Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

In defense of lit-fic

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Your brain on literary fiction


Over the weekend, in addition to losing that contest that shall never be named again, I stumbled on a column about the nose-in-the-air hoity toity-ness of literary fiction vs (I guess) the rest of English letters. One theme statement implied, or said outright, actually, that literary fiction is only considered good because certain arbiters of taste say it is. The implication, when I read between the lines, is that it really is not very good.

Now and then we get these philippics against literary novels. They seem to derive from a sense of guilt or inferiority, explaining why the speaker doesn’t write or read literary fiction. All of the elements of literary writing are present in Druid Erotica or Space Pirate Whodunits, so why do we need to read Saul Bellow or Susan Sontag? They make your brain hurt.

The writer of the piece had a problem with the way books are labeled, and frankly so do I. But the business side of things requires it, just as — if you’ve ever seen hot dogs being made — meat packers need a way of moving pink slime from a big tub through different flumes for hot links vs kielbasa and into their respective skins. See, publishers actually tell writers that they don’t know how to sell books that don’t fall into one of the popular categories. They-simply-don’t-know-how. I think that’s partly because they don’t really know how to sell books of any variety (except maybe celebrity memoirs); what they’re actually selling are the categories. Paisley might be the new black, but Steampunk Time Travel is the new Young Adult Vampire. It doesn’t matter what titles are in those bins. Just so those titles support the popularity of the category.

Literary fiction, of course, can be about anything at all. It can be in the point of view of a child or of a horse. It can take place anywhere, any time. It can have a well-marked storyline or it can meander around like fireflies in your front yard on a warm night in July. Writers of literary fiction have more freedom than any other kind of author, with the small inconvenience that if they go too far afield, a publisher will tell them, “I have no clue as to how to sell this book — good as it is.”

That’s because there’s no bin for one-of-a kinds.

I don’t have a beef with anyone who prefers to read only Game of Thrones books, but I’ll tell you what I do have a problem with: the notion that there’s no objective difference between literary novels and genre fiction. I suppose if you stacked up the very best of a particular genre, say, a really good detective novel, against the very best in lit-fic you’d probably see some overlap in technique. But — and here’s where it gets tricky — if you match the average genre book with the average literary novel, the qualitative difference is huge. Come on. Admit it. With the genre piece, you might be happy with the plot but the writing is clumsy or full of cliches and the formulas show like the bones of a skinny dog. With the literary novel, you might not entirely appreciate what the author attempted to do, but the writing is sharp and usually fresh-sounding, the characters are three-dimensional, and the only formula you noticed was the old reliable beginning-middle-end shape, perhaps with a cathartic denouement.

It’s true, I haven’t read enough of a variety of genres, so you can’t go by me. I’ve read a lot of literary fiction, though, and usually it doesn’t fail me like a popular thriller can. (I’m talking to you, Dennis Lehane — who shared my editor at Morrow long ago.) For instance, I just began reading Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love, and he has me eating out of his hand on p. 10. I have no idea where it’s headed, but I trust him not just as a storyteller but as a master of technique to lead me somewhere profound. I never get that from a police procedural, a spy thriller, or high-end chick-lit. Where they lead can be entertaining or surprising but rarely do they open doors to universal truths.

In my view, this is what literary fiction can do even if it doesn’t always succeed.

So by all means, have reading preferences. Build yourself a TBR stack that pleases you. Enjoy it. Knock yourself out. But face a perfectly reasonable fact: the great books that will be remembered in the future (if the novel survives, that is) are going to be literary novels, not Bigfoot Erotica or Sensitive Zombie Romance.

(This prediction doesn’t apply if the zombies do eventually take over…)

By the way, since we’re on the topic, see my guest post at Seamus Gallacher’s blog and join in the discussion there: “Yes, Literature Is Elitist…thank God!”

Oh, PS. Here’s a line from the Baxter book to highlight what I’m talking about: “But at that table I could smell her soul and I wanted it.”

There you go.




15 comments on “In defense of lit-fic

  1. Charles Yallowitz
    May 28, 2014

    Funny thing is that I’ve heard the same stuff from both sides of this ‘battle’. It’s weird because there’s more than enough room in the world for literary fiction and genre fiction. Each one fills a niche and to compare them feels like one HAS TO be superior to the other. The truth is that not everyone will enjoy literary fiction or genre fiction. So the entire debate (at least to me) feels like nothing more than a bunch of elitists who have nothing better to do.

  2. islandeditions
    May 28, 2014

    Hear! Hear! To what Charles said: there’s more than enough room in the world for literary fiction and genre fiction … And to what you say in this post, Kevin!

    I stumbled into writing mystery for my first novel, because my subject just called out for the book to be a mystery. But I still prefer reading (and writing) literary fiction, precisely because it usually has me going back, savouring the language used, quoting from the book, and because it doesn’t follow a formula or predictable characters or an expected storyline.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 28, 2014

      True — there’s ample room for all preferences. I just wish lit-fic were as popular as mysteries/thrillers/romance/zombie/swordplay/faeriedust etc. 😉

      I have to be careful, since my next book is technically chick-lit (or women’s fiction, if you prefer…), though I hope I stretch the usual boundaries with it.

      • islandeditions
        May 28, 2014

        You can lead a horse to water, but …

      • sknicholls
        May 28, 2014

        Careful. There’s a difference between chick-lit and women’s fiction.

      • Kevin Brennan
        May 28, 2014

        See what I mean about labels?!

        Seriously, I’ve read somewhere that “chick-lit” per se is kind of old hat these days. What’s the proper category for fun/touching/tender relationship novels now?

      • sknicholls
        May 28, 2014

        Women’s fiction would work for touching, tender and relationship, but if it is about funny, zany women in heels who are concerned about fashion, and can never seem to make the bus it’s chick-lit. Also…if they have a nutty boyfriend or two.

      • Kevin Brennan
        May 28, 2014

        Sounds like women’s fiction to me! My protagonist is a little zany, but she’s not concerned about fashion and she drives an old Volvo.

  3. francisguenette
    May 28, 2014

    I love this line – Steampunk Time Travel is the new Young Adult Vampire. What are these genres supposed to mean? Seriously. Disagree with this – With the genre piece, you might be happy with the plot but the writing is clumsy or full of cliches and the formulas show like the bones of a skinny dog. Well written line and you got me laughing but I don’t think genre fiction has to be this way – maybe a lot of it is but good writing should be implicit in any published piece, be in genre or literary. Agree with this – Where they lead can be entertaining or surprising but rarely do they open doors to universal truths. We really do need the soul smelling one of a kind books to do that.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 28, 2014

      You nail it when you say, “Good writing SHOULD be implicit in any published piece…” In a perfect world, that would certainly be the case. It’s not a perfect world.

      Obviously, it’s all a matter of taste. Readers of genre novels tend to prefer plot over style, and readers of lit-fic tend to appreciate theme and characterization.

  4. 1WriteWay
    May 28, 2014

    I think I read the same “column.” Labeling is a weird problem in the book world. That’s why I tend to select books by author. I love Louise Penny’s writing and she writes crime fiction so there you go. I love Edith Wharton (just finished The House of Mirth) and she’s dead but there you go. I love Kevin Brennan’s writing which I assume is literary fiction because I can’t slap a label on it and there you go again. But I don’t care. Once I’ve found a writer I love, I go back for more regardless of the category.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 28, 2014

      Great point, Marie — aiming more at the writer than the genre. There are definitely standouts across the board. I was a big Simenon nut for a while, for instance, though I don’t naturally gravitate to detective novels.

      Thanks for that plug, by the way!

  5. John W. Howell
    May 28, 2014

    Good post Kevin. My problem is I read a novel and don’t think about genre. I write a novel and just tell a story. You are right though, the publisher and Amazon and every other retailer, agent, or huckster wants to know where you have categorized your story. I took a guess at thriller. Next time maybe I’ll say “literary like fiction without as much class” and see what happens.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 28, 2014

      LOL. I don’t think I’d attach “literary” to it, John. Seems to be the kiss o’ death. 😉

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