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.
And 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 History, as 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. Thanks 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 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 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), Anna 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 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
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:
I’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.
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