Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Taboo of Using the Term Literary

You’re a literary writer? So that must mean you’re rich, privileged, and a graduate from an ivy-league school. No? Well then you can’t be a literary writer.

10 years ago, I fell into an email discussion with my writers organization about what literary meant. It astounded me that just a couple of weeks ago, the same damn debate surfaced with a similar group. All this technology, education, and savvy, and we still bump around in the dark, clueless to the meaning of a word.

By the end of this article, you’ll side with me to snuff the term altogether. But not before I milk it for the absurdity.

Let’s start in an obvious place, a dictionary. My 20-year-old, hardback Webster along with define it as:

Of, relating to, or dealing with literature.

Thank you for that thorough explanation! Ergo (doesn’t that sound literary?), this prompts the look up of that snobby last word as well from the same sources:

Literature: A body of writings in prose or verse. Imaginative or creative writing especially of recognized artistic value.

Whew! I’m glad that’s cleared up. I mean…we all know what artistic and recognized is right? On the contrary, the adjective ‘artistic’ is so overused, abused, and cheapened it might as well be standing on Colfax with a bottle of gin.

Maybe literary is like love. We all know it, but can’t explain it.

If you fell for that, you’ve been disqualified. Wrong answer. It can be explained and I’ll gladly shoulder the burden. Even though I’ve not traced the Latin root of ‘lit’, it probably means something like light or truth. If you think about the word literal which basically means brazenly truthful, then literary is prose that emulates the real world, something that could truly happen.

I can hear the debates now.

Then why is James Bond not literary, spies are real? Because it’s not realistic to get shot at that many times and escape without even a hair out of place.

Then why is romance not literary, people fall in love every day? Real couples don’t fall in love like they do in romance yarns, ladies. (Yes, I’ve read lots of Harlequins in my pursuit for publication). Romance is fantasy. Men aren’t like that. Look at your adorable hubby who is scratching his privates while watching Duck Dynasty.

Of course literary is difficult to write because everyday life can be monotonous and the author better know how to use conflict well and explore emotions. And this leads to the elitism. Because literary is so difficult, a novice is not welcomed into the club of literary writers who are bankrolling their great grandchildren’s ivy-league educations from royalty checks. Pity.

So let’s use a term from centuries past that’s just as good: Drama. Nevermind that it usually pertains to plays. That’s more snobbery. A story that can really happen that explores the emotional highs and lows is quite simply a drama. No need for another label.



Julie Luek said...

I don't really struggle with this term. Of course, I haven't analyzed it quite to this extent.

I know my preference for reading are books that don't always fit neatly into a genre as categorized by most writing contests held by writer organizations: Action/Thriller, Mystery, Speculative Fiction, Romance, Young Adult. Of course there's the "Mainstream" category that might be the catch-all for everything else...literary. (Can you write an article about this term too?)

I'll stick with the term if I feel compelled to answer the question, "What kind of books do you like to read?" Outside the obvious and perhaps sarcastic retort, good ones that hold my interest this term probably most accurately answers the intention of the question.

Sisters of the Quill said...

What I feel about literary novels I've read is that the writing is relatively more important than that story line and the characters. I know that may be controversial but I don't even mean it as an insult. Salmon Rushdie is an example in my book. Tinkers, for example, doesn't have much of a plot nor did I sympathize particularly with the characters. But I wallowed in the writing, the voice, the willingness of Paul Harding to break rules to create lyrical prose. The masters (like Barbara Kingsolver)can do both, very rare. I rarely read reread over and over a paragraph of a book that isn't literary. My goal is to write books that are commercial, are recognizable as a genre or a hybrid of genres AND are lyrical and worthy of wallowing over and over in the writing itself. A lofty goal, I realize, but shooting for the moon, I might get to the clouds.
--- Karen

Chiseled in Rock said...

Mainstream is a river that runs through the center of town...or a way of wiggling out of using the word literary because its taboo, also supporting my point.

Karen, well executed voice and lyrical prose (which I DO enjoy) is subjective as to whether it's good or not thereby softening the definition of literary again. You're simply talking about good literary. There are horrible literary novels out there because they're ostentatious, verbose, and or lots of telling rather than showing for instance, but they usually lean on the common element which I defined: drama of real life.

Marilynn Byerly said...

The simplest comparison between literary fiction and popular/genre fiction is that literary fiction is about the telling of the story, popular fiction is about the story itself.

In literary fiction, the author is always evident through the flashy style and the use of complex structure. Plot isn’t important. A common technique found in literary fiction is the frame story where someone in the present is looking into the past, or the end of the novel is revealed at the beginning. In other words, time in most stories isn't linear, and the reader doesn't read primarily to know what happens next and how it turns out in the end. This technique emphasizes character over plot.

In genre fiction, the writer should be invisible, and the reader should be part of the story and not really aware of the writer and the way he's putting the story together. Anything that breaks this "dream state" is a failure on the writer's part.

In literary fiction, the opposite is true. The language draws attention to itself, and the reader pauses to think, "My, what an excellent use of metaphor and language! I think I'll reread that again." This is what the literary writer aims for.

In recent years, since the big publishers now demand decent sales from literary writers, authors have been using genre techniques in literary fiction or vice versa in order to widen their audiences. Here are some of these mixed literary/genre that I’ve read.

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING, Ivy Pochoda, Literary contemporary fantasy.

THE VANISHERS, Heidi Julavits. Literary fiction with paranormal elements.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS, Erin Morgenstern.