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On Labels Pertaining to Books and Bloggers

November 17, 2010

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This past week, I’ve been musing more than usual on words like ‘literary’ and ‘classic’ and their various connotations. Before I began book blogging, I can’t say I’d really encountered the phrase ‘literary fiction’ before. I studied international relations and modern languages in college, without taking even one literature course, so I was never privy to English Department discussions. I read whatever I liked, and my fiction choices especially were made to please no one but myself; I never felt any pressure to read or not read books based on their ‘literary’ quality. I also hadn’t really noticed that some people looked down on ‘genre’ writing; my mom was a big fantasy and mystery fan, she passed that on to me, and my friends were similarly inclined. So I happily read a mix of fantasy, classics, mysteries, and contemporary stuff.

And then in the book blogosphere I noticed that people were talking about ‘literary fiction.’ At first, this seemed like a redundancy: after all, aren’t all books literary? As far as I could tell, ‘literary fiction’ was often used as another way to say ‘good quality stuff.’ But I also frequently saw it referred to almost as genre, in juxtaposition to those Other Genres, like mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc. This latter use vexed me quite a bit, because it seemed to imply that ‘genre writing’ was automatically not as good as ‘non-genre’ writing. To me, genres are categories, just another way we human beings indulge in our perennial desire to label everything. So there is incredible fantasy writing and formulaic fantasy writing, just as there is in ‘general’ fiction. Sometimes, I see readers take the best of the ‘genre’ authors and argue that they’re actually not genre but literary, because they’re so good. This just seems silly to me! Because if ‘literary’ as an adjective simply denotes ‘good writing,’ why is it limited by genre? Or by the age group the publisher decides to market to? The assumption that a book with YA slapped on it is automatically simpler or less well written than a book found in the ‘adult’ section strikes me as particularly perverse, since some books (e.g. The Book Thief) are marketed towards different age groups in different countries. Or by format? I’ve read graphic books that are as sophisticated and moving and thought-provoking as their non-graphic counterparts. Anyway, my point is that I’ve never had a really clear understanding of the word literary or its usefulness in discussing books. But then, as I was catching up with my Google Reader, I found various bloggers trying to define what ‘literary’ means as part of the brand-new Literary Blog Hop. Some of the definitions made more sense to me than others, but I still wasn’t convinced. Until I came across this passage in The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller:

If literary writing has any distinguishing characteristic, it’s that the more you look at it the more you see, and the more you see the more you want to go on looking. It invites a plurality of interpretation. “A genuine work of art must mean many things,” wrote George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whom Lewis regarded as his master. “The truer the art, the more things it will mean.”

I love this! It says nothing about genres or age groups and contains not a whiff of snobbery. Instead, it celebrates rich books, the kind I think of as ‘rereadable’ or the kind that, even if I didn’t really like them, at the end of the day I’m still happy to have read. I’ve come across this richness in a wide variety of places; it makes my soul sing or my brain kick into gear or prompts me to seek out other readers so I can talk about the book with them. I won’t say that all of my issues with the phrase ‘literary fiction’ have magically been resolved; I think different people use the phrase to mean different things, and some of those meanings I disagree strongly with. But Miller put into words a distinction I have certainly come across in my own reading, and one that I can see is important when readers/book bloggers are looking to connect with those of similar taste.

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A couple of days ago, I discovered Amanda’s Classics Blogger Directory. I know: I’m really late to the game on this one! I scrolled through, reading what all the different bloggers had to say about their likes and dislikes, and which titles they’d listed as their favourites, in delight at finding others who enjoy old books. But I wasn’t sure whether or not to submit myself. I certainly enjoy classics, but have I been reading them regularly enough to be a ‘classics blogger’? So I decided I’d look over my list of books read this year, figure out what the percentage of classics was, and decide based on that. Of course, then I had to figure out what constitutes a ‘classic’! After mulling that over for far too long without any results to show for it (there are times when I regret my willful avoidance of literature courses in college), I decided on the completely arbitrary criterion of age: if a book was published before 1945, I counted it. Discovering that I’d read 50ish classics throughout the year, which I estimate is about a third of my fiction total, I decided to go ahead and sign up, hoping that people visiting my blog wouldn’t wonder at my misrepresentation (Amanda did approve me, which was rather a relief Amanda has corrected my misperception: there’s no approval process to join the Classics Directory: you just submit the form and you’ll be added).

I seem to have a natural affinity for both classics and ‘literary’ stuff; many of my very favourite fiction authors would probably fall into one of these camps. But at the same time, I consider myself quite a democratic reader: I judge books solely by my internal criteria (which is why I embrace subjective reviews…a post for another day!), and I only gush about books that I honestly love. Sometimes, though, I’m afraid that this will make me come off as snobbish sounding. For example, back in January I read White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi and just adored it. Throughout the year, I’ve noticed various bloggers reading it, and often times their reactions are the polar opposite of mine. Which is fine: different strokes and all that. But, for example, this post, makes me feel a bit shy. Am I pretentious for loving it so much? I was also quite nervous about choosing A.S. Byatt as the first author in the Assembling My Atheneum series. She is one of my very, very favourite authors, but would people think I had chosen her to ‘look good’? Of course, my worries ended up being for naught, but they were still there.

At the end of the day, I consider a ‘book snob’ as someone who looks down upon people who enjoy different types of books than the snob. By that definition, I don’t qualify: I believe that our literary tastes are not an indication of our worth as people. But it makes sense that a book blogger, looking for recommendations for her own reading, is going to gravitate towards bloggers with similar taste; I definitely do so. The book blogosphere has become so large, that my way of keeping my Google Reader slim is to only subscribe to those bloggers who seem to enjoy the same ‘style’ of books as me. And it seems as if the larger it grows, the more book bloggers have created different ‘niches’ to make it even easier to find one another (the Classics Directory and Literary Blog Hop being only the two I discussed today: I’m sure there are lots more examples out there!). That ease is wonderful, but at the same time it makes me wonder how y’all decide what ‘type’ of blogs you are, and if there’s anything but self-selection that goes into the creation of these niches.

Now that I’ve rambled on, I’d like to open up the floor for discussion! Does ‘literary fiction’ have a definite meaning and/or value in your mind? Did you like Laura Miller’s definition? Just what is a classic anyway? Are some books worth more than others? And what do you think about niches within book blogging? Do you consider yourself a niche blogger?

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118 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2010 6:25 am

    The term “literary fiction” drives me into a rage for much the same reasons I don’t use “classics” as a classification on my blog; it doesn’t tell me anything about the book, but rather about the culture that values it. (It’s also redundant and occasionally bodes an author playing around with grammar for stylistic purposes, with which I am not down.) I do like Miller’s definition since it’s inclusive, but I’ll have to read The Magician’s Book to come to a conclusion about it.

    I think you’re actually quite lucky, in a way, to have never taken an English class in college (says the English major); you haven’t absorbed that prejudice against “genre fiction” (again, absolutely idiotic phrase) that some academics have developed. The idea that some books are worth analysis more than others bugs me–yes, some works will be richer and yield up more multiple interpretations, but I personally apply my literary criticism to anything I like. Keeping an open mind about what is “worth” analysis is quite rewarding; I just finished watching The Little Mermaid focusing on Ariel as transhuman, and I was pleased–although there’s plenty problems with her agency being removed.

    I think niches in blogging are great; some genres are so big (such as historical fiction!) that it’s great to be able to narrow your focus and follow the trends in a particular genre. I read anything that promises a good story, so I’m not a niche blogger at all. (Those promises do not always come through, obviously.)

    • November 18, 2010 6:33 am

      I use classic to be ‘older book,’ lol. If it was published before 1950-ish, I’m going to talk about it as a classic. ;)

      You know, I’ve always been such a huge book worm a lot of my friends and family were surprised I never took a lit class. But for me it was deliberate: I didn’t want to ‘study’ something that brings such joy to my life (since I had no interest in any career in academia/publishing anyway).

      I think I interpreted Laura Miller’s quote to be in line with your idea of applying literary criticism where you want to. :) And I can’t wait to see what you make of The Magician’s Book when you read it!

    • November 25, 2010 7:21 pm

      Long live genre fiction, also says another English major. :)

  2. November 17, 2010 7:13 am

    I don’t mind the term literary fiction – all terminology has to be a bit fuzzy about the edges in artistic matters, because creativity never really fits neat categories. But that only matters if you really need the term ‘literary fiction’ to define something for you, to be an absolute and to pass judgment or assign value. If it’s something you might try on, like a rather special sort of decorated hat, to see whether it fits the whole ensemble, then it stops being so laden with awkward connotations. To my mind, it’s the connotations that terms pick up that do the damage. So, for me, there are categories to help publishers and booksellers (like genre or literary or classic) and then there’s value, which is something completely different and ultimately a matter of personal taste. And book snobs, in my private understanding, are people who conflate the two and then judge OTHERS on their reading habits accordingly.

    Btw, I like the description given by Laura Miller very much, and think the emphasis on something ‘literary’ being meaningful in a way that asks you to pause and think twice in reading is a really good one.

    • November 18, 2010 1:31 am

      I am sorry for commenting on a comment, Eva, but I couldn’t resist it :)

      Litlove – I love your comment! I liked very much your comments – “all terminology has to be a bit fuzzy about the edges in artistic matters” and “If it’s something you might try on, like a rather special sort of decorated hat, to see whether it fits the whole ensemble, then it stops being so laden with awkward connotations.” – Beautifully put!

      • November 18, 2010 6:35 am

        Vishy: no worries! :) I wanted this post to start a conversation, so comments on other comments is great!

    • November 18, 2010 6:35 am

      So glad to see your thoughts here Litlove! :) I agree with everyone that you’ve said, and you’ve said it much more eloquently than I could have.

  3. November 17, 2010 7:19 am

    “Literary fiction” for me is just another way to say high-brow books and sound less snobbish. I see it more often used to make a separation between the Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks of this world, than as something that excludes genres. Although YA always seems to fall victim of such distinctions.

    I guess everyone would know instinctively what books fit the category and not, although of course people has their own personal standards. In my case, they’re the books I can’t read in my daily 15m metro ride with a train switch in the middle. They need a certain level of concentration and engagement. The reader needs to go deeper and take meaning from experience, make associations. They’re the books that get people to discuss them for decades (centuries even) because they allow as many interpretations as there are personalities. So yes, I completely agree with what L. Miller said.

    • November 18, 2010 6:36 am

      That’s interesting that you think literary fiction is less snobbish than high-brow! In my head, they both have about the same connotations. :)

  4. November 17, 2010 7:22 am

    Hey Eva, This post sort of makes it sound like I moderate and “approve” people who sign up at the Classics Blogger Directory and I don’t. If they enter their information, unless it’s spam (which hasn’t happened), I just enter exactly what the person put in. Everyone’s criteria of classic and classics blogger is different, and I let people sign up based on their own criteria. One person, for instance, put The Handmaid’s Tale down as one of their favorite classics, and I certainly wouldn’t count that as a classic for myself – it’s too young. But that’s what they felt, so I put it down for them. The Directory is more about putting forward what we believe ourselves to be, and what we believe classics to be. It’s completely subjective to the individual. About a quarter of my books this year have been classics, but I’ve read more than one per week – classics simply take me longer to read than modern stuff. That’s why I didn’t require a specific percentage or anything or clarify an age line for what’s considered “classic.”

    Anyway, I just wanted to comment because it really isn’t about me approving people. I’m not doing that. If people say they’re classics bloggers and they fill out the form, I enter the information in the post. It’s as simple as that. I’m not hanging judgement over anyone’s heads.

    • November 17, 2010 8:08 am

      Eek! I’m sorry Amanda. I thought that you did approve submissions first: I’ve changed the post to fix that. Sorry again! :)

      • November 17, 2010 10:22 am

        Thanks Eva! I was a little worried about the misperception. :)

  5. November 17, 2010 7:24 am

    In regards to your question on niches in blogging – I think it certainly helps to have “something” that differentiates you from all the other bloggers out there in the blogosphere.

    For me, I started with the simple task of “searching for the next best book” –

    As I searched and read and reviewed, I found myself pulled heavily towards the underdogs, the unknowns, the independent authors and publishers – the books most people overlook or never even hear about.

    This is the thing that differeniates me from everyone else. It’s not seclusive ( I do read mainstream books as well ) but it’s a larger percentage of what I’m reading and supporting.

    Literary fiction, to me, is a book that makes me think. It gets under my skin and nestles in there, it’s thick and chewey, and it’s mutli-layered. Every genre, every age group, can be considered literary fiction.

    Thanks for your blog post. There was lots to think about in there!

  6. November 17, 2010 7:32 am

    I really struggle with genre definitions of all kinds. I like everything, which I think is half the problem because I have so many places to put books. Some of my favorite books do indeed fit into genres of one sort or another, and the problem with classifying them is that I then don’t know what do with the books that don’t fit. I could classify everything or I could classify nothing. Usually I put books that have a modern setting and which are well-written and “deep” in the literary fiction section – otherwise I’m not sure where else to put them. General fiction?

    I completely agree that all genres are worth reading and analysing. Just because a book has dragons in it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth thinking about in more detail. I was an English major and I seem to have done a really good job of avoiding any sort of bias in this respect, at least I think so. I don’t choose to read something based on what genre it is, I choose to read things based on how I think I’ll like them, and I suppose that’s the most important thing, even if it means I don’t know how to classify them in my records when I’ve finished.

    • November 17, 2010 10:18 am

      I have the same constant struggle with the classification of literary fiction, most people know what sort of book you mean by it but everyone’s definition varies slightly. General fiction and literary fiction are a bit different to my thinking. But I also don’t really like the term and what it implies. gah.

      • November 18, 2010 6:39 am

        It’s that subjective amorphous meaning that bothers me! It makes it feel like ‘literary fiction’ doesn’t have much value to a conversation about books when no one can define it. lol

    • November 18, 2010 6:38 am

      I like to ‘classify’ books that I post about into categories too; I use ‘contemporary fiction’ for modern novels that don’t fall into any other genre. lol

      • November 19, 2010 2:25 am

        Oh but there are lots of terms we use that have value but are fuzzy in definition. What about the ‘flu? That can cover any illness from a nasty cold to a three-week stint in bed. And I don’t know about you, but I’m surrounded by people who say, You haven’t got the ‘flu! That’s just a sniffle. Now when I had the ‘flu I couldn’t move for ten days, etc etc… Labelling the illness is pretty subjective but it doesn’t mean the label isn’t valuable in its way. I think the problem is definition itself – it’s really hard to find perfect definitions.

      • November 19, 2010 12:29 pm

        That’s fair enough Litlove! I guess within book blogging itself, when someone says that they are a fan of literary fiction, I’m never quite sure which fiction they’re talking about….whether they mean they don’t read any genre stuff, or whether they mean they prefer authors who play with language, or whether they enjoy books written in the kind of MFA model that’s become quite prevalent on the American scene. And that’s why I question its value, at least as a ‘label’ in the way that genre labels are. Of course, genres themselves are so big that someone else could be a mystery lover as well and read entirely different authors, but at least I have a general sense of what those books mean!

  7. November 17, 2010 8:08 am

    I dont get “literary fiction.”. Themes can be found in every book if you look hard enough.

    • November 18, 2010 6:42 am

      I agree re: themes; a reader can come at any book from all kinds of perspectives and deconstruct it. But I do find that some books make me mull over them, or reread passages, or inspire me to look into a topic further while others don’t do that.

  8. November 17, 2010 8:36 am

    I, too, had been befuddled by the term “literary fiction” and I’ve always felt somewhat looked down on when I happen to be reading something other than literary fiction. I am such an eclectic reader and I can’t help what I’ll enjoy whether it be adult or YA, fantasy, historical fiction, ‘literary fiction’ or complete fluffy goodness.

    I always feel like sometimes I feel trapped and left out as a blogger. Pubs that publish a lot of YA seem to ignore me bc I’m just not a YA blog. Pubs that publish adult fiction seem more receptive to me though. I feel stuck in the middle sometimes but I think there are alot of people who read eclectically like that. It’s exactly how my musical taste is. I get bored with one genre or type after a while. I need variety! Anyways, great post!

    • November 18, 2010 6:45 am

      That’s interesting! I don’t really cultivate relationships with publishers (my library has more than enough to keep my busy), so I hadn’t thought of that aspect of generalised v. specialised book blogging. :)

      I don’t limit myself to certain genres either, so I understand the desire for variety!

  9. November 17, 2010 8:46 am

    I will keep it short: Long but great and thought-provoking post!

    • November 18, 2010 6:46 am

      Thanks Willa! I almost always write long posts…I know it’s a no-no with blogging, but I find when I keep myself to shorter posts I get misinterpreted. ;)

  10. November 17, 2010 8:49 am

    Thank you for this post. I have to agree with you—as a blogger who reviews mostly YA and MG books, I have often felt on the receiving end of disgust from a few other bloggers (though most of them are just wonderful). I’ve had to unfollow a couple because of their nastiness against YA. It truly bothers and hurts me, and I don’t really understand why it’s necessary. Sure, you might not like it, but don’t make generalizations about all YA books (and, funnily enough, I’ve only seen people attack YA and not MG—do they think once kids “graduate” to older books they lose a bit of leeway?). There are so much “literary” YA that doesn’t fit into their box of what they think YA is.

    But anyway. Again, thanks for this post. It’s appreciated!

    • November 18, 2010 6:59 am

      I’m sorry you’ve had those experiences: they’d hurt anyone! :( But I’m glad that you just unfollow them and focus on all of the wonderful bloggers instead. *hugs*

  11. November 17, 2010 9:23 am

    I’m afraid I’m going to horribly misquote Amanda’s thoughts from somewhere now, but I remember her saying something like some books address issues deeply, the ideas are the point of the book and the exploration of these ideas reoccur throughout the book and some books want to bring up ideas because they are pertinent to the story they tell, so mention them but the main point of the book is not the detailed examination of these ideas. I like that description of the difference between what we call literary and not literary work. It avoids making literary work sound dumb, just reminds us that some books have different main purposes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also look at important ideas.

    I like the one you quote above too, but I wonder if there are some books that get the lit fic label but finally fluff the plurality of their interpretation, as an author wants to make it clear what he/she actually meant? I can think of a few lit-fic books that close down (or try to anyway, readers are persistent in looking for new ways to see a book) the possible interpetations of the text in the final paragraphs, but maybe they allow for plurality of interpretation in other ways. I think it takes a very brave author to allow a reader many different ways of reading the text, but I guess the reward is readers responding to that bravery by taking these kind of books seriously and engaging in reasoned debate.

    Oh and I’ve so been a book snob in my time (I did not really believe romance had value until a few years ago and was terrible to my romance loving friend about her book choices). I hope I’m much better now though!

    • November 17, 2010 4:41 pm

      Hi Jodie, I was reading your comment and thinking about Austen. I think she’s pretty clear about the ideas she wants to convey, and in many ways she fits that category of bringing up “ideas because they are pertinent to the story they tell”, and yet, she would be considered lit-fic in any list.

      • November 19, 2010 3:36 am

        See for me a lot of the point of Austen’s books is the ideas. Would her books exist as they do if Austen hadn’t wanted to explore the making of a good marriage, which was of central importance in her time? But it is a way of classifying lit fic that allows for lots of discussion about which ideas are being examined and which are being mentioned.

    • November 18, 2010 7:01 am

      I guess to me, a book’s openness to multiple interpretations isn’t always something the author does intentionally! But I agree: it takes a strong writer to deliberately leave ambiguity in their novels…and I love it when I find one. :)

      • November 19, 2010 12:19 pm

        Jodie, very interesting indeed, because I always felt that she didn’t set up to write about any idea in particular, not as her main focus at least. She had a good story to tell and she wrote about what she knew: marriages, sisterhood, etc.

        It’s not to say there weren’t any ideas there and that she didn’t explore them, I’m just not sure that it was her ultimate objective to talk about what makes a good marriage (or a bad one) or role of single women in society. What we infer from her books just shows what a great writer she was, that she could build such a realistic set of characters and events.

        The exception might be Mansfield Park, which she wrote very soon after her father’s death and so might have been written to please him.

  12. November 17, 2010 9:51 am

    I think that as tenuous as a term like “literary fiction” may be, I do think it has some value. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that all books are not created equal. I know that we book bloggers tend to be a pretty equanimous community, but it would just be foolish to pretend that The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks was on the same level as Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Any way you choose to analyze these books (depth of themes, level of characterization, quality of writing), they clearly don’t match up. But of course, this has nothing to do with how much one enjoys the book! Not everyone is going to love Tolstoy and not everyone is going to love Sparks… The two authors are, I think, attempting to achieve different things with their writing, and that’s perfectly fine! But I don’t think that we should feel like it’s rude or snobbish to say that a book isn’t literary, because it very well might not be; not every book is written with the goal of being literary. Sometimes plot wins over prose, sometimes someone just has a kickass story to tell. I mean, I wouldn’t consider Agatha Christie to be an example of literary fiction, but I love her anyway!

    All this rambling to say that I do think there is such a thing as literary fiction and I probably read it more often than not. I don’t think it’s snobby to admit this, nor do I think it’s wrong to say that certain things are not literary fiction. I think we just have to remember that we all read for different reasons, and that diversity is the spice of life. There is plenty to be enjoyed in books that aren’t literary fic, just as there are plenty of things to like about books that are!

    • November 18, 2010 2:43 am

      Lovely comment Steph! I liked the distiction you made between books which have literary merit and books we like. It was interesting to read your comment that there are some books which are better than others, from the perspective of literary merit, irrespective of whether we like them or not (for example, that Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ is better than ‘The Notebook’ by Nicholas Sparks). I remember reading a book called ‘What is Art?’ by John Carey, sometime back, which analyses this question – whether some works of art are better than others from a critical perspective (a fascinating book – I highly recommend it). I thought I will quote some passages from this book about Shakespeare. This is how it goes :

      “Shakespeare is probably the writer that most high-art advocates would select as a universally acclaimed genius, whose reputation proves that there are indeed artistic values that surmount place and time. But even here the consensus arguments breaks down, not only because there are clearly more people in today’s world ignorant of Shakespeare’s works than knowledgeable about them, but also because even among the intelligent and educated across the centuries there has never in fact been consensus about Shakespeare’s greatness. The disparaging opinions of Voltaire and Tolstoy are well known. Charles Darwin found ‘tremendous delight’ in Shakespeare as a schoolboy, but his view changed when he grew older. ‘I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.'”

      Carey also says this :

      “…university-educated intellectuals in Shakespeare’s own day such as Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene would have found the suggestion that he was a great writer utterly ridiculous. On the contrary they derided him as an ‘upstart’, semi-educated plagiarist, on the fringe of the literary world.”

      Carey goes on to say this :

      “To dismiss the opinions of Voltaire, Darwin, Tolstoy and the rest as stupid and blind, and insist that our own estimate of Shakespeare’s universal value is the correct one, is to fail to understand that cultures change, and that their most fundamental convictions fade and change with them.”

      We may not agree with some of Carey’s comments. For example, Shakespeare might not have been treated with respect during his own time, but that doesn’t mean his literary work didn’t have value. The same could be said of the painters Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, who struggled to sell their paintings during their lifetime, but who are revered now. Kafka never published his work during his lifetime. A more recent case is that of Roberto Bolano who struggled to make ends meet when he was alive, but whose work have won all kinds of literary awards and acclaim recently. But I think that John Carey also makes an interesting point about critical opinion of the literary worth of a work of art changing across time.

      I would love to hear your thoughts on this :)

      • November 18, 2010 7:14 am

        I know this comment wasn’t directed at me, Vishy, but thanks so much for sharing those quotes! Lots of great food for thought. :)

      • November 19, 2010 2:43 am

        Glad to know that you liked the quotes, Eva! That book is wonderful too and I would highly recommend it. If you do get to read it, I would love to hear your thoughts on it :)

    • November 18, 2010 5:58 am

      I think Steph (and probably a few others) has said what I think too — that not all books are “equal” and that is where the classification of literary fiction comes in as opposed to just fiction. But that doesn’t mean that one is “wrong” for reading one type of book. They are just different and different is good. I personally am not fond of the term literary fiction either, and I don’t find it necessary to be exclusionary in the book blogosphere: people tend to read a variety of things and I have a hard time saying “that blogger reads literary fiction but that one does not.” I personally think that would be impossible to categorize bloggers like that.

      And I take a generic classification of “classic” too, Eva: pre-1950 or so. Although obviously some more recent books would fit the bill (100 Years of Solitude, Beloved) because they will certainly be around in another 100 years. I just choose a year to make it easier in my mind.

      • November 18, 2010 7:18 am

        In my mind, if it was published after 1950 it’s not a classic…a modern classic, perhaps (like To Kill a Mockingbird), but I’d be confused if someone said their favourite classic was 100 Years of Solitude. I think that points to the trickiness of labels though! For me, a book is a classic just by being old, but I think anyone with an academic literary background would disagree. So I should probably start using the phrase ‘older books’ rather than ‘classic’. :)

    • November 18, 2010 7:13 am

      Hmmm…I think you’re setting up a bit of a straw man here Steph! I didn’t say that all books have the same level of complexity, or that it’s wrong to differentiate types of books (after all, that’s what genres do). :) And comparing Sparks & Tolstoy creates a very wide gulf; my hesitations with ‘literary fiction’ lie in the grey area of which books are ‘literary’ and which are not. So it’s the middle that has me skeptical!

      Also, I do think some people use ‘literary’ in a snobbish way; that’s unfortunate, since it makes it harder for non-snobbish reader to use the phrase, but in my mind one of the connotations of ‘literary fiction’ is that it’s somehow more worthy of our reading time & effort. There is different feel to saying ‘oh this book is not a mystery novel’ to ‘this book isn’t literary,’ so I don’t think the phrase ‘literary fiction’ is just another book category without any inherent judgement. That’s frustrating, for those of us who just want to acknowledge the differences to make it easier to find books that appeal (which is how I think of genres as working).

      Also, I’m still not sure what makes a book literary! I can define the mystery genre, or the fantasy genre, pretty easily…but I’m at a loss when it comes to ‘literary’ work. You seem to be saying in your comment that the different between literary fiction and non-literary fiction is in the prose. Did I interpret that correctly?

      • November 18, 2010 10:30 am

        I do think that literary fiction and non-literary fiction are differentiated by the prose. But I think there can be other ways in which they vary too, such as the depth of the reading they provoke – like the quote you provided about how a great piece of art has the largest number of interpretations, the more you look at it, the more you see. I think there are some books that simply do not work on that level. They are meant to be read strictly for plot but there’s not much beneath the surface…

        I guess the point I was trying to make is simply that to me the distinction between literary fiction and straight-up fiction doesn’t bother me, because as you said, genres exist, and I think they are valid markers. For me, it doesn’t matter how a book is “objectively” categorized, because in the end I really only care about my subjective experience. Even if we can all agree that something is literary fiction, that doesn’t necessarily mean I will like it or enjoy it, so the distinction really doesn’t mean much to me! I think we all just need to read what we want and not worry so much about how other people view us!

      • November 18, 2010 12:17 pm

        For me the distinction lies in books that “tax” me in opposition to those that don’t. Whether that be the prose, the themes, the characterisation or something undefinable, it is elevated to the position of a book that I think about, that I will potentially reread and that ultimately rewards me for having read it – a book that enriches my life in some way.

        I never consciously used the term “literary fiction” whilst studying literature but other bloggers used the term in relation to my blog so I began to consider it an umbrella term for those books that I gravitate towards, the books alluded to above (which include different strands of genre fiction).

        I definitely make a distinction between the books that I read: some are “popcorn” reads that I enjoy, that sate temporarily but that don’t nourish me and those “meatier” reads that do provide me with what I need (and yet not necessarily want nor seek from every “meal”). A belaboured metaphor but one that works nicely for me but is, of course, subjective. Making the distinction is not looking down on certain reads being less worthy than others but accepting that different books provide me with different things; I try to encompass and embrace all of those needs in my reading.

      • November 19, 2010 12:30 pm

        Steph, I agree that for myself, I don’t need to figure out how to objectively label whatever book I experienced. But when I’m talking about reading and books with others, those labels can come in handy!

  13. November 17, 2010 9:59 am

    Steph, I actually think I disagree with you about Agatha Christie—why wouldn’t she be literary? It all comes down to semantics. And as for Anna Karenina, wasn’t that book similar to Sparks’ books when it was written? It’s mostly just melodrama (but good melodrama nonetheless). Will Sparks be studied 20 years down the road? Who can say? So many classics now were considered fluff at the time they were published.

    • November 17, 2010 12:52 pm

      Tahleen, even if Anna K is considered melodrama by some, I would certainly say that the writing is well above anything Sparks has penned. There is a certain finesse to the writing that Sparks just doesn’t have. Additionally, I’d argue there is far more to Anna K than melodrama, especially having read the various sections by Levin that pontificate on the role of peasants in society!

      As for Christie, I think that her novels were meant to entertain but not necessarily enlighten. She writes a cracking good mystery, but in my opinion I think her writing is serviceable but I wouldn’t say we read her books for the prose itself. I suppose I should qualify and say that I read her books for the plots, not for the writing…

      • November 17, 2010 12:56 pm

        But reading for writing is only one way of reading, and I don’t think a book is necessarily “lesser” even the if the writing is not beautiful. A book can still be chock full of meaning with merely serviceable prose, and it can still need to be read multiple times to mine that meaning. I’m not saying Sparks is a good example of that, but I would say Rowling is, for example.

      • November 18, 2010 10:38 am

        @ Amy: I agree that reading for writing is only one way of reading, and I’m not saying the experience is any less. But I am saying that if a book ONLY allows you to read for the story and the writing is disposable, then it probably isn’t literary fiction. And if a book only has good story and doesn’t have great writing, then I don’t see what the problem is in saying that it’s not on the same level as a book that has both. But of course, my whole point is that it doesn’t matter whether a book is literary fiction, whether it’s better than another book or not. Because all that matters is your response to it… I mean, To Kill A Mockingbird is literary fiction, and yet I don’t care one jot for it. I’d much rather sit down with an Agatha Christie novel, or a Harry Potter book, and I’m fine with that!

        I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think that all books are created equal, but the quality of a book as determined by others shouldn’t matter to us as readers, because ultimately that has no bearing on our overall enjoyment and experience while reading the book. As you said, we all read for different reasons… maybe some of us don’t read books for literary merits, and that’s ok. But just because that’s so, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pretend that all books are in fact the same, because they aren’t all attempting to do the same thing. I guess another example is maybe some people listen to music for the lyrics… in this case, classical music isn’t going to do much for them… this doesn’t mean that classical music doesn’t have it’s own inherent benefits and advantages over Lady Gaga or The Beatles, but it doesn’t mean that those artists don’t have things going for them as well.

  14. November 17, 2010 9:59 am

    I for one use literary to describe the quality of the writing. I love a good story, but if there’s not good writing, I can’t stick with it. I think it’s a misconception that genres are all about story instead of writing. I think there is literary fiction (the default so to speak, when other adjectives are lacking), literary mysteries, literary romance, literary historical, literary science fiction, etc.

    • November 18, 2010 7:21 am

      How do you define good writing? :) I tend to be super-picky about writing styles in the books that I read too (I abandon books more for the writing than anything else), but I figure my favourite styles of writing might be other people’s worst nightmares. For example, I loved Enchantress of Florence while I saw other reviews saying it was overwritten and pretentious. So would that be called literary?

  15. November 17, 2010 10:08 am

    I like how you have defined it in your post. Nevertheless, I am still very uncomfortable categorizing something in such a generic way…sometimes I feel books that simply don’t fit into any particular genre simply get lumped into it (whether the book is any good or not), basically just easing categorization.

    • November 18, 2010 7:21 am

      That’s definitely the downside of categorising things Nishita!

  16. November 17, 2010 10:23 am

    Wonderful post Eva! On classics – I am not sure what a classic is. I have tried defining that word and have failed at it. I don’t even know whether that word makes sense. I think it is easy to say whether I liked a book or I didn’t, but it is difficult to say whether a book is a classic or not. For example, if we take one of Raymond Chandler’s books – say ‘The Big Sleep’ – is that a classic? When Chandler published it, it was probably regarded as pulp fiction. Today, it is probably regarded as a classic by readers and publishers. It is interesting that a book’s status as a classic changes across the years. On literary fiction – I am not able to define this term too. One of my favourite writers is Alistair Maclean. He wrote many books which were made into movies – like ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘Fore 10 from Navarone’ and ‘Where Eagles Dare’. One of my favourite books of his is called ‘HMS Ulysses’. It is the story of ships in a convoy which move through the cold reaches of the arctic. It brings the cold of the arctic and the danger of war into the heart of the reader, in Maclean’s beautiful prose. I haven’t read a book which evokes an atmosphere as beautifully and realistically as this. It is definitely good literature, and by conventional definition it should be regarded as literary fiction as well as a classic. But it is probably regarded as a war thriller. So, though I use the words ‘literary fiction’ and ‘classic’ for practical reasons, I find it difficult to define them.

    On niche blogging – it is wonderful that the book-blogging world is growing by leaps and bounds and it is wonderful that there are niche bloggers. One of the good things about it is that one keeps discovering wonderful surprises all the time, but the other side of it is that one cannot know everything or read every blog :) So, it is happy news and sad news.

    • November 18, 2010 7:34 am

      You know, I just went with a chronological approach to defining classic so it wouldn’t be value-laden…since I’m just reading for myself, I can do that, but I imagine if I was in academia my approach wouldn’t go over as well!

      Alistair Maclean sounds wonderful. :) Your description of him made me think of Alan Furst: he writes spy novels, and his writing is just superb. So should I call him ‘literary espionage’? lol I guess I object to the idea that ‘spy novel’ on its own (or war thriller, in your case) has a connotation of bad writing. To me, a genre label is helpful in letting you know about the PLOT, not about the writing style!

      Loved your take on the growing book blogosphere: so true!

      • November 19, 2010 2:35 am

        Eva, did an academic do something nasty to you at some point in your life? Honestly, definitions are well known to be nightmares in academia and people argue over them just like here, and make the same points too. Try to love us – we’re nice, really! :-)

      • November 19, 2010 12:56 pm

        No Litlove! On the contrary I loved my time at college and the one English professor I had I loved. :) I know that definitions are nightmares amongst academics: that’s why I meant that my simple approach would probably not fly, since I can’t really defend it. I’m sorry I gave you the impression I don’t love academics! lol I just like to make very clear in these discussions that I have no academic background and am aware that my reasoning is limited.

  17. November 17, 2010 10:23 am

    I like your definition of book snob. I totally get that everyone likes different books and different sorts of reading experiences. It’s when a higher value is placed on one over the other that I start to get annoyed. And I can get really annoyed, LOL. I think because reading is so subjective combined with the way we view reading in our society (as readers=intelligent)…I think all of these things feed into people feeling defensive about what they like.

    • November 18, 2010 7:35 am

      So true! I think you’ve thought about this much more than me, Amy, so I’m happy to see you commenting here. :)

  18. November 17, 2010 10:23 am

    This is certainly an interesting post and I’m not sure how to respond.

    I label myself as a “classics” blogger. The books on my reading list are books that were labeled as classics by someone other than myself for the most part. I just combined lists together to get a list of 250 “classics” to read. Some of them can arguably be denied that status. Amanda mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale above, but that is on my list as a “modern classic.” I also have some other modern books, The Shipping News by Proulx, Going After Cacciato by O’Brien, The Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver, and a couple others. All of them can be denied the classic status I gave them, but I am reading them with the knowledge that someone who may or may not know what they are talking about, deemed them a modern classic, as in, 50 years from now, kids will be studying them in schools. I’m not sure if I agree with that based on the one or two I have read so far, but its interesting to think that they might be one day down the road.

    I really don’t like labeling what I read anyway. Before I started this thing, I read whatever interested me most. And I don’t think anything was valued more than anything else. Obviously there are books that require less brain activity than others, but just because they are simpler and easier to understand doesn’t make them any less valuable to my reading experience. And really, it is only the reading experience that truly matters in the long run. I still view reading as something I do for pleasure, even when I am reading something by Dickens or Dostoevsky. It is an escape from my reality and it doesn’t matter what I have to pick up to get there.

    • November 18, 2010 7:38 am

      Yep: I consider many of my favourite classic authors (Trollope, Collins, etc.) to be wonderful ‘comfort’ reads for me (which I think is another way of saying ‘escapist’). And even the more difficult authors that I love I’m still reading for pleasure, just a different type! There are so many ways to enjoy reading. So I understand what you mean about classics! :) ‘Modern classic’ is another phrase I find a bit iffy: I understand it’s related to education and the development of the canon….I just wonder who’s behind those lists sometimes! Especially re: gender and ethnicity and subject matter.

  19. November 17, 2010 10:49 am

    I dont mind the title ‘literary fiction’ unless its used in a smug way. Taking part in The Green Carnation we knew we would be expected to only choose literary novels and isnt all writing literature?

    I really like you idea of rather than ‘literary’ we could use ‘rereadable’ because I think any books that make me think and look and look are books that I want to re-read. That could be anything from Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ to the latest Tess Gerritsen for me.

    Do I think I have a type of blog? I hope not to be honest. I might rate a Margaret Atwood or a Bronte book with an 8/10 just as I might an M.C. Beaton which some would sneer at. I hope I read a really nice mixture of stuff from genre to literary, from life changing to simple escapist pleasure. I dont tend to read too much of the same thing, certain authors maybe and ok I dont rush to sci-fi but thats me reading for me. Reading for ourselves is the most important I think whether its low brow or hi brow classics of obscure modern works we should simply be reading what we love.

    Does that make sense of have I missed the point and wandered off on a tangent!!!!???? Oh and I must, must read ‘White is for Witching’ thanks for reminding me.

    • November 17, 2010 10:50 am

      Oh and I meant to say… Great post!

    • November 18, 2010 7:41 am

      Your comment does make sense to me! In fact, your entire paragraph about how you view your blog and reading is exactly what I think. :D

  20. November 17, 2010 11:11 am

    Nice post! I share some of your confusion over the way ‘literary fiction’ is used and, like you say, I think it’s mostly confusing because everyone has such different definitions of the term. (As becomes apparent when you read enough of the blog hop entries.) Back in my younger, more foolish days, I used the term to refer to “quality” fiction. But then I read more and more of this “quality” stuff and started to realize that “literary fiction,” as publishers use the term today, is as much a genre as anything else. There’s a certain set style that writers are learning in MFA programs…you know, no plot, family drama, great writing on a sort of close, one sentence at a time level.

    Well, that definition is probably as unfair and inaccurate as all the definitions of various other genres as being of lower quality and less worth than literary fiction, but whatever.

    And then there are some books that rise above the conventions of literary fiction. I would never think of classifying “One Hundred Years of Solitude” as literary fiction, or “The Savage Detectives.” And I can’t explain why, exactly, except that they don’t fit the genre as I’ve imagined it. They are, for me, great books, and I can’t define their value with a simple term.

    This comment has gone on a little longer than intended, but as a last note, I also like your “book snob” definition/discussion. Like you say, I wouldn’t consider myself a “book snob” because I pretty much think people should read whatever they want to. That doesn’t, though, mean that I want to hear about what they’re reading, so I only read the blogs dealing mainly with books I might be interested in reading. I love reading book blogs for the conversation that can grow out of posts, and I would lose that if I weren’t reading just the blogs that are close to my own interests.

    • November 18, 2010 2:55 am

      Your mention of Marquez’ ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ made me remember this. I remember reading somewhere that Marquez, when he first read Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ was surprised at the start of the book and exclaimed ‘I didn’t know that you were allowed to write like this!’ :)

    • November 18, 2010 7:46 am

      I know what you’re talking about re: MFA program style; it has pretty much become its own genre with rules/conventions/etc.! I think that use/meaning of ‘literary fiction’ is probably part of why I shy away from using it to mean ‘quality fiction.’ (Plus, I think ‘quality fiction’ is more upfront if that’s what one means by ‘literary fiction’ anyway!)

      I agree: I find it difficult to comment on blogs where the blogger has very different taste than my own; we don’t have anything in common!

  21. November 17, 2010 11:43 am

    Here, Here!!!! I don’t qualify for the literary blog hop, so I’ll just continue reading what I like, participating in challenges that fit my niche and enjoying my life with books.

  22. November 17, 2010 12:48 pm

    My particular puzzle as to what defines a classic book is whether or not forgotten books, like those being republished by Persephone Books and the Virago Modern Classics, count. In their time they were labeled ‘middlebrow’ fiction, ‘women’s fiction.’ Now, when I read a Persephone or Virago author like Elizabeth Jenkins or Elizabeth Taylor or Frances Towers, I feel I’ve come home to really great writing combined with interesting stories, and although they are older writers from the early 20th century, hardly anyone’s heard of them. So do they count as classics? To me they do, but they aren’t on the must read lists of the literary canon the way Dickens or Virginia Woolf is. (Although Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is on the 1001 books to read before you die list now)

    I’ve recently been reading an article by Elif Batuman (she’s written The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them) about the kind of writing produced in creative writing programs, which is usually labeled as literary fiction, and which she basically says is style heavy and content light, beautiful sentences with little meaningful story behind them. I would agree that a lot of what is labeled as literary fiction now fits this definition and I certainly am not interested in reading most of it, because it seems boring and show-offy. But looking at the word literary in the broader sense, I would agree with the definition you quoted, it’s something that goes beyond the initial suspense of the story, something that makes you pause the fast-moving cinema of the mind and revel in and ponder the words, the ideas, the symbols. Charlotte Bronte’s writing is the richest I’ve come across this year, beyond the story, the way it is told pleases and enriches me. She reveals her soul in her writing, as a true literary artist.

    As far as niche blogging goes, I mentally put myself in the Persephone Books niche! With other bloggers who like older forgotten books and the small presses republishing them, as well as classics, some contemporary authors (like A.S. Byatt, I was very happy you chose her for your atheneum), some comfort books, a lot of women writers, etc.

    • November 18, 2010 7:53 am

      Ohhh: I purposely didn’t bring up ‘women’s fiction’ in my post because I knew that would add another 1,000 to the word count, lol. But I’ve read two Persephones this year, and when I was totting up my classic reads, I too couldn’t decide whether or not to include them…until I resolved on the whole year thing! (Of course, my random year cutoff had the amusing effect on several authors of having one of their books ‘count’ while the other one didn’t.) In my mind, most likely because I never took any post-high school literature classes, ‘classics’ as a label is seperate from The Literary Canon, but I can understand why those two are more intertwined for other people. I’m thinking of just calling everything by its age from now on! ;)

      I read Batuman’s book a couple of months ago and had some issues with it (I would love one chapter, then be deathly bored in the next), but I think it’s interesting to equate creative writing programs with ‘literary fiction’! It seems like that’s one of the primary meanings of the phrase (the other being ‘good writing’ as far as I can tell from the comments here). I’m not overly attracted to that kind of writing myself.

      The Persephone Books niche is a good place to be! I’m not there, but some of my favourite blogs are that style. :)

  23. November 17, 2010 12:50 pm

    I really like Laura Miller’s description of literary fiction. I’m not sure I will adopt it as “my definition” but it certainly does represent my thinking on good writing/good story/good art.

    Nope, I’m definitely not a niche blogger! My reading goes all over the map (sometimes quite literally!). I’m also quite random about the books I get around to reviewing on the blog, so it isn’t necessarily representative of all that I read.

    • November 18, 2010 7:55 am

      That’s a good point re: books we talk about on our blog and how representative they are! I try to talk about as many as possible, but I checked this morning and a full 20% of the books I’ve read I haven’t blogged about this year. I noticed quite a bit of the titles are international relations-related nonfic: I think I avoid blogging on those books because I read them from an academic, v. common reader, perspective.

  24. November 17, 2010 2:05 pm

    As a former book blogger and one who still hangs out on the periphery, I think some book bloggers, not all, certainly not yourself, are book snobs and like to put that label “literary fiction” on the books they read as if they are better than the rest of us. I hate to say it but I saw it the other night on Twitter among two book bloggers I follow as they looked down their noses at a book challenge. I know they were just joking amongst themselves, but they mentioned the blog by name and singled it out. Personally, I might agree with their opinion, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to single a blog out. We all have different tastes and some of it might be low-brow to others, or not “literary,” but it’s still what we like. For example, growing up, I loved to read Louis L’Amour westerns. Yes, to many, they’re shlock: same with perhaps Agatha Christie or Robert Ludlum or pick any “pulp fiction” author you want. They might be shlock, but they’re my shlock so back the hell off. ;)

    • November 18, 2010 7:56 am

      I definitely think there’s some book snobbishness in the community, and it tends to raise my hackles too. Love your last sentence!

  25. November 17, 2010 2:17 pm

    The hard thing, for those of us who tend to gravitate toward the type of books often labeled “literary fiction,” is that while that’s not an incredibly useful term for all the reasons you and others have pointed out, it would be great to have an easy, value-neutral way to refer to the stuff I like, as fans of romance or science fiction do. “Books through the ages with a focus on stylistic experimentation, subtle characterizaton, and finely-crafted prose” is kind of a mouthful. (And of course there is overlap here: romances and sci-fi tomes that share these qualities.) On the other hand, that’s the drawback of all labels, isn’t it – they can never express a complex concept as precisely as a longer phrase can.

    Also, of course, there’s the issue that the word “literary” has lost its ability to be value-neutral, and is perceived by many as the carrot after which fans of literary fiction think all authors should chase. I don’t feel that way – the qualities above are what gets ME most excited about a book, but I’m not saying it’s what should excite other people. I would, though, like to have a way to express what I’m into without others feeling like I’m tearing down what they like in the process.

    • November 18, 2010 8:00 am

      I completely agree that there’s a need for the genre equivalent of ‘literary fiction’! Also, I love the adjective value-neutral: perfect, and I wish I’d used it in my post. Anyway, part of what annoys me about the vagueness of ‘literary fiction’ is that it renders it a bit useless as a label to help readers find appealing books.

      >>I would, though, like to have a way to express what I’m into without others feeling like I’m tearing down what they like in the process.

      I completely agree: I love a certain kind of book, which I believe is what you’re talking about as well, and I don’t want to be looked at as a snob for having that preference! Just like I prefer fantasy to sci-fi or ‘Golden Age’ style mysteries to crime fiction/thrillers.

  26. November 17, 2010 3:34 pm

    An excellent post, Eva & an interesting discussion!
    The term literary fiction does not translate into my native tongue. We don’t use such a term in Finnish and so I only learned about the existance of it after I started book blogging. I guess I read quite a few books a year that might be considered literary fiction, but to this day I still am not quite sure how to define literary fiction. That, however, is fine with me! I don’t really need to define or categorize the books I reador my reading experience. :) The Joyce Carol Oates quote I use on my blog really says it all: “Read widely, and without apology. Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read”. That is my philosophy of reading. :)
    I feel bad everytime someone says to me that they only read romance or mysteries or whatever and they say it as if it was something less worthy than reading classics or “literary” fiction, like they were apologizing their taste in books. As a librarian I feel it is my duty to promote not only reading in general but the idea that all reading is in fact equal. That is what I believe in. The main thing is that people read.


    • November 18, 2010 8:01 am

      How interesting re: the lack of Finnish translation! I loved your entire comment. :D I don’t think defining/categorising the books I read is necessary for my personal experience, but in the context of blogging and conversations, it’s nice to have agreed-upon labels to act as shorthands. :)

  27. November 17, 2010 4:24 pm

    Thanks for this post! I have also wondered what literary fiction means.

  28. November 17, 2010 6:06 pm

    Great post, Eva, and fascinating discussion. I’ve kicked around this topic a few times over at my blog and I’ve been pondering my response all day, but now I see that Emily has eloquently said much of what I was thinking! So, um, what Emily said.

    I do find the term “literary” useful as a way to describe books that are less straightforward in their way of telling stories or exploring themes. I see most books as being on a spectrum, with some more literary than others, and for me, “literary” does not equal quality; it has more to do with style. I’ve read my fair share of crappy litfic, and I’ve read some excellent fiction that took a more straightforward approach.

    As for blog categorization, none of us have time to read every blog out there, so of course we’re going to gravitate toward those who share our tastes. I support the idea of having directories and hops and what have you to find bloggers who have similar reading tastes, although I’ve found that scouring the blogrolls of favorite bloggers and visiting blogs of people who leave interesting comments on my blog or blogs that I follow are the most effective ways to find like-minded bloggers. I do sometimes worry about the sort of tribalism that involves different groups looking down on others, or groups acting as if they represent the whole of the blogosphere. Just gives a bad impression.

    • November 18, 2010 8:05 am

      I support the idea of directories too! I’ve found a lot of blogs don’t have blogrolls anymore (including mine, so I can’t really blame other bloggers), but following commenters back to their blog is my #1 way of finding similar new-to-me blogs. :)

      I worry about the exclusionary tone that some groups seem to have too, but I figure the vast majority of the book blogosphere is so friendly and welcoming we balance it out. At least, I hope so!

      Your definition of literary is great: now if we all followed it! ;)

  29. November 17, 2010 6:28 pm

    Whew, look at all the discussion! I have a post half drafted about the definition of “classics” for Sunday Salon this week. How funny that you’re thinking about the same issues!

    The more I ponder labels like “literary fiction” and “classics,” the more I think there is no universal definition. I find this to be especially true of the first label, which is so subjective I’m not sure it’s useful without knowing how the person using it defines the category. I do like Miller’s definition–I like that it leaves the decision of what should be considered “literary” to the reader.

    As for “classics,” I struggle with this one. In putting together my personal classics project, I’m trying to define just what I mean by “classics,” and I’m having trouble. More thoughts on Sunday :-)

    I find it really hard to specify a niche for my blog. I don’t read solely to blog; I read because I love reading, and then I blog because I enjoy talking about what I’ve read. So, my blog is as eclectic as my tastes in reading are. I certainly have my preferences, but not to the exclusion of all else. I wouldn’t want to not talk about a book on my blog that interested me just because it doesn’t fit into my niche. I’d say my blog’s niche is books–beyond that, it’s hard to say!

    • November 18, 2010 8:07 am

      Looking forward to seeing your TSS post!

      Also, I definitely read for myself and blog from what follows that; I can’t imagine letting blogging dictate my reading choices! lol :)

  30. November 17, 2010 6:56 pm

    I can never decide how I feel about this one. I do like Laura Miller’s definition, if a definition is called for, but by this point “literary fiction” has all these negative implications for me. I associate it with authors I deeply dislike, like Ian McEwan and William Faulkner, and authors I have never read but suspect I would loathe, like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer who stabbed his wife with a penknife. Even when I know consciously that “literary fiction” encompasses a lot of authors I do like (such as Helen Oyeyemi, and Salman Rushdie), I have this instinctive, negative reaction. At least part it is feeling like “literary fiction” tends to skew male, and skew in the direction of sexist male writers (like Norman Mailer) – but that’s really historical association, and nothing to do with the term itself.

    • November 18, 2010 8:09 am

      I made myself try a Roth novel (Everyman) and loathed it just as much as I expected. Also, Mailer sounds like such a tool. I agree re: the historical associations of literary with chauvinist pigs.

  31. November 17, 2010 7:02 pm

    I participated in that literary book hop and I enjoyed reading the defintions too. I couldn’t define it to be honest. Perhaps if I had studied literature or something then I might be able to… but literary fiction is one those things that seems fairly subjective.

    I think the key with literary fiction is that it always fits into another genre as well. I really like Laura Millers definition because any book of genre has the potential to be considered literary aswell – sci-fi, romance, crime.

    I have decided that my blog is going to focus more on reviews than it has in the past and as a result i have a new page where I have links to my reviews which I consider literary fiction. These are books whcih I consider literary fiction and have left a note on the page that if anyone feels differently about a particularl book being included they should let me know so that we can talk about it.

    I hope it works.

    One day I would love to have a definition of what literary fiction is that satisfies everyone, but I am not sure that is possible.

    • November 18, 2010 8:13 am

      I like the cross-genre appeal of Miller’s definition too! :)

      Interesting re: your new page; I wonder if anyone will take you up on the conversation! I contemplated doing a review directory by genre, but I quickly realised I would be driven crazy trying to categorise everything. I do have a few ‘types/genres’ that I categorise my posts in, but it’s totally subjective. It’s for me, though, so I don’t worry about that!

  32. November 17, 2010 7:16 pm

    I don’t consider myself a niche reader/blogger at all. I love the diversity and unclassificationableness of my reading choices. As to the question of literary-fiction, I have only a slippery answer and it is highly personal. If I am awed in any way and it feels DEEP or has a magical undefinable quality, I think of it as ‘great’. Sometimes, most times, I can’t describe it at all. Some books have it, a lot don’t.

    • November 18, 2010 8:14 am

      I love the diversity of your choices too Care! :D

      Those magical books are so wonderful…I wish all reading could be like that.

  33. November 17, 2010 8:17 pm

    When I think of the word “literary,” I think basically of Laura Miller’s definition, which I really like.

    But most of the time when I think of the phrase “literary fiction” I’m being sarcastic; the phrase has scare quotes around it in my mind and refers more to the program fiction Elif Batuman complains is heavy on style, light on content (as Carolyn mentions above).

    All the same, I would say I read literary fiction, because I read fiction that is literary. So it’s an ambiguous phrase for me.

    • November 18, 2010 8:15 am

      The phrase has quotes around it in my mind too! lol And that’s funny you hold two different definitions for it; I have both of those in my head too. That’s why I think it’s a bit useless, really.

  34. thezebracactus permalink
    November 17, 2010 10:55 pm

    Great post! I’ve had to read a lot of “literary fiction” and “classics” for school, but have found that some of the most well-written and thought-provoking books are filed under YA or genre. People who only read fantasy novels are said to be missing a lot, yet readers who only buy classics are missing out on just as much.

    • November 18, 2010 8:16 am

      I think that each reader needs to make their own choice on depth v. breadth: what they miss out on in other genres might be made up for with the richness of their knowledge of the one genre they do read. :) But I do understand and agree with your point that genre fiction has as much as to offer! Not to mention, a lot of classics ARE genre…War and Peace and Les Mis are both historical fiction, for example. ;)

  35. November 18, 2010 5:21 am

    ‘Literary Fiction’ is a good idea (but a rubbish name) in trying to describe good writing with meaningful themes. What is actually described as (and excluded from being) ‘Literary fFction’ is another matter entirely…

    • November 18, 2010 8:17 am

      Agreed! It’s that discrepancy that annoys me.

  36. November 18, 2010 9:12 am

    Late to the comments again! I love you post and I love Laura Miller’s interpretation. I have her book on hold at the library. As far as my own blog, I read what I read and this may change over time. I write about the books that inspire me. There are some “genres” that I avoid, simply because I don’t enjoy them!

    As for classics, I have to agree with you, anything written after 1950 is not a “classic” but maybe we need a category for those book that are destined to become “classic”. My question is, who defines what makes a “classic”? Are books like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe or Ceremony by Leslie Mormon Silko included in that new category?

    Thanks for a great post, Eva.

    • November 19, 2010 1:03 pm

      I deleted your duplicate comment, Gavin: hope you don’t mind! :) If you love the Laura Miller half as much as I did you’ll be very happy to be reading it! hehe

      I’ve heard the term ‘modern classic’ for books destined to be classics, but as you said, I wonder who decides what those books are. I tend to assume it’s books you see on school reading lists, but then who puts those together? And how can we know what people 100 years from now will think?

      I’m looking into Ceremony now: I hadn’t heard of it before, but if it’s a possible modern classic I’m interested!

      • November 21, 2010 8:34 am

        Oops! I didn’t mean to post the comment twice! I think you will like Ceremony. If you do you might also enjoy Almanac Of The Dead.

      • November 22, 2010 11:50 pm

        I requested Ceremony from my library, so I hope I can pick it up this week! Almanac of the Dead has a marvelous title.

  37. November 18, 2010 6:24 pm

    I love Miller’s definition! I’ve read scads of books that fit it, and from all genres. Subject matter doesn’t count nearly as much as the way the author handles it; the way they encourage us to look at the issue from multiple angles.

    As far as niches go… well, I’m a little uncomfortable with them. I review a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and consider myself a speculative fiction blogger; but, at the same time, I review plenty of mainstream stuff. I often feel like I’m too genre for mainstream bloggers, but too mainstream for genre bloggers. It’s a pickle.

    • November 19, 2010 1:05 pm

      Agreed re: subject matter v. author’s approach! That’s probably why I connected so well with the Miller quote. ;)

      That is a pickle for you with sci-fi! That’s also why I hesitated to include myself in the classics directory…sure, I talk about quite a few classics (or at least, older books), but I talk about lots of other stuff too.

  38. November 19, 2010 9:11 pm

    Wow, love that quote, and your post! I’m sorry it took me so long to get to it :) I don’t really think I’m a niche blogger because I tend to get around to everything at some point. Any my Google Reader is actually full of all types of blogs – including ones that review romance and paranormal / sci-fi literature that I KNOW I’ll likely never pick up. I just have a hard time not subscribing or unfollowing! Some day I’ll clear it out.

    I’m with you. Let’s please go with a non-snobbish definition. I think something that is literary to me might be genre or junk to someone else and vice versa. And thank goodness because how boring would the world be if we all thought the same and liked the same things! Ick!

    Also – I am still partway through White is for Witching, but really enjoy what I’ve read, so you are definitely not alone!

    • November 21, 2010 8:21 pm

      Glad you loved the quote Amy! I’m glad you’re enjoying White is for Witching too,hehe. And I don’t think I’m a niche blogger either, although I do have certain ‘types’ of books I read more than others!

      I love visiting different types of blogs, but I don’t usually have blogs in my reader that don’t regularly talk about books I want to read. I have less than 200 blogs that I subscribe too, though, so it’s my way of keeping blogging stress-free. ;)

  39. November 19, 2010 9:16 pm

    I just discovered Amanda’s directory too and I had to decide if I read enough classics to add myself. I read such a wide variety of books, but looking back I realized, like you, that classics make up at least one third. I’ve also found that I love reading others’ posts about classics more than modern books a lot of the time.

    Also, that’s a wonderful definition of literary fiction. I don’t think I’d ever used that phrase before blogging.

    • November 21, 2010 8:22 pm

      I love coming across blogs that focus on older books/classics too! :)

  40. November 20, 2010 2:37 am

    I’m obviously a little late to this conversation but I think my blog is pretty much the definition of non-niche and it’s probably because I have put next to zero thought into defining things like “literary”. I honestly just don’t care. I read whatever appeals to me. It makes it hard to be included in any of the blogging community’s self-imposed niches (I’m not a kidlit blogger or a classics one or a mystery one but it’s all there) but to limit the scope of my blog would be dishonest. That’s why I appreciate my regular readers who stick around even if they aren’t interested in every book I post about.

    • November 21, 2010 8:25 pm

      I’m not in a niche either, so I understand! :) I often enjoy authors who some would call ‘literary,’ which is why I wanted to talk about the definition; it makes it easier to find potential new authors if I know what I’m looking for. lol

      I don’t expect to be interested in every book a blogger talks about…I just subscribe to ones that tend to have similar taste as me, since that makes recommendations easier! But I visit blogs that I don’t subscribe to. (And you’re in my reader!)

  41. November 20, 2010 5:37 am

    I only define mine as mainly works in translation because it is mainly works in translation the world lit I read tends to come from accross the board of fiction and non fiction ,all the best stu

  42. November 20, 2010 6:54 am

    Okay, I didn’t read the 101 comments that came before me! But I don’t think I have a niche. I’ve been told that I’m a reader of literary fiction, but I really love mysteries and fantasy too. I think I’m just eclectic and I generally read what calls to me no matter what the genre.

    I’m not much one for categorizing and then judging my fellow bloggers by their reading taste. I think that reading is reading and it’s all good. But that’s just me.

    As far as classics. Hummm, you see my problem is that I’ve read many, many classics already–in high school, in college, in grad school. I haven’t read everything, but I’ve read most of what I think will interest me. I love revisiting classics and discovering a few new ones through my younger blogging friends.

    I have nothing against classics at all, but I don’t blog about them because I read them many years ago. It’s fun though to see the different reactions young(er) adults have to these books. Life was different for my generation when we were in our twenties and early thirties. Our different life experiences and expectations made our relationships with classics different from today’s generation.

    It’s all good — not better or worse. Still, it surprises me sometimes that blogging friends are just discovering some of the books I read in high school or younger. Then I remember that back in the dark ages we didn’t have that much (did we have any?) young adult fiction. Readers when from kids’ books right to adult books.

    As usual, I have no point I’m making here — just thanking you for letting me ramble.

    • November 21, 2010 8:28 pm

      Half of those comments are just my replies! That’s the one thing I don’t like about WP’s threaded comments; I wish they wouldn’t show my stuff in the comment count.

      Anyway, I’m curious to know about the classics that you’ve read and your relationship to them! That’d be a really neat post to read. I think of them as old friends…I’ve been reading classics my whole life, so I’ve put a decent dent in the literary canon, but I really enjoy getting to know the lesser-known ‘classic’ (or just ‘older’) authors, and I find there’s always more to explore. :) I love rereading classics too, comparing my reactions now that I’m older. lol

  43. November 20, 2010 8:12 am

    Eva — I liked this post because, like you, I’d always been a bit confused by the term “literary fiction” in the way that people used it. I always have thought it to mean “stuffy fiction”. LOL.

    But, I love this quote you shared by Miller… it’s perfect, and does shed a lot of light on the term. So, thanks for this. :D


    • November 21, 2010 8:30 pm

      lol! I’m glad the post helped you. :)

  44. November 21, 2010 7:25 pm

    I really like the definition from Laura Miller. It not only covers “literary,” but I think the way I think of “classic” as well. Anything really enduring, must have real depth, those multiple layers of meaning. Of course, I think in the past, I’ve generally thought of “literary fiction” as sort of the category for all the books that don’t quite fit into a genre–it’s not mystery or fantasy or horror or etc., therefore it must be “literary fiction.” Not really specific! I guess in that way, I’m really differentiating between “Literary” fiction and “literary fiction,” just as there is a differentiation between Classical music and classical music. Certainly, I don’t think that everything that is commonly classified as “literary fiction” will be enduring.

    I also agree with you that we as readers should be able to read whatever genres or styles we wish without feeling less because of our choices. I admit, I do tend avoid some genres, but that is mostly because I get tired of sorting through the dross in order to find the quality. This, of course, has been one of the advantages of finding such a variety of book blogs–the wealth of reviews and commentary available makes it much easier to find books I think I might like.

    • November 21, 2010 8:31 pm

      I don’t read every genre because not all of them are my cup of tea: I don’t think that makes me a snob though. :) But book bloggers have definitely introduced me to authors I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own, to excellent results!


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