1. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Definition(s) of the word "literary"

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by popsicledeath, Dec 30, 2010.

    I notice the term 'literary' being used in many different ways, and often nothing close to the definition I personally use. Here's how I see it:

    Literary can mean 'things to do with writing/publishing.' So, you have a 'literary agent' and it doesn't mean the agent is looking to represent dead authors writing literature, nor necessarily alive authors writing in the genre of 'literary fiction.'

    Literary fiction is a contemporary genre (as it's defined, see below). A construction of marketing, mostly. Opinions on what literary fiction is exactly, differ. But most people agree it's a contemporary genre and has nothing to do with classic literature.

    Literature usually refers to works that have had time to mature into general appreciation and acceptance. While 'literary' in the sense that literature are written works, most literature is NOT of the 'literary genre,' as this is a contemporary construct. I say most, because these days some books become 'classics' pretty darn fast.

    The problem I keep seeing is people say they want to be 'literary writers' of 'literary fiction,' yet have practices and methods adopted from the study and mimicking of classic works of literature. The 'literary genre' looks very different from most literature, and writing like some guy who died 100 years ago isn't going to get one too far in the literary fiction genre. In fact, in many ways, when it comes to the form and style of fiction, literary fiction seems often to be pushing into new ground, not reveling in the past.


    Am I way out of whack here, or are these not general definitions that most people have (if they have them). I just keep seeing confused people, and being confused myself, because people seem to think the literary fiction genre is very different than it actually is. It's poorly named, since 'literary' has such a broad general definition, but still, how could there be a contemporary genre of fiction that included the classics? Boggles my mind :p

    Also, it's ironic that an industry of writers often has terms that are awkwardly insufficient. I was taught 'genre' was the format/form you were writing in (short story, poem, novel, etc), not a reference to certain types of writing (sci-fi, fantasy, literary). It makes no sense! Even still, if someone say's they're a genre writer, my instinct is to be confused and ask what genre, expecting them to say 'novels' or 'short stories' not "Young adult paranormal fantasy romance with a speculative world and steam punk vibe." To me that's not the genre, but subject. Sigh.

    Anyone else get confused by this sort of inadequate labeling?

    To make matters worse I've been labeled/told I'm a literary writer (studying in college makes it so), but I write across a broad range of subjects, in various genres, so even being told I'm a literary writer I don't exactly understand how or why. :p
     
  2. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Literature refers to anything related to reading/writing. Even pamphlets can be called literature. Don't take it to mean some archaic novel written 200 years ago in Old English lol.
     
  3. arron89
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    Literary (as in 'literary fiction'), as I understand it, refers more to an attitude towards writing and language than a particular style. It is characterised by a tendency towards formal experimentation, self-awareness and a strong focus on language. Story is often seen as secondary to language, style is valued over content. As such, it can be applied not only to contemporary literary fiction, but to earlier 20th century literature and sometimes to even older works (which you refer to as 'classics', which is an even more meaningless term than literary, IMO).

    Generally, contemporary fiction is either general, literary or genre, with further categorisation under those headings. Genre always refers to the genre of the work (fantasy, romance, etc), never to the form of the work. If you've heard it used in that way, the user was mistaken.

    It's quite possible to mix genres (a recent example would be Justin Cronin's The Passage, which takes a literary approach to a genre subject), though it can be problematic--often there is a feeling of animosity among groups of readers towards other styles, which makes it hard to sell works, although the popularity of authors like Neil Gaiman or Jose Saramango has gone some way to bridge the gap.

    Finally, you seem to think that contemporary literary fiction (or indeed, contemporary fiction in general) is completely different to classic fiction, which simply isn't the case. While you are of course right that you shouldn't copy the diction of an 18th century writer, there is still a great deal about writing to be learnt from them. Jonathan Swift is still the greatest satirist in the English language, Jane Austen is still the greatest romance author, Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness still appears in more or less the same way in contemporary fiction, and so on. They may use language that has been succeeded by ours, but their writing is absolutely worth emulating in a literary context.
     
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  4. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think "literature" is also used as a quality and status marker. That a book is "literature" means that it's supposed to be well-written, and that it's the right thing to read for someone who wants to be sophisticated.

    This is a definition you're not likely to find in a dictionary, since people rarely want to admit they use the word that way.

    With this definition, the connection between "literature fiction" and "classic literature" becomes easier to understand.
     
  5. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Yeah. It can mean that. Thanks, another instance where writing/reading related terms are ineffectual. :p

    There's still the literature definition that is texts that have stood the test of time. As well as the definition you bring up here, too.

    I'd love to see some Norton Anthology of Literature and it's just the literature for various programs and organizations. What's it's literature, you're upset you spend 60 bucks to read information booklets?
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Literature aside from Mallory's description - usually means it is a good story that has stood the test of time or will stand it. Well written and engaging.

    Literary Fiction in a modern context to me usually means why did I bother? Nine times out of ten it feels like something trying too hard, story is bland and uninventive. Every so often it is worth the ones I was bored by. Sure they are beautifully written but I would rather have a badly written good story that engages me, than a well written one which bores me. The ones that become classics are well written stories. that are engaging and entertain as well. For example, I can't stand Thomas Hardy but he is not boring, just a bit wordy and miserable, I see how he can engage the right readers. His talent with names is fun.
     
  7. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Thanks for giving your view of it. This is why it's confusing, because all this isn't really true for the 'literary fiction' world that I've been exposed to. This is from writers and teachers who are currently [quite successfully] publishing in today's market, and are defined as 'literary writers.'

    Especially the writers who also teach, would unequivocally reject the notion that literary writing should tend toward being self-aware (quite the opposite), that style is valued over content (most literary writers/teachers I know stress to be sure the 'style' isn't interfering with the story).

    That's why I keep being confused and seeing confusion. Everyone I know actually writing and publishing what is described as 'literary fiction' has definitions vastly different than the population (of writers) at large.


    Not to be disagreeable, but many teachers I've known, books on teaching I've read, and courses in teaching writing, all routinely refer to 'genre' as the form and features of a written work.

    I think this is the confusion over all these terms. Readers seem to have different definitions than writers that are different than publishers and different than teachers. Then everyone only seems to recognize their single definition, when there appears to be multiple.



    Never said there wasn't any value in studying classics. I'm a firm believer that there is. But I was specifically referring to form and style--how the piece looks, not functions necessarily--and that's very, very different. Yet I keep seeing people self-report as 'literary writers' writing 'literary fiction' and yet their stories feel and read like something written 150 years ago, which is not, as far as I can tell, going to find much success in contemporary marketplaces.

    Sure, there are always exceptions, but say stopping in the middle of a novel to address the readers and explain to the readers you're simply telling a story and not to be upset with you the writer, isn't really in favor anymore (but was done back in the day). Or writing pages long paragraphs that include enormously long sentences, is probably not a good idea these days (and I can't remember the last time I read something dubbed as 'literary fiction' that didn't tend toward short sentences and paragraphs).

    So sure, there are lots of great things to learn from classics, but as far as I can tell one shouldn't look at a classic work thinking it's literary fiction and decide they want to write like that.
     
  8. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Hoping to keep this discussion related to definitions, not personal preferences (or biases). Especially since what you wrote could be seen as offensive to literary writers, and comments in a similar vein toward other genres sure wouldn't be acceptable either.

    There is bad writing in all genres. And plenty of literary fiction that is well written and has an engaging story.
     
  9. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It is no different to similar discussions on fantasy which is the genre I write most often - some of my books may be classed as gay literature as well. A lot of people have prejudice and personal opinion on both of those genres. I am not offended at all some people don't like it for various reasons. Often don't even read it - I do try to read a few literary fiction books a year at least. Haven't this year been too busy writing :)

    Whilst Literary Fiction is not classed as a genre it is rapidly becoming a style of writing. As Arron stated often story comes secondary to the literary devices, character development etc. The story can often be lack lustre. Not always - this years run away winner was Cloud Atlas, it suited my ADD brain very well. Someone who enjoys working through the devices, symbolism and ideas will enjoy reading it. It is not intended to be something I sit down enthralled with on a Sunday afternoon and finish a couple of hours later. When I do like reading it is when I only have half an hour or so - no being gripped I don't the same bother putting it down. It is actually good for those half hours on the bus or before bed.

    It does not change the fact for me the meaning is well written books that lack story. It has been my most frequent experience - like with all genres from Literary fiction through to Mills and Boons, Erotica and Chick Lit even junior or YA books it has some amazing blow away books that make for a fantastic read. I even adore the Gruffalo, or Winnie the Witch. I judge each book entirely on its merits.

    EDIT: For me however literary fiction does not automatically mean good or it has earned the title. Classic Literature usually signifies something that has done so. Jane Austen, Agatha Christie (not quite classic), Conan Doyle, Dickens, Shakespeare were all incredibly popular in their time as well. That differs from many of our contempoary literary fiction writers.
     
  10. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Yeah, and I have no problem with your preferences (we all have them, as you mentioned). Just hoping the discussion can be about the definitions, terms and genre itself, not necessarily whether people like it or not. That's a different discussion, that often ends up drowning in biases and the potential for people being offended, and doesn't exactly help the discussion of the subject, as it's more a discussion about individuals and their preferences.

    No problem with your saying literary fiction is well written, but lacks story. I can see how people could think that, and it's fair criticism I suppose.

    And I think it depends what people are reading. Which also plays into how people define things. I've known people that have criticisms of the literary genre and writing, and then when you ask what they're reading it's stuff from the 19th century, which creates some of the issues.

    It would be like me saying all sci-fi features terribly written dialog tags and use Philip K. Dick as my reference point. I love PKD to death, but things were very different when he was writing, and using him to define or react to contemporary sci-fi wouldn't be fair or accurate.

    And the sources of literary writing can make for huge differences. For instance, The Best American Short Stories anthology edited by Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones author) was terrible. I couldn't get through most stories (and it's the anthology I read to study, so even if a story isn't exactly fun or entertaining I still usually read them). On the other hand, when Stephen King edited one year, it was amazing and a lot of the stories came from smaller journals (not just The New Yorker). One could pick up Sebold's year and think literary fiction is much different from what it can be.

    But there's bad writing in all genres, which is why judgment calls on whether we like the genre isn't always the best way of figuring out what the genre IS exactly. If I pick up Philip K. Dick, and that's my reference point, then I may think ALL sci-fi features terribly written dialog tags, which isn't true.
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I added an edit to my previous post - I think one of the major difference between the literary greats and modern literary writers, is most literary greats enjoyed a reasonable degree of popularity amongst those who could read and afford books in their time. Modern literary writers are not as well known. I don't envisage David Mitchell getting a bust - however Julia Donaldson or JK Rowlling might. Terry Pratchett is more likely to get a bust in Winchester Cathedral next to Jane Austen. Probably more likely to be read in a 150 years time as well.

    I definitely distinguish between classic literature and what gets classed as literary fiction. And I am not restricting my opinion to one or two books closer to one hundred since I was ten. I used to make a point of reading literary prize winners, thought it made me look geekish and intelligent. Have since decided that isn't a good reason for reading a book.
     
  12. arron89
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    It could just be that our teachers/teaching has been that different, but I would definitely say that a preoccupation with language and style (sometimes at the expense of story, which is often minimal to say the least in literary fiction) is one of the key characteristics of postmodern literary fiction (that is, contemporary literary fiction, and the past 20 years or so). I don't know if you read many interviews with literary authors, but again, it's fairly de rigeur to include a certain self-awareness in terms of language, structure and style, and everything I was taught through my degree in English Lit only corroborated what I was reading (both in novels themselves, discourse about the work, and interviews with the authors). And I don't want to be tiresome, but I've never in my studies (or outside, even on these forums) seen genre used to refer to the form of something. The genre of a play, for instance, might be tragedy, or comedy, the genre of a poem might be a sonnet, or a lyrical ballad, and the genre of a novel might be literary, or fantasy. They are categories within the form, not the form itself. 'Play' or 'poem' is not a genre, it's a form.

    As to your position on the place of older forms and structures in contemporary fiction, while there are certainly some stylistic tendancies that have fallen out of favour (epistolary form, etc), the self-awareness and metafiction that you say isn't popular anymore is one of the defining characteristics of postmodern literature (which, as I mentioned, is about 1980-now). Minimalism is one dominant style of literary fiction, but you can certainly find authors more aligned with Joyce than Hemingway in terms of sentence structure. I'm not sure how many books from the 17th and 18th century you've read, but I'm sure that if you read and study more, you'll realise that contemporary fiction and older fiction are not really all that different.
     
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  13. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Apparently Arron has too much rep from me lol What I find interesting whilst Arron I generally disagree on our general opinion of literary fiction we agree on what it is. The very reasons I object seem to be what he likes and vice versa.
     
  14. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Exactly. Just like I didn't say 'fiction' was a genre, but short stories, flash, novels, all are. Just as you point out 'poetry' isn't a genre, necessarily, in the same way 'fiction' isn't, but sonnets would be a genre.

    I wouldn't say 'poem' is a 'form' as not all poems are relatable and share the same form.



    Yes, if I only study more I'll come around to agree with your point. :rolleyes:
     
  15. Islander
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    Another way to understand the connection between "classic literature" and "literature fiction" is that they belong to the same continuous tradition. Younger writers read, talked to and were inspired by older writers in the same tradition. Genres like science fiction, on the other hand, developed in paralell in their own communities, like the fanzines of the early 20th century.

    A third way to understand the connection is to look at the audience. Both "classic literature" and "literature fiction" appeals to people who appreciate solid characters, a solid grasp of the English language, and so on, but don't mind mundane premises and settings.
     
  16. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you argue Sci-Fi came out of Fantasy then that could make for an interesting discussion about its origins. Would make it one of the oldest forms of storytelling - is the Man in the Moon Sci-Fi or Fantasy :) ? What about stories involving elements? astrology or alchemy?

    I personally can find good literature in all genres. Great literature from all times - my reading goes back a lot further than the 17th Century. Ultimately the elements of what makes a great book haven't changed. Usually it requires for me a writer who loves story in all its forms and it shines through in their writing. Great writers of the past generally bear evidence through their work that they have studied the ones from their past in depth.

    That is what Harry Potter has - the legends, the stories, the influences are all present in the books. Right from the title the Philopsophers Stone. Reasonably well written.

    Great literature almost always makes some kind of homage to the past.
     
  17. art
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    Hehe. 9 out of 10 for emoticon usage.

    My understanding pretty much coincides with Arron's. But it's a fluid, notoriously bothersome definition so there's always room for argument.

    Take a look at a modern book - study its shape and the nature of its cover - and you'll readily understand whether you're looking at - what the publisher deems to be - a work of literary fiction or chick lit or fantasy, whatever.
     
  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I think there is a lot of overlap. To me, literary fiction turns on the sort of themes explored by the book - usually some aspect of the human condition that the author has something to say about as a focus of the story, rather than many works considered "genre" works where the plot is the focus.

    There are "fantasy" stories shelved under literature in book stores and read as literature in college classes, for example.
     
  19. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    So you're basically saying that literary fiction is introspective, investigating human nature and the things that matter to us as people... whereas genre writing is basically just vapid entertainment? So if a fantasy or sci-fi novel aren't shallow, and do investigate the human condition, then they're actually literary fiction?

    How condescending and disrespectful is that to non-literary writers? Isn't the aim of all fiction to expose the human condition? Isn't that how we relate to the stories, and find them relevant?
     
  20. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    No, that's not what I've said, but I'm not surprised that you were unable to understand what I wrote. Your posts in various threads make such an outcome predictable. Try trolling elsewhere.
     
  21. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Thanks for adding to the discussion.

    How was my summarizing what I thought you meant and asking clarifying questions trolling?

    To me you seemed to say that literary fiction focuses on the human condition, and that genre writing is often shelved with the literary/literature when it also does, making me think you mean that if something investigates the human condition (something I believe ALL writing does) that it's removed from the rest of the genre writing and dubbed 'literature.'

    I don't see how that's a huge jump to make, especially when I was attempting to have you CLARIFY your point of view, not have someone be dismissive and attack me, bringing up other threads, because you apparently have something against me. Shrug, whatev.
     
  22. Elgaisma
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    Actually a genre is irrelevant to what makes a book become enduring classic literature - not everything we have as literary fiction will be read in one hundred and fifty years time - in fact have a sneaking suspicion that YA/Junior/Children is where we need to look for the classic literature most people can name. Heidi, Little Women, Faraway Tree, What Katy Did, Tom Sawyer, Railway Children, Five Children and It, Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy, Brer Rabbit etc Can't help but think the Gruffalo and Winnie the Witch will be still read in an hundred and fifty years. Even today I think some of the most talented writers seem to reside in those categories., quite frankly children are fierce critics, if the language AND story are not right they won't sit and listen. Capture a child's imagination and you have a devoted fan for a lifetime.

    I am certainly not offended by the idea that my stories are intended for entertainment and not deep introspection - they do address issues of humanity however I don't care if someone comes out of reading it a better person. What I do care about is if they enjoyed it. However have also got a kick out of those that hated it lol They at least had a strong reaction :)
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Your post started with an extremely poor misrepresentation of what I said, and then moved to ad hominem. I don't see this as atypical for your posts.
     
  24. Steerpike
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    Most well-written "genre" stories (for lack of a better term) address issues of humanity, at least to some degree. But I think plot is more central to these stories. Whereas for a lot of literary fiction, the 'story' is primarily a vehicle for the author to comment on society, the human condition, etc.

    The most engaging novels, in my view, are somewhere between the two. For a classic example, take The Brothers Karamazov. Good story, an engaging read in my opinion, but also a vehicle for the author's commentary on a variety of societal subjects.

    Good literary fiction has a plot, of course. I've seen some that doesn't - that is just some kind of experimental meandering that goes nowhere. But the good stuff definitely has it. And good genre fiction has something to say. But I think the former prioritizes the message or social commentary, whereas the latter prioritizes the action of the story itself.

    To some extent, I suppose the labels are arbitrary. "Literary fiction" is a label one might attach to a work one feels has some sort of merit or significance besides entertainment value, but you start to wander into subjective territory.
     
  25. art
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    Certainly, the decisions of the publishers on these things are pretty arbitrary and subjective. Not to say they're not instructive - especially about that element of snobbery in the matter that Islander notes.

    When a modern or antique classic is dramatised on TV most publishers will put out a new version. They hope the masses will buy it, but, not being sure, wrap it in a gaudy, glossy cover to better their chances.
     

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