What I Want “Literary” to Mean

In the world of books/writing/publishing, there’s a lot of talk about the word “literary” and what it means, and as someone who considers themselves to be deeply in love with this genre of literary (even calling it a genre is a bit controversial, but we’ll come back to that), it’s something I think a lot about.

The definition I took from my fiction professor in undergrad was simply this: literary fiction is character-driven fiction.

But while I like the simplicity of that definition, it seemed to leave a lot of rules unspoken.  There were expectations of the kind of work that we should be doing in our undergrad program, and simply being character-driven was only one of them.  As it turned out, those unspoken rules worked in my favor.  Because of the kinds of things we were given to read, the writers we were exposed to, and the kinds of stories we were expected to write, I learned a lot about what I wanted to do with my work, and I fell in love with the world of literary fiction.  I know a lot of my peers, though, had more bitter experiences because of those rules, whether they were ever spoken or not.

I’m talking about the word “genre,” of course.  There’s a school of thought, though I think it’s going out of favor, that the word “genre” exists opposite the word “literary.”  A piece of fiction is either genre, or it’s literary.  And there are all sorts of ideas, both positive and negative, on both sides of that line.  The traditional one — one which I think a lot of writers are familiar with, especially my peers from that program, is this:

Literary fiction is Good Fiction.  It’s high art, taking the everyday life of human beings and looking at it under a microscope, lending beauty and emotional depth to moments that otherwise, no one would see.  It’s us, elevated through the power of language.

Genre fiction, on the other hand, is all about flash and plot, action.  It’s entertainment, which you would think, according to this school of thought, is a dirty word.  What it isn’t (again, according to this school of thought, please don’t @ me) is art.

Now, maybe my experience is skewed because I earned my MFA from one of a few, though growing in number, programs that offer a degree in genre fiction.  At Stonecoast it’s labeled “popular fiction,” essentially just another way of saying the same thing.  But in my particular experience, this old school of thinking seems to be going out of favor.  Not to say that it isn’t still largely that way in the pretty myopic world of literary journals and magazines, but I’ve had my thumb on the pulse of the publishing industry a lot in the last couple of years as I’ve worked on querying a novel, and certainly, the line between these two ways of writing (because that’s what they really are, if there are distinctions between the two at all) is growing blurrier and blurrier all the time.

More and more, you’ll see agents and editors who want things like “literary thrillers” or “fantasy done in literary style” or “literary with a commercial plot.”  Or they want genre fiction that’s character-driven, or literary fiction that’s plot-driven.  In other words, people in the industry want the best elements of both.

According to the ideas I outlined above, that shouldn’t even be possible, but of course, it absolutely is possible.  Because when it comes down to it, “literary” fiction, which has been expanding for years now to include elements of genre such as fantasy (Karen Russell, for example) and horror (Carmen Maria Machado) as well as others, really comes down to two ideas, in my opinion:

1. It’s character-driven, which is to say not that the plot isn’t important (if you tried to say that, I’m pretty sure every agent in the U.S. market would get simultaneous shivers) but that it’s the characters, and their arcs, that drive the story forward as opposed to the plot.  Honestly, a better way of putting this might even be just that it’s more character-focused (again, that doesn’t mean that character isn’t important in genre fiction too).

2. There is a deep degree of focus and attention paid to the sentence-level craft, the language usage, of the story.

Neither of those things have anything to do with genre.  Which is why you can totally have a literary fantasy novel, or a literary horror, or literary sci-fi.  You can write in any genre with a character-driven story and deep attention to writing beautiful prose.

Some of my favorite books are The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater.  I think it would be easy to make the argument that, barring genre restrictions, those books are literary, in addition to being YA and contemporary fantasy.

Do I really think they would be classified that way though?  No, I don’t.  Because despite the fact that no one seems able to really agree on what, exactly, literary fiction is, there is still a connotation, from both sides of the debate, that “literary” is somehow a genre of its own — even though that’s not really how anyone describes it, in my experience.

And this truly does come from both sides of the debate.  I outlined the more traditional extreme above, but I’ve seen a fair share of the opposite too.  There are plenty of genre/popular fiction/commercial writers who want to break down the divide between their work and “literary” work because they feel it bars them from creating something that’s seen by the larger industry as art, but there are also those who like the divide, because in their minds, literary fiction is boring.

To that, I say: fair enough.  Of course, I love it, very much.  But it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea to sit with lengthy character studies, watching people go about their daily lives with a generally pretty melancholy tone.  That’s super valid, and I’m not trying to tell anyone that they have to like it just because I do, and I’m certainly not trying to tell everyone that they have to write it.

So what am I trying to say?  It’s clear that the word “literary” is pretty fraught, and that not everyone can even agree on what it actually means, but what would I like for it to mean?

In my ideal world, the word “literary” would refer to a style.  It would drop its connotations of genre and snobbishness — even, maybe, of tone (this might be blasphemy, I don’t know, but I feel myself on a personal mission to introduce literary fiction to the concept that actually, sometimes things aren’t all melancholy and sadness; don’t get me wrong, I love a good bite of melancholy, but the human experience is so vast and full of emotion, and I want to be able to sink my hands into all of it!).

“Literary” would join the ranks of words like “lush” and “insightful.”  It would be a way to describe a novel of any genre.

But failing that, I wish we could officially include literary among the other genres, because that is, in essence, what it is right now.  Officially, it sort of falls somewhere between a style and a genre, really.

Stylistically, we know it means that there’s a focus on character and craft.  Genre-wise, we understand that it’s a slower type of story that typically takes place in the modern day of the real world, and usually has a melancholy tone and probably possesses an ending that can’t be considered happy.

But sitting as something in between a style and a genre, as it does, only leads to confusion and hurt feelings.  There’s no reason that “genre” fiction can’t be told in a literary style, if that’s what the writer wants, and there’s no reason why the genre of literary fiction should be held up as this amazing form of art that somehow transcends all other genres.

I don’t know if the language surrounding fiction is going to change in the coming years, let alone how it might change to suit my personal tastes.  But the reality is that the publishing industry, fueled as it is by readers themselves, is a beast which wants what it wants.  And however we writers conceive of our own work and where it falls, the industry is leaning more and more toward these literary-genre hybrids.  It seems to me that this is the future of the argument, and why shouldn’t it be?  Readers don’t care what we call our work, they just like what they like, and both of these spheres have so much good to offer, so why wouldn’t readers want a mix of both?

How do you feel about these ideas, and how they’re changing across the industry right now?  I’m a little nervous about posting this, to be honest, because I know emotions run high on this topic, so I would love to hear your thoughts and chat about this in the comments!

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