Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Literary Minefield

I participated in a chat last night that sidestepped into a discussion about literary fiction. Nasty territory when you bring commercial writers and literary writers together. It fortunately stayed pretty civil, but it's obvious there are seriously different views on the topic depending on what side of the fence you stand.

I happen to be more on the commercial side. That's not to say I don't like literary at all. Yes, I know, in a recent blog post I said, "I hate (most) literary fiction." But that "most" is in there, and it is very important.

You see, just like commercial fiction, literary fiction has more than its fair share of hacks. There is good literary fiction, and like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead--when it's good, it's very, very good...but when it's bad, it's horrid.

Most literary fiction bores me to tears. It's dry. The convoluted wording makes reading the book tedious. And I simply can't relate to the characters. A friend recently recommended the book "Prep" because it's a YA literary novel that she adored. It's gotten some rather high praise from the big reviewers. I, however, could not get past the first two chapters. I couldn't relate to the MC, at all.

But I have read literary novels that made me absolutely swoon. There is a sweet spot among literary novels that happens to fall within my circle of interest. "Hold Still" by Nina LaCour and "Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher are two teen literary novels that blew my mind. Admittedly, they are written in more of a commercial style, but they touched on real-life tragedy in a way that was beautiful and soul-changing.

I just mentioned "commercial style." I said that because so many people think it is the style that makes a book literary--specifically a classic style. As though the book must read like one of the novels you were forced to trudge through in high school. Sometimes literary fiction is written that way, and many literary fans say it's about wording, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between literary and mainstream. To me, it has to do with the subject matter. Literary novels focus on character over plot, first and foremost. Also, they are more "real life" than mainstream.

Hm, I say "real life" but I need to quantify that. You see, literary writing is popping up in genre novels. Literary sci-fi, literary fantasy. Style is part of it, but what really makes the difference is the character focus. It's real-life, completely recognizable as what we go through here, now, but in completely fantastical settings.

As you can see by the direction this post is taking, there is muddy water. There is a place where literary and commercial merge, and it's hard to separate them.

Some writers on either extreme, though, ignore that mud pond, staring over it at each other with arms crossed, and noses held high. Both sides feel slighted by the other. The literary fans because they know they are seen as obscure and niche and are unwanted by the norm. The commercial fans because the literary snobs maintain that commercial fiction is so much pig slop.

In all honesty, I just try to stay out of the cross-fire. I see literary fiction the way I see opera. It's something that takes talent in order to be truly good, but it's simply not for me. You're welcome to listen to whatever you want, and read whatever you want--I won't make fun of your too-tight literary bun if you don't scoff at me when I bust out my Stephen King and crank up The Ramones.


Robynn Tolbert said...

Did that conversation happen after I left? I don't remember it.

Do I correctly infer that literary equals boring? I've always preferred character-driven novels (I think), so do you mean literary character-driven involves lots of coffee shop navel-gazing introspection rather than self-realization while achieving some kind of active quest?

I guess I'm still confused. More, please.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I'm saying that literary equals boring most of the time for ME. That it's very much a matter of taste. And that most literary sorts have a different priority in writing than commercial sorts.

I love a good character-driven story as well. But I tend more toward plot-driven stories. And even in the character driven ones, I want extraordinary situations.

I do love the "language" that many literary novels boast as well, but much of the time the language gets in the way for me.

I also think much "literary" writing is pretentious drivel--and I think the truly good literary writers would agree. It's sort of like this: I'm not a big fan of abstract art, but there is good, deep, meaningful abstract art out there. However, it gets lumped in with the splatter-painted toilet seat some nimrod decided to hang on a wall and call "art."

I think that is where the "war"
stems from. The literary snobs seeing the mind-numbing, drone-targeted commercial work that is out there and assuming all commercial fiction is like that--and the commercial writers seeing the literary equivalent of a splatter-painted toilet seat and assuming all literary work is like that.

Here's the catch--the bad commercial writers don't know they suck, and neither do the bad literary writers.

And of course, there is the fact that not all writing falls neatly on one side or the other.

Oh, this may need a whole nother post....