Literary Fiction I Actually Like

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You guys may have noticed I have a tendency to complain about literary fiction. That’s cos, for me, it’s very hit or miss (with no room for the in-between). I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, if I read a string of bad literary fiction, I wonder why I bother going back to the genre. But then, I simply remember a few of my favourite things and then I don’t feel so bad I recall why I keep picking them up. Today’s post is a long-overdue celebration of some of the finest literary fiction out there.

As I got into it in my last post, it’s a pretty hard genre to define… which makes it hard to choose from the right selection of books! For the sake of this post, I’m not counting classics- because for me this is a marketing category that promotes contemporary writers. And I also didn’t feel like including heavyweights in genre fiction (Madeline Miller, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern etc)- because I don’t feel like beautiful prose is restricted to literary fiction and they weren’t originally marketed in this category.

kite runner

Kite Runner– kicking off the list with one of the best literary fiction books I’ve ever read, the story caterwauling to impossible highs and lows.

a thousand splendid suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns– yes, I’m immediately putting two books by the same author on here- what can I say? Hosseini is just that good. And where I’d say Kite Runner is one of the best literary fiction books out there, it’s safe to say I think this is even better. Detailing the lives of women under Taliban rule, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by the tale.

eleanor oliphant is completely fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine– while I didn’t know this was literary fiction when I picked it up, I can safely say this is a great example of what amazing literary fiction can be. Giving incredible insights into the human condition and portraying an authentically odd soul, this ended up being an even more emotionally rewarding read than I was expecting.

a man called ove

A Man Called Ove– Backman is undoubtedly one of the most skilled writers of this generation. And for me, this poignant tale- which I’d describe as a more adult version of Up– is a beautiful character study exploring what we owe to each other.

perks of being a wallflower

Perks of Being a Wallflower– a moving coming of age story, this is the kind of book that leaves an infinite impact.

the secret history

Secret History– I’m still a little astounded by how remarkable this was. A murder mystery told in reverse, it’s a fascinating portrait of college life.

never let me go

Never Let Me Go– a terrific dystopian novel, centring on the themes of growing up, getting old and ultimately what is to be human. This terrific take on the genre is a long-time favourite for me.

the bell jar

The Bell Jar– this is a weird one for me to put down, because I didn’t give it an especially high rating, as it depressed the hell out of me. That said, I do admire the incisive writing style and it’s stuck with me years after reading it. I feel like this is the kind of book I like more every time I think about it- and you can’t say fairer than that.

the_road.large_

The Road– another gloomy read- and yet I cannot deny how much I admire this book. I read it in one sitting years ago and, like the Bell Jar, it’s stuck with me all this time. I especially like how McCarthy experiments with writing in such a way that doesn’t leave the reader behind- which is a really hard feat to pull off!

homegoing

Homegoing– an utterly unique novel, this story takes an intergenerational approach, telling a different story of one family’s descendants in each chapter. Miraculously this is far from jarring- it flows into a brilliantly narrative, spanning the scope of centuries into one great story.

memoirs of a geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha– not the most popular book nowadays, yet I cannot help but love this story of lost love and constancy.

shadow of the wind

Shadow of the Wind– I did umm and ahh over whether this is historical or literary fiction… and ultimately came down on the literary side, because while the setting plays a huge (and atmospheric) part, this is more about the love of books. And this gives me another opportunity to plug one of my favourite novels 😉

book thief

The Book Thief– another book I wasn’t sure whether to place on this list… and yet it doesn’t fit comfortably into any category. A genius book from the perspective of death, I will never cease to be amazed by it!

So, have you read any of these? What do you think of them? And what literary fiction do you particularly admire? Let me know in the comments!

What even is literary fiction?

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Ahh isn’t this just the perennial question? Every time I have conversations about literary fiction, it seems to me no one can quite decide what it is or what it should be or how to define it. And if you try to get a definitive answer, you’re going to have a hard time pinning it down. Google it and you’ll find tons of opinions. Go on Goodreads and you’ll find a plethora of books described as literary fiction (…some of which probably aren’t, but we’ll get to that).

What got me thinking about this recently was watching a video by Alexa Donne pitting literary fiction against commercial fiction, which was an interesting point… but not one I entirely agree with. Because I’d say the whole point of calling something literary fiction is to place it in a specific marketing category. And if it doesn’t have broad appeal, that’s not for want of trying (the same could be said for any book that doesn’t take off and become a bestseller).

Often called a “modern classic”, the idea is that these are the books that will stand the test of time, these are the books worthy of specific prizes, these are the books you can feel smart discussing around the dinner table… which to me is a marketing tactic. And perhaps this is distasteful to admit- it’s a very powerful one. As much as I (and many others) may chafe at the ploy, it certainly gets people’s attention. Merely labelling a book “highbrow” is enough to give it an aura of prestige- which can help propel it into commercial success.

Muddying the waters even more, literary fiction tends to exclude genre fiction… whilst also including it under different names (yes, it is that muddled). Mysteries and thrillers and historical fiction in this category will often play down those elements in the marketing. Likewise, sci fi and fantasy gets the (much more acceptable in the literary world) label of “speculative fiction”.

*Even more confusing*, there are outside this category, which later find their way under the literary fiction umbrella. If you go to Goodreads, you’ll find a huge range of books with this label (many of which I really don’t agree with). Firstly, there’s a tendency to put classics in there… which is weird, cos those are already classics. Secondly, any book with a modicum of success often ends up there (somehow frothy thrillers like Girl on the Train count?!) And I wouldn’t just blame this on users of the site getting trigger happy with the term. Books that were never pitched as literary fiction can easily be pivoted into the category if they’re deemed beautiful enough (the occasional Gaiman book ends up on the Goodreads list- despite the fact his books are consistently magical realism- and I’ve never seen them marketed in literary fiction). Maybe I’m wrong (and this is not to say anything about the quality of these books) but I’m not convinced any of these are literary fiction:

Apart from showing that you can’t trust everything you see on Goodreads, this suggests some serious genre snobbery. To my mind, genre fiction can be beautifully written, meaningful and potentially a future classic. Shoving a book post-publication into this category just adds to the snob value of this already bloated category. It’s an attempt to say ah now it is worthy. To bolster up the idea that the literati have magical foresight into what will live on (when, truth is, we can make guesses, yet never know for sure).

None of this is to say that I hate literary fiction or think it’s automatically pretentious or that this is the fault of the books themselves. Every category or genre has its downfalls- and unfortunately this snob-value seems to be part of the appeal. And, while I cling to the genre fiction labels, I’ll still (grudgingly) use the term. There’s a certain amount of sense to it- in spite of how tough it may be to figure out what literary fiction even is.

Well, I wonder if you agree with my assessment? What do you define as literary fiction? Let me know in the comments!

For Goodness Sake: Stop Blaming the Consumer!

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So way back in the summer, I saw an article that kind of bugged me. The gist of the piece was that author Howard Jacobson believed that when it came down to literary fiction sales “the problem is the reader”. His argument essentially boiled down to blaming limited attention spans and the consequent need to coerce readers to try more “serious” works.

Aside from the blatant genre snobbery, it will probably come as no surprise that I don’t believe Jacobson is on the right track. Saying that the “novel is in good health” doesn’t make it so. At random I can take a popular genre author like Steven King or Sarah J Maas, have a peek at their ratings on Goodreads and find it’s usually above 3.5 (often above 4 and as high as 4.69 for Maas), whereas a literary author like Jacobson will typically get below 3.5 (some as low as 2.67 at the time of writing). Now ratings aren’t everything, but this doesn’t bode well, especially when you consider the downward trend of sales. One can fairly deduce that people buying the books aren’t satisfied and won’t be repeat readers- which creates an unsustainable business model and suggests a deeper flaw with literary fiction. Remember, these were the people that invested time and money into the book, ergo don’t classify as the so-called lazy readers that won’t touch the stuff (those that might have “lazily” researched the book, its ratings and reviews, and decided they’d rather waste their time with a hefty tome that seems to be doing better).

read-fast

Moreover, the article largely overlooks some vital information. Evidence is that people are reading more, not less (opinions are varied on this, but for instance, this helpful infographic for the US shows how reading was looking like a pretty healthy habit in 2017). We also live in a world where more people are educated than ever before (again, a complex issue, but we’re generally looking at an upward trend in literacy rates). Challenging books, like classics, continue to be explored in the classroom (though of course, this could be promoted further). And, contrary to what genre snobs believe, plenty of books that are not literary fiction involve complex settings, concepts and characters (it seems daft to claim genre superiority in the face of fantasy/sci fi/dystopia, where a great deal of thought has gone into constructing an entire world from scratch). I also disagree with the idea wholeheartedly that a book has to be hard to read (or as Jacobson says “If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down”) in order to be worthwhile. There’s no reason why compulsive reading and concentration cannot go hand in hand. I personally found War and Peace quite the page turner.

Clearly, I think there are other issues at play (aka a flaw with the books themselves), however my problems with the article goes beyond that. Increasingly, I see this trend of “oh you don’t like such-and-such, you must be an *insert insult*” on the rise everywhere. Most notably, it’s taken the big and small screen sectors by storm. Don’t like the new Doctor Who? You must be sexist! Not a fan of the direction Star Wars has taken? BIGOT! While naturally you’re entitled to your own opinions on this and at the risk of starting a FLAME-THROWING-RAGE-FEST in the comments, I am not a fan of what has been done to these franchises- which apparently makes me evil or whatever. Lest we forget:

everyone i don't like is hitler

Now, being the sort of person that will just take my attention and money somewhere else, my opinion shouldn’t really matter all that much. BUT there’s something that has been done with these franchises that pisses me off no end- the fact that a lot of these constant attacks on the consumer are coming from the creators themselves. It’s almost becoming expected for there to be many, many hit pieces on fans from journalists and creators alike. Squabbles among fans are one thing; creators bashing their audience are another. I shouldn’t have to point out why this is a dumb idea- BECAUSE DUH! Why on earth OR in a galaxy far far away would anyone think it’s a good idea to go after the people with the wallets?! This not only makes the creator seem arrogant and out of touch, it seems delusional to me to expect people you’re bashing to part with their money. At the same time, it comes across as an abuse of power- using their position to “punch down” at those they ironically believe they’re punching up at (because yes, an actor/writer/producer/director in Hollywood has more power than your average Joe Schmo on twitter- a fact they simultaneously revel in and contradict with claims about power dynamics… *facepalm*).

star wars facepalm.gif

So to return to the original premise of this post: readers are not the problem, out of touch creators are. It doesn’t really matter if Jacobson believes people are too stupid and lazy to his read his books- it matters that any author would be foolish enough to think patronising their potential audience is the way to go. Not only will this not boost sales, it will alienate them for a lifetime. Literary fiction’s lack of popularity can be explained by an authorship that would hold haughty opinions such as these. If these are the kinds of people writing the books, no wonder people don’t want to read them. This unrelatability and pretentiousness might simply be translating into the work and distance the reader from it.

This of course is speculation- I wouldn’t presume to suggest this is the case with all literary fiction and am not trying to tarnish any other writers here. My point is that this attack on readership will not get anyone anywhere. I hate the spread of hostility towards consumers in general and really don’t want to see it infesting into the bookish world. As a reviewer, I’m used to people taking issue with the concepts of reviews– yet upping the ante to critique all readers that don’t engage with/like your work is far worse. I recently discovered a great piece of advice over on Alex’s blog which tied in nicely- consider following Franzen’s rule instead:

“The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.”

So do you agree or disagree? Are readers the problem? Let me know in the comments!