book in someone’s hands is a victory worth celebrating! My brother (both of my brothers, actually, though one’s still in high school) like very action-packed stories, the kind that generally get turned into crime dramas or superhero films. The problem with them liking movie-type books is that then the movie comes out and they won’t bother reading what they can watch, in less time and with a soundtrack!

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      3. Yes! I especially love it when lit fic mixes with other genres – I love literary thrillers and literary romance (Fatma coined that one in her lit fic tag, and Normal People is also my exemplar of it). Austen, too, can also probably be classified as literary romance.

        I’m so glad to read about your experience because I’ve felt very ‘weird’ for a long time – my reading tends to be eclectic and I can talk a little bit about everything, but not very deeply, so it was hard to find a group that matched with my tastes. You’re right when you said that “The best thing about it is that blogs evolve with the creator’s taste, so it’s always going to be the right fit no matter what happens with our reading!”—it’s been very freeing to finally have a place where I can be true to all my tastes! Yes, I noticed we have similar tastes—I think that’s what drew me to your blog when I first started 🙂

        Ha, I know. Action-packed books are definitely a hard sell compared to its shinier movie counterpart. I’m not giving up though!!

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      4. I completely agree on Rooney and Austen as literary romance!

        I’m very glad to have found you here! I’ve been blogging for several years and still know only a few people whose tastes overlap much with mine. Admittedly, when I started out I was very bad at finding people and then putting my shyness aside long enough to talk to them so it’s taken me some time to find a good groove! Lit prizes have been a very helpful way for me to make new acquaintances who are reading the same books and might share some opinions, but outside of the prize list I don’t always have much in common with those new acquaintances. The prizes are fun, but it’s a joy to find someone just as easy to chat with outside of that environment as well! Fortunately I think we’ll find plenty of books to talk about! 🙂

        And same! It can be a grueling battle but we shall persevere!

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      5. Same! 🥰 It’s true, it was also through the WP and Booker Prize that I found other bloggers—I didn’t know what sort of community I was looking for until then! I’m inclined to trust your reviews. I noticed that if you 5-starred something it’s very likely I’ll love it too, even when no one else has (e.g., Trust Exercise lol). (Also, this is slightly embarrassing but I’ll say it anyway— I’ve looked through your WP longlist wrap-up last year and noted all your 4-5 star reads, because I feel they’re the ones I’ll like too. 😆 I hope to read them by this year or next.) I really am looking forward to chatting about other books with you, especially THIF! 🙂

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      6. Oh my gosh, that is SUCH a compliment! 🙂 Definitely one of the most rewarding things as a blogger is hearing that I led someone to book(s) they also enjoyed; it really makes all the reviews and prize coverage feel worth the time! And I’m so glad you looked at that list in particular- even though this year didn’t quite hit the mark I do hold the Women’s Prize in high esteem and there were so many great books on the list last year that I’m excited for you to read! 🙂 And I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye out for your 5-star reads also, I have been known to add plenty of blogger favorites to my TBR as well!

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      7. I’m glad that made it feel worthwhile! I haven’t been blogging for long so I feel like my tastes are still shifting, but thanks for visiting my reviews anyway 🙂 I always find your comments very thought provoking.

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      8. Thank you! I always enjoy talking with you and seeing your thoughts on books- I’m glad we found each other in the blogosphere! 🙂

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  8. Great post and discussion! Before I had my book blog I never considered literary fiction or thought whether this or that book falls into that or this category – I just read “books”, or so I thought (my first books were classics like the retelling for children of books by Charles Dickens or the Musketeers’ action in Dumas).

    I don’t really believe in the categories, and I agree with you that ““good” fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do, which can certainly be found in genre fiction and can also be found lacking in literary fiction”. You are very right that everything depends on a book – I mean, genre fiction can be so good, it can be brilliant – it may have this fast-paced plot and the ending is satisfying. I think the confusion arises because what often makes a book “good” are the classical “attributes” of literary fiction – the language, the originality, the complexity, the unexpected, the depth of characters. However, the overall result can also make genre fiction books brilliant and then classics. I mean, we read Agatha Christie not for the depth of characters, the style or for her use of the language, but for entertainment and murder thrills, but many of her books are pure brilliance and can certainly open one’s mind to complex situations.

    I read somewhere that literary fiction is a book that often describes inner state of the characters – their thoughts maybe and emotions (evokes something), whereas genre fiction focuses on external action. I think that is true sometimes, and I think fantasy and romance genres had a bad deal in that respect. When writing romance or fantasy it is very difficult to remain subtle and deep when you also try for books not to appear cheesy (romance) or also describe all the fantastical world (not time for other elements) with sufficient realism. It is very hard to stay “literary” and “serious” in other words, hence their “bad reputation”.

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    1. Thank you! I definitely think genres are mainly a marketing tool, and a helpful way for readers to find a certain “type” of book they’re looking for- like you, I didn’t pay much attention to genres in my early reading life!

      I completely agree that literary fiction tends to focus on inner states of characters whereas genre fiction tends to be more plot focused- the external, as you mention. The overlap, like you note with Agatha Christie, is where I would generally call something literary [genre] fiction, though I think you’re right in that pure genre fiction can use lit fic elements for its own brilliance without necessarily becoming a literary book. Agatha Christie would be a great example of a writer who uses those techniques while still being firmly the queen of mystery!

      I must admit I’ve not seen any great examples that I can think of of literary fantasy or literary romance- perhaps Jane Austen’s Emma would apply in the latter category, though it’s not the sort of steamy story that many romance readers have in mind when looking to that genre. Maybe Sally Rooney would be another potential literary/romance blend, though again I think there would be a lot of debate on whether she fits that category! The different requirements for romance and for fantasy writing do probably make it difficult for those books to use literary techniques in a way lit fic readers might be looking for. Though it is a shame to think of them having a bad reputation when they simply follow different storytelling “rules” and tropes, and please a lot of readers! This is certainly a byproduct of the genre snobbery that can come from lit fic readers thinking that literary is the only writing that’s “good,” when that is a reflection of preference rather than objective merit.

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      1. Yes, I guess there will also be many books out there that sit on the fence – it is hard to decide what percentage of literary fiction elements a book should have for it to amount to literary fiction rather than genre fiction – some books may have beautiful language but still focus on a plot progression and thrills, etc., it is all very uncertain, especially if we are talking about what some consider to be “high-quality” books. Philip K. Dick books are sometimes said to be “literary” sci-fi, perhaps because they explore such complex issues and try to tell us something about the human nature/mind, but no one could really say that Dick’s language is great in his books.

        Yes, I guess some may pick up Austen’s books just to enjoy the romance there, and I guess Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” will be an example of a “literary” fantasy – I thought it was very “literary” anyway (an imitation of an old realist classic and still a pure magical fantasy) – it is an example of “Dickens meets Harry Potter”, and it is much much more “literary” than Harry Potter in themes, in complexity, in language – in everything. But, this book is considered to be a rarity, an exception in the publishing world.

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      2. Perhaps another example will be Patricia Highsmith’s thrillers being “literary” – they now have that excellent reputation anyway. I recently reviewed her “The Tremor of Forgery”, and it honestly could have been one’s average “thriller genre” book – the language is not distinctive and can even be considered “average”, the story is meant to thrill in some way and even the characters are not particularly “deep”. It could have been an ordinary thriller, but, amazingly, it is the overall effect of this book that makes it somehow literary – not overly literary, but something of a literary. Highsmith evades analysis and said many times that her books would not be pigeonholed into any categories – she certainly achieved just that.

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      3. I’ve been meaning to read Highsmith for ages, and her resistance to being pigeonholed is very appealing to me! Personally I really like books that feel like more than one genre applies, and I’m likely to call something literary AND a thriller (if it fits) rather than split hairs trying to choose. For me literary and genre fiction exist on one very large spectrum (though of course it would get more complicated if we were talking about all sort of different genre fictions, I do agree there are concrete distinctions to be made)- what I mean is, I think of literary fiction on one end of this spectrum and genre fiction (in a general sense) on the other, and I think there are a lot of books that could sit comfortably in the middle. Some will certainly have more literary elements than others, but I am perhaps more lenient than the average reader and would happily apply both categories. One fairly recent release that I would call a literary thriller is My Sister the Serial Killer, which is such a light and quick suspense read and yet also such a lit prize darling last year. That’s another one that I’d say the prose itself isn’t a standout but the underlying themes which look more at the human condition and some social issues are more in line with literary fiction than a typical thriller. I really tend to love those hybrid books that play with both form and genre tropes; I’ll have to check out the other titles you’ve mentioned!

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    1. Thanks for reading it! 🙂 Sorry to hear you didn’t get on with Never Let Me Go- based on the recommendations I’ve gotten for it I think it will be a good fit for me, but of course one never knows before trying. I’m curious- are there other Ishiguro works you liked better? I’ve not read any yet, but he’s such a staple I feel I should try more than one! The Remains of the Day is also on my radar.

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      1. Thanks so much! I’ll definitely check out The Remains of the Day then, and I’ll make note of the additional titles- I suspect I’m going to love Ishiguro’s work and will be able to put the recs to good use! 🙂

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  9. Great post! I’m so glad to have finally gotten into literary fiction, and am inspired to go back and read books I didn’t enjoy as much that I may enjoy more now. The Secret History and Never Let Me Go are two I’d like to revisit!

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    1. Thank you! 🙂 It’s a genre that took me some time to get into as well, but I’m also glad to have found my way in, in the end. Lit fic takes some work, but can be so rewarding. I really hope you’ll have better luck with your rereads!

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  10. Great post! It’s definitely my favorite genre, but I struggle with the snobbery that so often comes with ‘literary fiction’. This is such a great list of recommendations. I adored Atonement and also wrote a review of The Blind Assassin on my blog if you fancy a read! Everything I Never Told You is another of my favorites. I’d love to know what you thought of Milkman – I thought it was a tough but worthwhile read. White Teeth is also on my TBR list this month, so looking forward to diving into that one:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 It is unfortunate that this genre seems to come with a lot of snobbery attached, I don’t think that does anyone any favors.

      It sounds like we definitely have some overlap with favorites! I’m glad to see Everything I Never Told You on your list as well, I really need to read that one. And I hope we’ll both like White Teeth! 🙂

      I’m a big fan of Milkman! It took me about 50 pages to get into the writing style, but from then on I was surprised how much it really worked for me. The long paragraphs actually pulled me into the story quite well. It is a challenging book for sure, but absolutely worthwhile!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely, sounds like we have a similar taste in literary fiction! Couldn’t agree more about Milkman – I had to work at it, but once I was into the flow I really found it to be an engaging read☺️

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