1. Jerry Fletcher
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    Jerry Fletcher New Member

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    Literary Genre...What the?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Jerry Fletcher, Nov 8, 2011.

    So what's the big deal about "Literary genre stories?" I've read a bunch of them, and they all seem to carry a boring tone throughout. Perhaps it's just me. Maybe I'm just shallow with my knowledge of a good read...but then again, I've read a bunch of good stories.

    What are some of the things I should be looking for in a "great" piece of literature that has an overall boring-as-hell story line? (i.e., seemingly everything in the "Literary Genre").
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    When you say "literary genre" do you mean "literary fiction"?

    I don't actually have any answers for you, but thought this might clarify your question. :) I don't recall seeing the other phrase very often.

    Edited to add:

    Ah, what the heck, as an opinionated person, I'll discuss my largely-uninformed view of literary fiction anyway.

    As background: I demand that any fiction have an engaging plot and characters. There is no amount of verbal mastery or beauty, or brilliant symbolism, or philosophical depth, that will cause me to forgive the lack of those things. To throw an analogy at it, there are some people who will forgive a restaurant for merely adequate food if that restaurant has beautiful decor, or music, or service, or view, or a high level of authenticity or quality in ingredients, or all of the above. I'm not one of those people. It has to taste good.

    My impression is that while of course a good plot and characters are a good thing in literary fiction as everywhere else, they are sometimes considered negotiable, if the work is sufficiently masterful in other areas.

    Now, I suspect that people will particularly leap on me at the idea that good _characters_ are optional in literary fiction, because depth of character is usually held to be one of the distinctions between literary fiction and other works. And I don't altogether disagree with that - when I look at works in a genre that are criticially esteemed and are debated as _perhaps_ transcending their genre and being literary fiction, those works nearly always do have particularly realistic, well-drawn characters, better than the characters found in the average vanilla piece of genre fiction.

    But I think that literary fiction _allows_ for rather flat, largely symbolic characters. For example, I find most of the male characters in _Like Water For Chocolate_ to be personality-free plot devices. For all I know, this may be a deliberate choice - maybe it's a revenge for all of those personality-free plot-device female characters in other books. Maybe there are all sorts of artistic reasons behind this. I don't care; I am unable to forgive the flat characters and unable to like the book. (Maybe, also, _Like Water For Chocolate_ is too popular to really be considered an example of literary fiction; I've frequently seen it referred to as such, but I may be looking at the wrong sources.)

    Now, that's one and only one example; I'm well aware that I am not providing a well-supported argument here. I may be dead wrong. So I'd like to know, from lovers of literary fiction: Am I right that _sometimes_ other literary elements do allow a piece to be classed as literary fiction, even if depth and realism in the characters is lacking?
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't care much for what is commonly-known as "literary fiction".

    I've said many, many times on these forums that I love great prose, well-made paragraphs, beautiful sentences. I love brilliantly-realized characters and stunning, original imagery. Plot is a bit secondary, but usually, if you have the other items in this list, some plot will sneak in there somewhere.

    But I object to a lot of what I've seen referred to as "literary fiction", because I find it dull. It's dull because it doesn't transport me in any way to another kind of life, and that's one of the main reasons I read. I love the exotic. I love anything other than the here-and-now. If you're telling me a story about characters in America in the early 21st century, I'll probably be bored. If the story you're telling me about these characters involves their work lives or their love lives or their struggles with addiction, I can almost guarantee I'll be extremely bored.

    As I said, I love the exotic. That's why I grew up reading science fiction, and why I write it (mostly) now. I also enjoy historical fiction, or, generally, anything about characters living some kind of life I never could. I can get the ordinary experience by opening my front door; I don't need it in my fiction. I love science fiction, as I said, and I love the work of writers like Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and so on. They didn't write sci-fi, but they wrote stories of literary quality about high adventure in exotic places, allowing me to vicariously live lives I could never live in the here-and-now.

    It bothers me that people dismiss genre fiction as if it can never attain the artistic heights of literary fiction. The simple fact that modern sci-fi and horror and fantasy pretty much grew out of pulp magazines does not mean that they are forever confined to the level of quality of pulp magazines. I have high hopes, these days, for genre fiction that also has high literary quality, and that sooner rather than later, the genre labels will dissolve and everything good will be regarded as literature. At that point, the concept of the "literary genre" the OP refers to will no longer apply, and we won't have to deal with questions like this.
     
  4. Summer
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    My take on "literary" fiction:

    It isn't really a genre in the same way that fantasy is; people always argue that sci-fi and fantasy can not be "literary". I disagree. I think most people will, however, agree that it is mostly about how it is written.

    We can argue forever about what kind of "genres" are better, but when it comes down to it, it just depends on the reader. Literary works tend to have better prose, but if the story doesn't interest someone, why bother reading it?

    What to look for?
    Depends on what you want to write. If you don't want to write literary, don't spend all your time reading it. I do think writers can learn a lot about good prose from it though.
    Observe: the sentences; what things the author chooses to and not to describe; what kind of words are used; different "layers" of the story (you may be missing the "real" point of the story).
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yep, I would argue that genre fiction can _absolutely_ also be literary fiction. To me, literary fiction is a level of achievement in fiction, it is not a category to itself. I see no contradiction whatsoever in a book being classed as, say, "literary fiction/science fiction."
     
  6. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    At a very simple level, genre fiction is plot driven whereas literary fiction is character driven (the reality is that everything has elements of both). Literary fiction is also likely to make more use of literary devices such as polysemy (multiple layers of meanings), genre mixing and so on.

    Consider James Joyce's Evaline, which I've heard critics describe as the finest short story ever written. Practically nothing happens. We never even find out whether Evaline takes the boat, although we strongly suspect she doesn't. But there's an incredible description of a situation, and we really get inside Evaline's head. Linguists find a lot in the detail of the language Joyce uses. But whether you actually enjoy it -- well, that's up to you. There's no law saying that you have to enjoy literary fiction. But there are those that do, greatly, and they're not wrong either.
     
  7. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    A lot of literary fiction bores me. Certainly modern literary fiction, it seems to sacrifice the entertainment element for grand loftiness and superiority. Maybe it's because I'm a genre reader and writer, and I don't like the snobbishness with which literary fiction treats genre. But I feel that having grand symbols and metaphors and a deep message for the world is all well and good, but if the reader has closed the book or fallen asleep because it's just not interesting, then what's the point?

    (I know there are a lot of people who will disagree with that, as they're welcome to, but that's my view of literary fiction)
     
  8. LaurenM
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    I just googled literary fiction, and it was what I thought it was...Great Expectations-esque writing. I honestly don't like the whole "character driven, not plot driven" thing. When I read a book, I want to be entertained. I want to be able to relax and enjoy myself when I read, and personally, literary fiction makes me want to fall asleep. It'll take me twice as long to read literary fiction compared to a fantasy or adventure book. Why? The writing. I agree with Banzai in saying that they sacrifice entertainment for fancy, overly descriptive, fluffy writing. I don't like fluff. I like a story.
     
  9. Jhunter
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    Jhunter Mmm, bacon. Contributor

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    I couldn't agree more.

    You can have all that in genre fiction. So I agree, what is the point?
     
  10. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    I'd argue that genre can do it better, actually. Just look at some of the classics of science-fiction. Most often the best SF works get "co-opted" by literary fiction (i.e. Orwell's 1984). I simply feel that you can talk to people a lot more effectively if you can do it without boring them half to death- such as by having an interesting plot.
     
  11. Jhunter
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    Jhunter Mmm, bacon. Contributor

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    I agree. Having a good plot and characters would definitely pose a good argument that genre can do it better. My opinion at least, would fall on the same side of line as yours.
     
  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Literary fiction can and does encompass material from all genres. In fantasy, they made a separate name for it (magic realism), probably because certain snobbish literary types didn't wish to identify themselves as liking a fantasy work.

    There is a lot of great literature that qualifies as 'literary' fiction and falls squarely into the genre fiction category as well.

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez - fantasy
    Henry James - supernatural/psychological (Turn of the Screw)
    Shirley Jackson - supernatural/psychological (The Haunting of Hill House; a must read).
    Shelley - science fiction/horror (Frankenstein)
    Dante Alighieri - fantasy (The Divine Comedy)
    Unknown author - fantasy (Beowulf)
    William Shakespeare - fantasy/supernatural (numerous works)
    Mervyn Peake - fantasy (Gormenghast)
    Angela Carter - fantasy (numerous works)
    Aldous Huxley - science fiction (Brave New World)
    George Orwell - science fiction (1984)
    John Milton - fantasy (Paradise Lost)
    Franz Kafka - fantasy (The Metamorphosis)

    and the list goes one. That's off the top of my head, but if I do some Google searching I can find a dozen additional examples.
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    So do I. And I am entertained by literary fiction. Do you have a problem with that?
     
  14. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I find it kinda amusing how if people complain that genre fiction is shallow and unoriginal, they get dozens of people yelling at them for making generalisations about a whole genre, but genre fans get to call literary fiction boring and dense and just generally get super-defensive without anyone getting up in arms about it.

    To be honest, it amuses me even more that people are still having this conversation. If this were the 1970s, then maybe I'd understand, but any serious fan of literary fiction will be more than happy to admit that some genre fiction could be considered literary, and that many literary writers use fantasy tropes. I guess the difference is, if you go into the 'literature' section of any well-stocked bookstore, you could probably find a couple of decent books on any given shelf...prize winners, modern classics, critical hits, cult classics, things like that. Do the same in a scifi/fantasy section and who knows what crap you'll come across. Generally, I think the standards for publishing are quite different; when it comes to literary fiction, you have thousands of MFA writing grads competing with thousands more seasoned writers competing with the thousands more unqualified masses submitting manuscripts...the standard is generally very very high, the market relatively small and the readership exceptionally demanding. With genre fiction, the expectations of readers are more varied, and I would say generally lower, in terms of actual writing skill, and there isn't such a pedigree when it comes to writers. So, the highs of genre fiction can match those of literary fiction, but I would argue that the published lows are much, much lower.
     
  15. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Some people seem to think they can write literary fiction by writing a dull story in normal English, then right-clicking on 50% of the words to find a pretentious synonym--voila! So annoys me. Literary fiction is so much more than breakteeth or archaic vocab. It should be thought-provoking images and ideas that make it worth reading, imo.
     
  16. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    You have a point. I did make a generalisation about literary fiction, and it isn't true. There is a lot of very good literary fiction, which I enjoy immensely. However, I don't agree that genre fiction's "lows" are necessarily a lot worse than literary fiction's. Part of the issue is that genre's trashy novels, etc, are recognised as trash, and indeed in some cases marketed as trash. Whereas the bad literary work has a tendency to hide behind obfuscation and "you're just not understanding it!".

    I agree entirely- but I feel that a lot of writers and fans of literary fiction seem think that it has a monopoly on that. I've seen works of SF and horror which could easily compete with the best of their literary counterparts.

    I think my hostility to literary fiction is simply an annoyance at the tendency for it to be used as an excuse for fiction which is plainly uninterested, and a ridiculous snobbishness over other genres.
     
  17. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not just fantasy. Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmore used crime tropes, but nobody expecting crime genre would have been happy with the ending. I agree that genre can be as well written as supposedly "literary" fiction, and even when it isn't it can still be a lot of fun. I see it as chicken soup v. apple pie, main course v. dessert. The main course is all about nutritional, i.e. intrinsic value. Dessert is all about fun. If I read a lot of genre fiction I start to yearn for something more substantial. If I read a lot of literary fiction I start to yearn for some light relief.
     
  18. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    If they find value in it -- if they understand it -- why do you consider it "bad"?
    Uninteresting to you. Presumably if it's published and sells then it's interesting to somebody.
    Yes, that's a problem, but on the other hand I get frustrated by the attitude that if some readers don't get it then it must be bad work and so those claiming to enjoy it must be snobbish and faking.
     
  19. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This looks like an argument for having those thousands of brilliant MFA writing grads get into genre fiction. They'd be more likely to get published, because they write at a higher standard than most genre writers do, and at the same time, they'll be elevating genre fiction out of the muck so much of it can't seem to escape, because they write at a higher standard than most genre writers do.

    When GOOD writers write genre, genre becomes literary, and the walls are broken down, and ultimately it benefits both readers and writers.
     
  20. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    It's not necessarily- I just feel that there's a certain strain amongst the "literary" world who prize what I would term bad fiction simply because it is impenetrable, and use that as a platform for wiser-than-thou snobbery.

    Well, yes uninteresting to me. It was a statement of my opinion, so who else was I going to be referring to? But it comes back to my objection to (some- if not most- works of) "literary" fiction in the main- the sacrifice of plot and entertainment value for pontificating. You don't have to agree with me, but your disagreement won't stop me thinking (and voicing) that. I unfairly and unreasonably generalised it earlier in this thread, and I apologised (and apologise again) for that.

    Yes, I can see why that would frustrate. But that's an extreme over-exaggeration and misrepresentation of my position. Of course there are brilliant novels which some people don't get, and that doesn't make them bad. But I am quite resolutely of the view that if a large number do not understand the work, then the writer (as a communicator) has failed. I suppose it comes down to what I perceive as snobbery (though, in the interests of fairness, I will highlight that this is my perception, and not everyone else's), that it is "exclusive" to a select group who "understand" (or perhaps read into?) it, and the view of some literary evangelists that anything that is outside the bracket (accessible to a wider group?) is substandard.

    And that is a lot of brackets in one post...
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, you said "plainly uninterested" so I assumed it was something that everybody could tell.
    Oh, I do agree with you -- but lots of genre fiction is terribly written. It doesn't seem to make sense to judge a category by the bad examples.
    We'll make a literary writer of you yet. :)
     

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