A version of this piece was first published ob 29 January, 2009 in StarMag
WHEN I mentioned to a friend that I was writing an article about literary fiction, he asked, ‘Actually, what is literary fiction?’ I immediately referred him to David Lubar’s Guide to Literary Fiction.
Lubar is a children’s author and humorist and his piece is a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek elucidation of the term. If you are reading this and saying to yourself, “Yeah, what the heck is literary fiction?”, I urge you to look up Lubar’s article.
He says, “If you’re ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there’s a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.”
The implication is that literary fiction is unfathomable or, as another friend says, ‘Deep, serious s*** that I can understand only by constantly referring to a dictionary.’ However, I’d say that rather than incomprehensible, lit fic broaches difficult to comprehend topics and themes and challenges the reader to consider them. (N.B. 6th January, 2014: Hmm, no longer sure about that!)
Personally, I dislike the term literary as I feel it’s much too broad and doesn’t do justice to the variety of voices involved in telling the stories that fall into the category. Those who say they enjoy books that are literary will agree that they are distinguished by their high quality of writing – writing that is evocative and provocative, original and daring. It is certainly not formulaic. And this means that it’s virtually impossible to predict the kind of story told by an author who is dubbed literary.
It’s also inaccurate to say that literary novels are the opposite of popular or commercial fiction since it’s not uncommon to see literary works on bestseller lists. Genre fiction, much maligned for not being literary, also includes writing of superior quality – Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy immediately springs to mind and, of course, also challenges the popular notion of children’s fiction being of a lesser standard than stories for adults.
I would not say to anyone that literary fiction is not for them. Often it’s simply about finding an opening. Reading is very much a matter of taste and it may take a while before one meets an author that one can get on with. While most of my favourite authors would be considered literary, there are as many of that description whose prose I do not enjoy.
The “problem” is often a question of style – an author’s turn of phrase, the way his story is framed and unfolds, and how he describes scenes and characters. It’s rarely a case of unattractive subject matter. Plots are of secondary importance: how matters more than what. This is why I dislike telling people about my favourite books – stripped to their bare bones, the storylines sound commonplace, even embarrassingly trite. Did I say original? I meant in approach and telling, not content, although this doesn’t mean that lit fic doesn’t have its share of extraordinary premises and plots.
I count A. S. Byatt, Kazuo Ishigaru and Iris Murdoch (all Booker winners) among my favourite authors, but I’m also a fan of pulp fiction (I really enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, yes, really) and romance novels (I love Denise Robbins) so lit fic certainly isn’t only for those who turn their noses up at bodice rippers and lurid thrillers.
As I have repeated ad nauseam (to my long-suffering friends and family), one can’t exist solely on a diet of fine wines and choice cuts. Well, yes, one can, but what would be the fun in that? Surely, it’s preferable to add some nasi lemak and air bandung into the mix. Good food nourishes, but junk food tastes good too. Variety and all that, you know.
The same goes for reading. I think one’s tastes can never be too catholic. My reading choices depend on my mood and what I need in terms of mental stimulation or relaxation. I read E. Nesbit for comfort, Jilly Cooper for a giggle, Elizabeth Bowen for inspiration. And, in my opinion, if there is one thing that all works of literary fiction have in common it is the ability to inspire thought, emotion, creativity, transformation.
It’s pretty amazing how the unique ways an author sees the world and the singular methods he uses to express his observations can change the way we see and react to the world and the people around us. It seems too delicious a prospect to pass up just because you quarrelled with Hamlet in your teens.