What is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is often linguistically difficult, or unusual, in the way that poetry is. It often contains unfamiliar words or supports political, ideological, religious positions that are not widely accepted.  It subverts sentimentality. It makes people think.

Non-fans of literary fiction tend to complain that it sends them to the dictionary (or tries to).  They claim literary fiction is guilty of affectation, a term which seems to have changed its meaning of late:

Main Entry: af·fec·ta·tion

Pronunciation: ˌa-ˌfek-ˈtā-shən
Function: noun

1 :displaying extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books : demonstrating profound, recondite, or bookish learning

2 :speech or behavior relating to, or characteristic of poets or poetry

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently — a smart guy, a narrative theorist with interesting ideas  — and we started talking about favorite contemporary literary fiction authors.  I mentioned Martin Amis, and my friend said,”I find his language too affected.”

I think Martin Amis has his faults but basically he is a wonderful writer (see my review on this site), and since he is constantly coming up with insightful observations and clever responses to difficult problems, I believe that he actually thinks in the complex and interesting style that also characterizes his writing, to some extent at least. I don’t believe he’s affected at all. He’s just British and not in his twenties. Undoubtedly, he edits and refines, as any writer worth his ink ought to.  Does paying attention to style and writing poetically mean “affected” language these days?  Unfortunately, it does.

I went over to amazon.com to grab some reviews of works of literary fiction to prove my point.

Here’s a review, entitled “Verbose,” of Martin Amis’ The House of Meetings

“Why use few syllables when you can use many? Why use common words when you can use rare ones? Why write simply when you can write in a convoluted style? The main character is plastic. It’s as if Amis created him for the sole purpose of having a vessel from which to pour his pretentions [sic] and 10 cent words.”

Personally, I don’t mind learning a new word while reading. When else would I? How else might I expand my vocabulary? I fail to see the point of criticizing a writer for using a word not all readers know. BTW, House of Meetings, did not send me to the dictionary once. One of his other novels, Yellow Dog, arguably a less “intellectual” novel, sent me three times. No big deal.

Here’s another on Amis:

“Amis is a fine writer, and I think he lets his skill get in the way of his book. If he had been more concerned with writing a good book than writing well, it might have been better.”

Should we mind, then, if a writer’s lack of skill gets in the way of writing a book? For years in visual arts, lack of skill has been openly praised over skill without irony. Negative attitudes about literary language are  not confined to those unskilled readers who prefer thrillers and don’t want to learn a thing while they are being entertained. It’s becoming more common among professional writers too. This is alarming, to me, and I feel the need to draw the wagons in a circle as it were, lest literary fiction pass into the general fiction category.

Here’s a review of John Banville’s The Sea (which I also review on this site) in which the reviewer, who claims to be a writing teacher, complains that the story doesn’t have a strong plot, which happens to be  a common, if not defining, characteristic of literary fiction. He also doesn’t appreciate the use of unusual words:

“This is a typical sub-200 page book where the author clearly cares more about sentence structure, obscure metaphors, word-of-the-day vocab, and page after page of descriptions of hair and clothes and the sea and the trees and the weather, than about a good story (or any story at all). To top it off most of the characters (who receive considerably less attention than a barrel of water, the inside of a house, the benches and the beach) die. Not only boring but depressing, ‘just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.'”

The review doesn’t give evidence of obscure metaphors or word-of-the-day vocabulary, so we have to take it on faith that the problems lie with the writer and not with the reader.  The one quote the reviewer does provide works against the unfavorable review.

or this review also on Banville’s same novel:

“I was eager to read this book since it won the Man Booker Prize, but I was disappointed. The prose is elegant, but there is not much of a plot. This book did not hold my interest and I would advise others to be aware of the flaws of this book. The language was a bit too flowery for my taste. It seemed like every sentence was carefully written and rewritten to contain a simile, a metaphor, or some fancy word when a simpler one would have sufficed.”

The problem, as I see it, with these complaints that The Sea doesn’t have a strong plot is that the reviewers fail to recognize what the book is about: a meditation on death. Their impatience to read some exciting twist makes me wonder why they’re not shopping in the airport section of amazon.com.

Clearly, literary fiction books deserve to be judged by peers, not those who do not support even the most basic values of most literary fiction writers. That’s why I, with the help of the Dactyl Foundation, have launch the Dactyl Review which is “dedicated solely to literary fiction, created by and for the literary fiction community.”  It is a peer review.

Only writing members of the literary fiction community can contribute. So, if you want to know what literary fiction is, go to Dactyl Review to see what other literary fiction writers are saying.

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