Talk:Literary fiction

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(untitled) Literary vs. popular and genre[edit]

One of my sons and a "Lit major" friend at work sneer at the mention of contemporary authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Tony Hillerman, and even John Grisham, all of whom I enjoy reading. My son, in particular, likes Twain, Dickens, Doesteyevsky, Tolstoy, etc. and falls asleep every night with the light on trying to pursue a few more of their pages.

I recently heard the tail end of an NPR talk show, probably Fresh Air, with an author (help me here if you can) trying to resurrect Sherlock Holmes, who said the boundaries among various types of fiction should be erased and that his own writing WAS literary and not merely genre.

Looking at the definitions here of Literary vs Popular and Genre fiction, I seem to be feeling a bit of a literary inferiority complex. Much of what I see on the "Bestseller" racks seems to be "genre" of one sort or another.

So in an attempt to "Pull myself up by the fictional bootstraps", who should I be reading among todays authors if I want to be open to "Literary fiction?" Or am I so far gone I'm doomed to remain a literate low-brow?

I'm supposed to say 'Martin Amis', I think. I don't actually read him, though. I do read W. G. Sebald. Think Paul Auster, also. Charles Matthews 19:04, 22 Dec 2004 (UTC)

It is all genre. "Genre" is just a perjorative term. Literature wasn't better in the past, it is just that there is a bias because people no longer read the mediocre works of the past. --RLent 21:47, 17 December 2005 (UTC)

sure, but literature is not confined to the past. There is plenty of contemporary work which easily fits into this category. You don't have to be dead to write literature, but you do have to get past the gatekeepers if you want anyone beyond your own circle to read it as such. Sigma-6 10:53, 18 March 2007 (UTC)
Head... meet desk. "Literature" is a REALLY broad term, which, coincidentally, includes such banal things as ad brochures. Anyone who can read or write can write "literature", by definition. There are no "gatekeepers" to being lauded by people for reasons other than being a good page-turner, either. Either people in academia and such read and analyze your work a lot, or they don't; and either your work has a lasting effect despite being only written presumably for your own time, or it doesn't. Dickens wasn't intending to be read by scholars, and neither was Twain. "Good fiction" will always be subjective, and nobody can predict with 100% certainty what scholars will love 25 years down the road. And, I'd like to add that the more a person's work gets "respected" by critics, the less likely their genres of choice are actually to be labeled anything but "literary", even if they write, say, science fiction or fantasy. Whoever said "genre is a pejorative term" wasn't too far off the mark; how many people actually saw a news organization list Kurt Vonnegut as a writer who ever so much as touched science fiction, for example? Runa27 01:20, 11 November 2007 (UTC)
I dunno, Don Quixote and The Iliad aren't exactly what I'd call a "page turner". But once I was done reading them, they were much better novels than "The Da Vinci Code" (actually, it took me almost forever to finish that piece of crap anyway.) Commercial fiction is often written with no other intent than to commercialize and sell books. That's why it's named that. And the writers of the past who did that aren't remembered. Neither will Stephen King or Dan Brown be remembered. Because their work is fluff and meaningless. Now, you may take me as a highbrow for suggesting that popularity and readibility aren't the only measures of quality. But a thousand works of great literature that were ignored in their time and lauded afterwards, who were outsold by talentless hacks, prove you wrong. (talk) 09:09, 13 January 2008 (UTC)
I agree with just about everyone else that this article needs to be rewritten ASAP. It's dreadful. I'm particularly startled at the obtuseness of this claim: "[Literary fiction] lacks any kind of genre conventions. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a list of genre conventions." Um, no I wouldn't. I agree with the folks who are arguing that contemporary academic literary fiction as currently practiced is a genre (and is actually among the most rigidly formulaic of genres). One of my friends read submissions for a campus literary magazine, and he reports that the overwhelming majority of the stories submitted were about male English professors having affairs with female undergrads. That's not a formula? Off the top of my head, here are some of the conventions of literary fiction (particularly short fiction): 1) The piece will be contemporary social realism, 2) The protagonist will be an ordinary person, 3) The protagonist will be self-absorbed and self-pitying, 4) The protagonist will not get along with others in his or her social network, 5) The protagonist will spend a great deal of time thinking about the past, 6) The protagonist will come to an epiphany in which he or she grasps the essential truth of his or her situation, 7) The ending will be ambiguous, 8) The prose style will be cool and detached. Obviously not all literary fiction hits all of these points (just as not all science fiction is set in the future), but enough of it does to identify a few conventions, surely. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 14:25, 19 October 2008 (UTC)


In the article, 'literary fiction' is said to be broadly distinguishable from genre or popular fiction because the former deals more with character, style and psychology, while the latter focuses on narrative and plot. Is there a source for this assertion? I had always considered that the distinction was merely a matter first of the novelty or poignancy of a work and second of market. It's just a personal opinion, but as it stands right now the article seems to state little more — I don't even see an appeal to common consensus in the statement as it stands. Wally 08:27, 18 August 2006 (UTC)

I agree. There is an issue here with source material. I think perhaps a good look at literary criticism would be a good idea. Sigma-6 10:53, 18 March 2007 (UTC)


Is it worth it to try to tone down the POV/OR a little bit, or is it a hopeless case that no one cares about anyway. Adding sources for something other than the Updike quote would help quite a bit. But..."somewhat uneasy"? This is encyclopedic? Dybryd 17:15, 18 August 2006 (UTC)


To me, this article seems biased. To assert that characterisation is better than plot is a matter of personal oppinion is relative, and to assert that any authors who think otherwise must therefore be only interested in money, and not value writeing as art is prejudiced. Plot is as much a part of the story as characterisation and peoples views of relative values of storiy element vary and those who prefer plot can clearly appreciate stories as art or why would they buy them), so why can't they reate them as art?
— Preceding unsigned comment added by (talkcontribs) 09:30, 13 February 2007‎ (UTC)

I'm not convinced that you're seeing what this article says about that. The issue perhaps, is part of the old discussion of esthetic merit as it relates to cultural elitism. I'm certainly not a professional in this field, but I am under the impression that the point made here is not so much a value judgment as something like the distinction between academic and commercial art. You're certainly right that discussions of the relative merits of either when they're put in contrast with each other tends to descend into opinion, but it's long been a subject of debate whether any esthetic judgment is objective.
I don't think that the writer of this article asserted that characterization was 'better' than plot, so much as that the one type of fiction tended to focus on the one and the other on the other. On the other hand, is T. S. Eliot a better poet than . . . say . . . William McGonagall? Absolutely. Even if, in a hypothetical world, a McGonagall's work sells well and has a market, and an Eliot's doesn't.
There are objective criteria. Clearly (I'm willing to state this categorically) a literary professor familiar with the Western Canon is going to be a better judge of a work of fiction than the reader who only reads the Harlequins at the corner grocer, and it could be argued (and often is) that there is a certain elitism in that, since we are, after all, talking about art . . . but I submit that if two published authors, one a physicist and the other a soldier, both write nonfiction work about wave-particle duality, you're going to have to go with the one over the other as regards scientific accuracy, whether you understand the topic or not, and regardless of whose work is considered a saleable book.
No they are not objective. Your example is flawed. With non-fiction, reality is the judge, not humans. If I wrote a book about ballistics, the test would be if a cannon ball, fired under the specified conditions, hit the target. If it does, the book is a good description of ballistics. If not, the book should be discarded. If I write a book about the behavior of bees, the test would be to see if bees really do behave like this. The only gatekeeper is reality, humans can merely observe whether this book corresponds to reality. With fiction, it is utterly different. We have people who can claim to be gatekeepers, but it means nothing. There are some books which we would generally say are better that other books, but it is subjective. Literature does not stand apart from other written works. Just look at how many works were not appreciated in their day. Were the so-called gatekeepers wrong, and if so, then why should we trust them if they cannot be counted upon to be able to recognize good literature?--RLent (talk) 18:05, 21 November 2011 (UTC)
There is these days, I think, a place we won't go in terms of art. We don't want to think it's inaccessible, so we can't allow the existence of gatekeepers. On the other hand, there certainly are such things as good and bad art, regardless of what the sales figures are. A work of literature is simply a work of enduring importance to humanity. It's nothing less than that, and for that reason, it can be genre fiction, and it can even be poorly written. All it needs to be is indelibly etched into the cultural consciousness of the species. Which should be easy, right?
History decides that, more than anything else. . . Is that elitist, that most of what is written throughout history doesn't make it into the canon? Maybe. There's definitely a cultural bias, but then, every culture has its canon, and that can't be avoided. The fact is, it's extremely difficult to deliberately write literature, but it's comparatively easy to write bad books that sell; though in actual fact, neither is a cakewalk. Elitism or not, that's something you can't avoid, IMO.
Perhaps read: Western Canon and get a sense from there what the difference is. You can't really put a lot of modern commercial authors beside Homer, for example.
That page has this link on it, which I think tries to get to the heart of it. [1] Sigma-6 10:53, 18 March 2007 (UTC)
You know, Sigma-6... I'm sure you can find a better piece to support some of your assertions than the second link you gave, which begins with the following:
The lowest common denominator question in relation to the Great Books debate, asked with a whining impatience by a mostly nonexistent public (which is to say the terminally "not interested" public, the severe and profoundly distracted public), is, "Are the Great Books great or not?" But this, of course, is a television question. This is what Kathy would have asked Regis or Oprah asks her adoring audience, wide-eyed with sincerity. This is, in short, the sort of thing that inquiring minds want to know. Nonetheless, I for one am happy to answer that, yes, the great works were and are great, whatever that means, and it means very little, a good old-fashioned tautology is what it is, just the sort of tautology that made this country great.
But, as we should know, there is another question that needs to be asked, a question that takes us beyond tautology. The question is: of what does the greatness of the great works consist? Hearing this question, you can feel North America's inquiring minds go, "Uh-oh," in anticipation that this is the sort of question that opens the door to just the people they don't want to hear from, who also happen to be just the people whose professional responsibility it is to answer the question: professors. For this is not only an aesthetic question, it is an epistemological question. How do we know what we think we know about the beautiful and the great? Uh-oh, indeed.
I am not a fan of the usually-vapid Oprah-style shows in any way, and also consider myself to be an intelligent person, who, having generally (according to the standardized pedagogical analysis tests they constantly subjected us to back in K-12) outpaced her peers in reading skills by at least two years... and I find that piece to be obnoxiously condescending; unnecessarily condescending, at that. And it also ignores the oft-neglected fact that we make people study these works not because they're full of very pretty sets of words, but in fact because they're culturally significant (The Scarlet Letter is an excellent example; by modern standards it has far too much exposition and the prose is too florid, but the writing style isn't the reason we appreciate it today; instead, it is the cultural influence and examination of human nature that is most important). Not because we need to ask "how do we know what we think we know about the beautiful and the great", in other words, but because it's a historically important novel, it examines human nature, and aspects of it are still frequently referenced today. The "aesthetic" is secondary. I wish I could say that it seemed to me like most teachers forced to convince kids to read Great Books knew better, and knew to respond to the "but it's so painful to read, it's all melodramatic and flowery - why are we even reading this junk?" complaints with "because it's referenced all over the place today and has an interesting examination of human psychology once you get past all the purple prose", instead of "because you're going to be tested on it next week and the school board says you have to learn it and it's a Great Book". Sadly, I've yet to run across a teacher who actually thought to take that tack, and had to discover the "because other people reference it/it has some interesting stuff behind the purple" motivations for myself. I feel sorry for all my schoolmates who were subjected to Great Books without realizing why they were supposed to learn them. But anyway, that's why I say the quoted portion is far too condescending; because it sort of assumes (or implies) that anyone that doesn't immediately like Great Books is basically a member of the Stupid Unwashed Masses Incapable of Appreciating Art and must be dealt as such... as opposed to simply coming from a culture that has a distaste and impatience for that style of writing and a desire to receive and process information at a faster clip (also, the use of "this is a television question" is not only childish-sounding, but insulting to any modern, intelligent media consumer who has bothered to read Everything Bad Is Good for You; not all television is as vapid or useless as Oprah, yet he clearly likes to think it's universally anti-intellectual crap, as opposed to simply a different medium for information and art of certainly no less varying quality than prose writing in general). I'm not saying he doesn't have something perfectly legitimate to say, but he really is extremely condescending in the way he presents his argument, and it takes a third paragraph for him to admit that yes, actually asking "what makes Great Books great" is perfectly legitimate, after two paragraphs of seemingly lambasting people for doing just that. A particularly ostentatious and useless peacock ruffling its feathers in an attempt to prove it is better than all the other birds.
However, lest you think I'm doing nothing but complain about your post (because I'm really not trying to complain about you so much as only one of your choice of links, for presentational and not content reasons)... the link to Western Canon, despite the brevity of the article, was an excellent choice, and I'm glad you pointed it out. This article could learn a thing or two about focus, context, and NPOV from the Western Canon article! Runa27 19:25, 12 November 2007 (UTC)
Runa27, I dub thee an "anti-literary elitist". Hah. (talk) 09:15, 13 January 2008 (UTC)
Going back and reading it now (having just filled my head with John Cage), I completely agree with you. That quoted portion seems to me precisely as you describe it. I might have been better off going with Marshall McLuhan, now that I think about it--though the piece I'd quote really just steps a little more lightly in the same places . . . and the gendered language is . . . well, gendered:
"The percussed victims of the new technology have invariably muttered cliches about the impracticality of artists and their fanciful preferences. But in the past century it has come to be generally acknowledged that, in the words of Wyndham Lewis, 'The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.' Knowledge of this simple fact is now needed for human survival. The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. Equally age old is the inability of the percussed victims, who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist. To reward and make celebrities of artists can, also, be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing its timely use for survival. The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness."
Better? Worse? Off-point? I think that's a pretty good description (as distant and 'over the shoulder' as it might be) of what so-called 'great work' (in any field) consists of. These days I'm wondering more and more if it's worth the effort to even try and identify it, because it really ought to be self-evident. Your point about education is well taken too. To distance myself from that link (which I do think was a poor choice. . . apologies) I don't (personally) love great books because they allow me to allude and quote and reference and generally throw things over people's heads, but rather for the same reason I wanted to study the history of architecture (surface-scratching as my study might be). . . When I walk into a Cathedral, or another great building, I want to become intimate with that intense feeling of being overwhelmed by a human accomplishment. It's just not the same with Grisham and Cussler and the Oprah book club. War and Peace may be a long read, but it's effing dense, and it's exquisitely crafted and heartwrenchingly beautiful; it's made by someone who cared so much about what they were crafting that they threw their heart, soul, and fourteen years of their life to get it *just so*. Cussler, on the other hand, is a half-baked commercial hack who doesn't even *pretend* to understand his own times, and doesn't seem to demonstrate any interest in doing so. If I'm an elitist for valuing one more than the other, then I'm an elitist. Personally, what *I'm* impatient with (as a member of that generation that wants to process information at a faster clip and is impatient with that purple style of writing) is anything that's boringly typical--anything that openly and unapologetically displays its creator's lack of interest in exceeding him/herself. I admit that that's a personal interest though, and that I'm editorializing (sorry), and that I do deliberately read a lot of bad stuff because of the social value. Sigma-6 (talk) 03:34, 17 April 2008 (UTC)
Sigma-6, you do realize, don't you? that the descriptions of "great art" you give in your last (long) paragraph are highly subjective? SpectrumDT (talk) 18:59, 1 July 2009 (UTC)
Yes, of course I do. Needless to say. Isn't it better to get your biases in the open than to try and conceal them in a cloud of high-flown, pretended objectivity? When it comes to trying to figure out how to write an article like this one, that's pretty close to being The Problem, isn't it? Sigma-6 (talk) 04:20, 18 July 2011 (UTC)


Statements like "does not fit my personal definition", "I think it lacks the cohesion" and "I would be hard pressed" are blatantly POV unless they are quotes from someone that haven't been designated as such and properly attributed and sourced.-- (talk) 16:33, 5 May 2008 (UTC)

Yeah, I was about to say the same thing. This article is ridiculously bad. (talk) 17:58, 5 May 2008 (UTC).


Surely the idea of the term as a genre definition only applies to its modern sense and a particular cluster of modern texts and their production and reception. I don't think, therefore, that it needs to cohesively describe Beckett, High Victorianism, etc, as well. The Victorians had their own version and idea of 'literary fiction.' We've simply given ours a blunt designation. I think that sentence should be removed or substantially altered to be less ahistorical. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 08:15, 2 September 2008 (UTC)

Prose fiction redirect[edit]

Wouldn't the more appropriate target for Prose fiction be the present article? __meco (talk) 15:30, 9 June 2010 (UTC)

Rewrite crucial[edit]

As an article covering such an important subject, this is desperately in need of being rewritten by editors more knowledgeable on the subject. Is there some way we can call more immediate attention to this? .Absolution. (talk) 10:06, 17 July 2010 (UTC)

Three years later there is some activity at Wikipedia talk:WikiProject Literature, a group that calls this "High-importance" according to its project banner above. That page is also linked to the banner (select "discussion"), as for every wikiproject.
I wonder what share of all "High" importance articles are also "Stub" class?
--P64 (talk) 18:27, 25 June 2013 (UTC)