The writing business

Literary fiction – do we need a new term?

A review in The Times of Milkman by Anna Burns, which has just won this year’s Booker, has me worried. (James Marriott: ‘Booker choice is all that’s wrong with literary fiction’.)

I haven’t read Milkman so I can’t say if I’d agree with Marriott’s review, but I absolutely share many of his concerns. He finds the book ‘a tough read’, self-indulgent in style and not particularly elegant or original. He concludes:

Nowadays literary fiction doesn’t mean “good fiction” … it means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions … novels as status markers rather than life-changing entertainments’.

If this is what ‘literary’ now means, do we need a new name for the other sort? The ‘life-changing entertainment’?

Actually, that definition of literary isn’t enough for me. To me, literary is nuanced, intelligent fiction that might not conform to genre tropes and seems to be bigger, deeper, truer, perhaps more inexplicable than its plot and characters. (Yes: more inexplicable. You could disappear up your own omphalos trying to define literary. If you like that, here’s another occasion where I’ve had a go.)

Literary novels don’t have to be plotless or weighed down by their meanings and value (see my post here where I tackle the ‘plotless’ question).

Neither do they have to be difficult – see this interview where Joanna Penn is talking to novelist and TV dramatist David Nicholls about his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Nicholls talks of ‘the British literary tradition that feels modern, startling and original’. (If you want another highly readable gem from the Brit-lit tradition, try William Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.)

All of this is a long way from Booker-lit, but unfortunately Booker-lit is becoming the benchmark for all literary. If you’re a writer of the other sort (like I am), what are you now?

And that’s why I’m fretting. If a new term is needed for literary fiction, what should it be? Contemporary fiction? Modern fiction? Upmarket fiction?

Let’s discuss.

Psst .. If you’re feeling plotless in an uncomfortable way, try my plot book

Psst 2 … If you’re curious to know how my current novel, Ever Rest, is doing, this is my latest newsletter.


41 thoughts on “Literary fiction – do we need a new term?

  1. I’ve used the term for my own novels but have felt awkward about it, because of what you state. I had a somewhat negative review, citing that it was “hardly literary” on one book, also (even more controversial) that the characters were “barely above chick-lit”. I now baulk at using the term and even worse, buying books that use it.

  2. Call me a heretic, but I see the best genre fiction /as/ literary fiction. I’ve been reading the classics since I was twelve and fell in love with Crime and Punishment. I read everything I could lay my hands on because even the slowest stories made me think and feel and wonder at the beauty of the written word. Those are the qualities I look for in every book I read. Sometimes I find it in a science fiction novel. Sometimes I don’t find it in a work of ‘modern literature’.

      1. I think the big fallacy is that you can turn literature on and off like a tap. To me, the test of literature is its longevity. If it’s genuine and touches the humanity in all of us, it survives…because readers have deemed it worthy. And…I’ll get off my soapbox now. 🙂

  3. I haven’t read the book either, or even more than the first few lines of the Times review, due to the paywall – although I did like the photo of the excited author trying to wrest the trophy away from a determined Duchess. But I’m with you on your definition of ‘literary fiction’. Nuanced, thoughtful, attention to use of language, awareness of literary forms (although not necessarily experimental), having something intelligent and ideally original to say, although that might be hovering well behind the surface plot.

    I’ve had to wrestle a lot in the past with the difference between ‘good’ and ‘high art’. IMO the bottom line (ha!) of any book should be that it’s well-written at a basic level. But a romance, crime or fantasy novel is not usually a work of literature. However, there are well-written and badly-written novels in every genre. Being ‘good’ doesn’t make it ‘literature’.

    Do let’s not have a new term. Let’s stick to ‘literary’. ‘contemporary’ soon gets old (sorry) and ‘upmarket’ sounds twee as well as snobbish. I think it’s what they’r choosing for the Booker that’s the problem, not the term.

    1. Hi Caroline! Yes to your points about well written and badly written novels of every hue… and I agree about the term ‘upmarket’. It suggests there is also a ‘downmarket’ which doesn’t help anybody.

  4. People sometimes say, “But what about literary crime?” or whatever. It’s true that literary fiction sometimes tackles the same general areas as genre fiction — crime, love, war, historical settings, the future are all part of the human condition, after all. But what marks out literary fiction from genre fiction is the focus of interest. Dracula is a pulp horror novel, Frankenstein is literary fiction.

    1. Hello Disvan! I like that definition – literary is characterised by the focus of interest. And I think of literary as a continuum. Some genre fiction can cover both, being satisfying to the genre fans and also carrying something else as well.

  5. When I was in grad school, my master’s project advisor was advising another student as well as me at the same time, in the same room. When she talked to us both about our work, she made it clear to me that the “rules” and standards were different for my novel than they were for my fellow student’s. “You’re writing genre fiction,” she said to me. “She’s writing literary fiction.” I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven her for that. To me, a good book is a good book. I’ve read literary “genre fiction” and “formulaic” literary fiction. I wish we would stop all this labeling. I think it’s a bit of a dinosaur, a throwback to the days of bookstores having to figure out how to organize shelves.

    1. Hi Dina! I’d also bristle at the idea of the standards being different… good genre fiction requires as much skill as good literary. But unfortunately I feel we do need categories. Every book won’t please every reader.

      1. Agreed. I don’t mind dividing the books into subject matter/plot: western, mystery, thriller, sci-fi, women’s fiction. I just don’t appreciate the “literary” v “genre” mentality.

  6. I’ve read several ‘literary’ prize-winners in the last couple of years (including this year’s big winner, Lincoln in the Bardo) that seem to place convention-breaking and quirky style above all else; while many literary critics are raving about them, using terms like “bold” and “brave” and, yes, “literary”, I often find myself abandoning the book, thinking “Emperor’s new clothes”.

    1. Hi Keith! It’s funny that you should mention Emperor’s New Clothes. In one of my previous posts about litfic I used a picture of the Emperor’s New Clothes as the illustration.
      And yes, thanks for mentioning those experimental books. I also tend to be impatient with them. More often than not, I find they interfere with my belief in the book rather than enhance the experience. But maybe that’s just the kind of reader I am.

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever understood what “literary fiction” is. I think Ms. Santorelli and “acflory” have good ideas about a definition, i.e., you may not be able to give a satisfactory or rigorous definition, but you darn well know it when you read it. Which gives a hint as to why a reasonable definition is difficult (probably impossible): writing is art, and the appreciation of art is always subjective. My books about WW2 aviators appear under the broad category of “literary fiction” in Amazon, but I suspect the teeth in that comb are somewhat far apart, probably deliberately so. From some of the comments above, it seems that “literary fiction,” for some reviewers/critics, has more to do with “style” than anything else. Well, OK, but to me it’s about story. Story is what grabs a reader, and “style” is a long way second. Maybe we could agree that a “good story” (whatever that might mean to each of us!) is “literary.”

    An evil question occurs to me. Are classics like the Iliad and the Odyssey actually literary fiction? After all, they started out in the purely oral storytelling tradition of ancient Greece. Was Homer considered literary in his own time? And is Homer considered literary now out of habit, or because there really is something enduring about those stories, or because they were a convenient way to teach Greek to generations of reluctant school-children? Or perhaps something of each? Mind you I like both of them, especially after reading Robert Graves’ comments on the Greek Myths and books like Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam. But that just brings up the “subjective” element in the definition.

    1. Hi Tom! Your evil question is a good one. Have those stories survived because very little else from that period has? How much was contributed by Homer or did he just write down a version that was already well honed? How much can I say about this without making it obvious I’ve never read them?!

  8. Thoughtful post! So long as you abide by the definition of literary fiction you’ve provided in this post, and I also do, I don’t think a new term is needed. I feel like such a thing as genre fiction does exist—books that have predictable plots, characters, etc.—and readers of those books like them because of the conventions, not in spite of them. “Literary” seems like a useful qualifier for other kinds of books.

    I don’t subscribe to the Times and can’t read the full article, but the author’s definition of literary fiction seems very narrow. I don’t think it’s fair of him to condemn all books marketed as “literary fiction,” just because he disliked one award-winning “literary” novel.

    1. Hi Michael! I agree it’s a pity to condemn all literary fiction, but I think what he’s observed is true. I’ve read a lot of recent ‘literary’ works that are far more like this Booker example than they are like the definition we understand. I’ve read reviews of a lot more of them, and the reviewers raise these same questions. The books are marketed as though they’re for discerning readers, but they’re actually for people with different tastes from those who like traditional literary. Authors and agents are also worried. I know a few who are reluctant to call their work literary because the term has been hijacked by this other stuff and readers say they’re put off by it. Personally, I think we need a different name for Booker-lit, but hey-ho, language evolves.
      PS Sorry the Times article is behind a paywall. I read the whole thing in the print version. Sadly this is all I can link to here. But James Marriott makes the argument more extensively, giving examples of the things he disliked about this one book and explaining how they’re typical of a lot of new ‘literary’ fiction.

  9. Great topic Roz. I’ve often been puzzled the term literary fiction so it’s refreshing to read your article and the comments to see what others have to say as well. 🙂

  10. Hi Roz,
    Not sure if I’ve stolen this from somewhere or come up with it myself (former is more likely) but Why-brow seems to fit those novels that do nothing but construct new ways of navel gazing. I find a lot of it unreadable. Not because it challenges me but because it’s dull. Any genre of fiction can be literary (well written) but if the modern novel isn’t literary it doesn’t have much else to sell it, so by default I suspect all modern novels are marketed as literary rather than simply modern or contemporary.

  11. It sounds more like a problem the reviewer had with the book, not with the “genre”. Can’t really form a better opinion as the article’s behind a paywall.

    Literary fiction is anything that has some meaning and intent, it doesn’t *have* to be good. Just because it’s art doesn’t mean it’s good.

    On the flip side, there are definitely authors, agents, and publishers who have a different idea of what “literary” is, and this idea can be usually boiled down to being overly philosophical and “relevant”. And they stick hard to these conventions that have shown to sell or win awards. So at the end of the day these works are almost commercial (or the book equivalent of oscar bait) as their intent is to fit within conventions; not, you know, have some actual meaning.

    J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster have written short literary books that get to the point and that play with surreal elements and even comedy while having something behind it all; all without standing on a soapbox or trying to fit into conventions in order to sell. Then again they’re already published authors so they don’t have to, but the point stands.

    The term nowadays has so many negatives tacked to it. Go on reddit or any other online forum and the instant somebody who doesn’t read “literary” books feels that their non literary genres are being directly or indirectly snubbed the insults to the genre, its authors, and its fans start to fly. It’s strange, and I don’t believe it’s just trolls or the usual denizens of the internet.

    The same way that there seems to be a resistance against reading beyond children’s and YA books, there also seems to be a resistance to “literary” and even standard genre books from a big chunk of readers out there.

    1. It’s not an easy question to answer! There are many forms of ‘literary’ – and I like your definition that it simply means there’s more under the apparent surface. But unfortunately the form that is getting most attention is this ‘Booker-lit’. ‘Worthy-lit’. ‘Modern-tick-boxes-award-bait-lit.’ ‘Show-off-that-I’m-reading-it-though-I-don’t-enjoy-it-lit.’

      1. Well that’s a shame. Honestly I’d use and hide behind the “upmarket” label if I wanted to avoid those sort of comparisons.

  12. Some years ago I read the nonfiction book Stet by Diana Athill, she was a fiction editor , who remembers when the Booker Prize was actually launched in the sixties, when it was becoming more and more costly for smaller presses to publish books and compete against the bigger houses, especially if the books appealed to a more literary reader. Interesting that she uses that adjective to describe the reader, not the book.

    She then goes on to describe the two types of reader:

    “People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books are of two kinds. There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading, if not for ever, then for as long as one can forsee. The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers’ headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting.

    The Booker Prize was instigated in 1969 with the second group in mind: make the quality of a book news by awarding it an impressive amount of money, and hoi polloi will prick up their ears.” Diana Athill, Stet

    1. Claire! So glad you’ve found your way here and brought this with you!
      I’m boggling at your observation that she used the term ‘literary’ about readers, not books. An interesting shift. Does it make any difference? Maybe not, but it is interesting nevertheless and worth thinking about.

      1. Exactly what I thought! Does it make any difference, it would be interesting to see what your readers thought of that, but her describing those two types of readers is something different, really it’s avid readers versus occasional readers and its the reason why often the bestsellers aren’t understood by the blogging community, because they are all avid readers and don’t get it when a book hits the tipping point and all those occasional readers and even non-readers, suddenly want to read a book everyone is saying you must read!

        I think that’s what happened with Eleanor Oliphant.

        1. I haven’t read Eleanor Oliphant. I discussed it with my local bookseller and he was exasperated with it. He knows my tastes and I trusted him! What did you make of it?
          PS I just saw you subscribed to my author site – thank you! It’s actually a static site rather than a blog so you probably won’t hear another peep from it. But if you liked the content there, I write similar material in my newsletter every month

          1. I wouldn’t have read it, if it hadn’t been pressed on me by a friend, and I was already aware of some of the issues, however I decided to go ahead and read it with an open mind, knowing it was one of those that has been a word of mouth success. She’s a talented writer, with an engaging style and pace, great dialogue, but she made a few decisions about her characters and plot, that raised red flags with the more discerning reader, so I did myself having to suspend belief, and even wiped out of my reading mind, an unnecessary twist at the end, but I can honestly say I enjoyed it, I think as a writer it’s important to read books like that to try and understand how she gets to that second type of reader that Ms Athill talks about! And especially given Gail Honeyman was a debut novelist.
            Thanks for the newsletter reference, I’ll subscribe, I’ve downloaded one of your books too 🙂 Now back to writing!

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