Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Is Literary Fiction Losing Its Place in Culture?

Throughout this past year there's been a persistent idea percolating around the literati: could literary fiction really be dead? No for real this time?

No less an authority than Philip Roth wondered last year whether people still had the patience to read novels. Last month Lee Siegel wrote an article wondering "Where Have All the Mailers Gone?" and wrote, "fiction has become culturally irrelevant." A few months ago, in an article titled "The Death of Fiction?," Ted Genoways took stock of the explosion of creative writing programs coupled with the vanishing space for literary stories in magazines. Last year David Shields published REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO, which examined culture's thirst for reality, and why current literary novels feel lifeless as a form.

Now, the idea that fiction as a whole has become culturally irrelevant is patently ridiculous when you consider that people are currently buying TWILIGHT underwear and when Avada Kedavra has been a trending topic on Twitter the last few days. The novel is far, far from dead, and Carolyn Kellogg at Jacket Copy wrote a gleeful takedown of Siegel's article.

And let's also acknowledge that this is not a new idea. Here's a post from The Guardian in 2001 wondering about the end of literary fiction, and here's one from the Times in 1992 predicting the end of the novel as we know it due to, wait for it, hypertext.

But could there be something to all of this hand-wringing this time? Sure, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and James Patterson are some of the bestselling authors of all time and have created cultural tsunamis, but that's genre fiction. What about literary fiction? Do our current literary luminaries pack the same cultural punch as their counterparts did in the past?

Major publishers are publishing fewer literary novels. Review space is almost nonexistent. The Internet has empowered the crowd at the expense of elites. Could it be real this time?

And if we are witnessing a slow decline in the impact of literary fiction, what's behind it?

Most of all: is this something we should fear?

(If you're wondering what makes a novel "literary," here's my take)






157 comments:

Summer Ross said...

There comes a time for change in every genre, maybe literary fiction's time is now? I'm no expert or anything, but personally in order for any writing to stay alive it has to change with the times, and embrace that change fluidly. I do not think it is the end though.

Anna Bowles said...

I think the identification of ‘literary’ as a genre has had a stultifying effect. The things I like best as a reader have both literary credibility and perceived populist features like narrative drive and a focus on relationships. But my perception (looking in at adult novels from children’s publishing) is that if you write a book that is good in both those ways you are actually sunk nowadays because, increasingly, both literary and genre publishers will consider it too far outside the ballpark to fit their list.

Kathryn said...

Oh, I hope not. If done well, literary fiction can be fantastic, mind-expanding reads. I tend to gravitate towards both writing and reading lit fic.

But I don't think it's going to lose its place. There's always an audience, and when it comes to literary merit, frankly, I believe it'll always be strong.

Locusts and Wild Honey said...

Hmmm...yes. I do think literary fiction is moving from the mainstream to more of a niche thing.

On the one hand, it's a little sad. Literary fiction is, I think, the highest form of the novel.

But it was never really suited for mass consumption, anyway. And if more people are reading great storytelling, that's probably a good thing for books overall.

(I found it! The silver lining!)

Amy B. said...

Well I know literary fiction turned me off when I became aware enough to realize that the vast majority of what is deemed literary is written by white guys. It's always felt like an exclusionary club. Kind of like golf. In fact, really like golf. Literary fiction needs its Tiger Woods to make things more exciting and open. Though hopefully sans sex scandal.

Katherine Hyde said...

I leave it to wiser pundits than myself to determine whether literary fiction is dying. But IF it is, I think one of the reasons for its demise is precisely the growth in MFA programs, which tend to turn out writers whose work has been workshopped to death. A certain amount of instruction in craft is necessary, but writers should learn primarily by reading great writing, by practicing on their own to develop their own unique voices, and by actually getting out there and LIVING LIFE. What's coming out of MFA programs these days seems drab and uniform, because so many of the writers have never yet been out of school. They have polished their prose till its glassy, but it has no real life experience to reflect.

It seems to me that the best of literary fiction--books like _Gilead_ and _Peace Like a River_--is still popular even in our attention-challenged culture. You just have to have something to say, and pay as much attention to plot as to prose.

Katherine Hyde said...

AACK! I meant to type "polished their prose till it's glassy"! (and I just commented on Facebook this morning about misused apostrophes . . .)

Remus said...

All the following is just In My Opinion.

Sure, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and James Patterson are some of the bestselling authors of all time and have created cultural tsunamis, but that's genre fiction.

I'd make a different distinction there, Nathan. All of those are 'popular fiction'. Genre fiction has rules. The only rule for pop fiction is 'Whatever sells books, do it'. Genre, romance, horror, and cheesy Mary Sueisms can all be lumped into the same book, as long as you do it in a way that will sell to the masses of readers with unsophisticated, lowest common denominator tastes.

And that answers your next question: And if we are witnessing a slow decline in the impact of literary fiction, what's behind it?

As profit margins get stripped away, due to economic problems and new competition from technology, it's natural for the publishers to seek only the product that they can sell the most. There are fewer people in publishing for a love of the art, or as a higher calling. Most of them these days are just trying to make a buck. They'd sell fart joke manuals if they could get the chain stores to promise shelf space for them.

Most of all: is this something we should fear?

I'd say no. Literature won't disappear, it'll just become unsellable and noncommercial. But authors will be driven to write it regardless. And with low-cost publishing options opening up, even those literary labors of love will find a market. They just won't show up in chain stores.

Looking even further ahead, it's likely that the pendulum will swing the other way. Someday the public will decide again that they want literature and are willing to pay for it, and someone will figure out a business plan that makes it profitable. Maybe next generation. Everything comes around again, eventually.

Nicole L Rivera said...

This is totally not answering the question but for some reason when I read "Twilight underwear" I couldn't stop laughing, out loud, at Starbucks. People are staring. What can I say? The five year old in me is alive and I find the idea of people parading around with Taylor Lautner on their behind quite hilarious.

Keith Popely said...
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Amber Forbes said...

I could say I'm sad to see it go, but to be perfectly honest, the only time anyone really reads literary fiction is if it's for a school assignment. The last literary thing I read that was my own choice and not something a school assigned me was "Lolita." It was a great, beautifully written book, but its effects don't cling to me as tightly as novels that straddle the line between literary and commercial, like The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, or Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy. I don't think literary fiction is dead itself, but I think its meshing more with commercial in those books that straddle the line between commercial and literary. A couple of months ago I was having a conversation with my sponsor of the ASU CWC, and we were both talking about how it's very possible to write a novel that's elegant in story and words while appealing to the masses. Some of the best YA books, I've noticed, seem to do this. For me, I'm trying to write my novel so that it straddles the line, because pure commercial books and pure literary books have NEVER stuck to me as tightly as books that are in between. Admittedly my published short stories are purely literary, but that's because there's a market for those--not so much with novels anymore. Plus, I want to show the world that I can write beautifully, and my short stories prove that, even if my novels turn out to be more story than great writing (trying to balance both). I sincerely believe that writing can be both an art and a business as the same time.

Mira said...

My opinion: No.

For one thing, the wonderful thing about e-books is that nothing can be blocked from publication, and everything can find an audience.

People create. Literary writers will create. And those who love literary fiction will read it.

In fact, the more commercial fiction becomes prominent - and rightly so, imho - the more there's likely to be an underswelling of literary fiction in reaction to that.

Which is also good. I've said this before, sorry to repeat myself, but I believe commercial fiction and literary fiction are both equally necessary to the field of writing. They rely on each other and can not flourish if the other isn't also present.

Hillary said...

Is it losing its place in culture or is it just evolving into one of many options as opposed to one of few options as more ways to entertain one's self arrive each year?

What do the numbers say? How many lit fic novels are published each year compared to ten or twenty years ago? Are the lower sales numbers due both to other options (genre novels, online ent, e-books, a bazillion channels on tv) AND due to more competition within literary fiction?

Mary said...

Whether it is or not, my biggest beef has always been that people perceive genre fiction has having no literary value, as if it's all fluff with no substance, as if all genre fiction writers were somehow sub par to literary fiction writers. If it means the death of the elitism of literary fiction... well, let's just say I won't be too bummed about it.

Dave @ A Writer's Look said...

Maybe if literary authors were better at marketing themselves, they wouldn't have this problem.

The primary reason for a person to pick up a book is because they want an escape from everyday life -- out of all the genres (besides non-fiction), literary is the least likely to offer that escape.

Most of the non-writers I know who read primarily literary novels (and usually have something against genre novels, which amuses me) do so not because they want to experience the story, but because they want to be able to talk about the book with their other friends who also read it. Some of them openly admit to not enjoying the read itself, which is ridiculous, but that's another tangent.

Anonymous said...

We can blame it on the movies (someone did); and, yes, film structure and story have dumbed down people's narrative capabilities.

We can blame it on the 160 characters of SMS or the 140 characters of Twitter - SMS being the largest form of written communication in the World at this point (true fact).

We can blame it on the Schools and parents who've allowed a generation (or two) to grow up without the ability to engage in complex narrative - resulting in the dumbing down of all other cognitive functions.

We can blame it on the downfall of independent bookstores and publishers in favor of online shopping and box stores.

Unfortunately, when you combine these factors (and a few others), the notion that Literary Fiction (and other forms of complex writing) are dying is far too real.

What we don't know is what are the long-term ramifications? What could they be?

Anonymous said...

The literary novel is not dead, just rarely published. The novels are still written and readers still appreciate them. The literary novel simply cannot compete with the genre novel in the marketplace. It seems to be low risk business practice to go with novels that come with movies, action figures, t-shirts, etc. and low risk is good business.
I am reminded of my world history teacher telling me that the ancient Romans were concerned about the breakdown of the family unit, 'kids today'. Maybe the family unit never existed like we think it did. I think we too may believe that when we were younger there were more literary novels and better writers. We are all fans of our nostalgia.
I buy into the group thought that literary fiction is just another genre that has never been published heavy in any year, and is always looked back on in the entirety the genre.

Shelli said...

I don't think literary fiction will ever fade away as long as women love their book clubs. Book clubs are a place to plumb the depths of hidden meaning, not just to sit around and say, "I liked it. I really liked it." In fact, in my book club, the likes of Jodi Picoult have been scorned, Stephanie Meyers defended, and Markus Zusak celebrated. There's a reason The Help is still on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year.

Anonymous said...

The uproar concerning the declining popularity of literary fiction reminds me of the shifting popularity of different genres of music of music over time. I firmly believe that the literary novel will not die, but it may be that we see new forms, or that there will have to be different approaches to niche marketing (as happened in the music industry as well) I think some of the panic is coming from a perception (I can't tell whether there is merit to this or not, so take the comment with a grain of salt...) that other forms of media have historically shifted in popularity of genre much more quickly than books. With the advent of the internet, I suspect that trends in what is popular change more rapidly than in the past.

Shoot, I don't know if I am making sense - all my animals have me distracted today...

Stu Pitt said...

Newspapers still report prize and Nobel winners in lit, so that's popular.

Literary fiction writers today are mostly navel gazing wimps, so there are no Mailer/Vidal type brawls to report.

Nervous major houses don't publish literary fiction with any sort of exciting sex action, so scandals are limited. Houellebecq caused a minor stir, but he was French.

Writers all say the same things in interviews, and their politics are middle-of-the-road boring, lest they offend anyone. Naipaul can still piss people off, but he's old.

Losing its place in culture? In America, yes. Game over.

swampfox said...

Look at it this way. With the advent of Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop, Country, and whatever else, you would have thought that Classical Music would have gone to the wayside.

But no. There is still a huge audience for the great composers of history and the masterpieces they wrote, which are timeless. I think the same is true for novels in regards to Literary Fiction.

Lisa said...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." Charles Dickens, 1812-1870

We've been wringing our hands over the oncoming demise of our valued treasures since, well, Dickens (and before) - and the truth is, treasures, literary and otherwise, survive because they feed our a priori human need for intimate and beautiful conversation about this shared existence

Jay said...

I quote you from your "definition of literary fiction" post: ..."literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions."

The problem is more is required of the reader. Almost like work. Is it worth it? Absolutely! Unfortunately, folks used to being spoon-fed everything tend to balk at having to work to earn their joy. And we are increasingly becoming a spoon-fed, balking society. (Geez, I sound cynical.) Now get oughta my yard!

Ted Cross said...

There will always be those who love literary fiction, though whether they make up a large enough group to be able to be profitable with it is debatable. I don't mind really nice prose if it is directly for story purposes, but once it gets even a whiff of snootiness I don't have any interest in it. I'm a genre guy. BTW, did you really say Mailer was literary? The couple of his I read didn't seem that way to me.

Megan Haskell said...

Mary said: "If it means the death of the elitism of literary fiction... well, let's just say I won't be too bummed about it."

This is exactly the change that I see coming. Yes, there is and will be a market for literary fiction, but literary fiction has to get off its high horse first and tell a good story.

There are good and bad works in every genre (and I think literary fiction is a genre, even if it's just the repository for any work that can't be defined as something else). There are master works in sci-fi (Ender's Game), fantasy (Lord of the Rings), Apocalyptic (The Road)...I could go on, but the point is that these master works have literary value. It's a change in definition, or maybe a change in focus, but it's not the death of literary fiction.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...
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Bryan Russell (Ink) said...
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cheekychook said...

First off I have to say this topic is the perfect follow-up to yesterdays discussion about what's more important, the writing or the storytelling. In my opinion these two issues are very closely connected.

For some people, literary fiction is the ultimate writing, the be-all-end-all-I-despise-reading-anything-else answer to the question "what shall I read?"---for other people, literary fiction is like the snooty, overpriced wine that may or may not taste as good as the $10 bottle on display at the checkout line, it's the book you feel like you SHOULD like (because important people have said it's so good) but is boring/wordy/tedious/something else that makes you wish you'd bought the book with shiny silver cover instead.

Sometimes you want to read the New York Times (even if you may have to pause to look up a word now and then)---other times you just want to know what happened today and you go to Yahoo News. The information is probably similar, the delivery is very different.

When it comes to novels, obviously preference and ideals play a big part in what individual people want to read, but I can't help but think that a lot of the current labels "literary", "commercial", "romance", "women's fiction" do a lot more harm than good. Sure it's nice to have a classification system, and genres exist for a reason, but I think a lot of people really want to read books that are hybrids of these categories---and I think the desire for more encompassing books may be something that contributes to the downfall of something like a strictly "literary" genre.

Literary fiction will always exist---there's so much of it already,classics that are not going anywhere---and new books will always arise that simply have that more "literary" feel to them, but I would not be surprised if "upmarket" or "mainstream" or "crossover" or "whatever you want to to call the literary work with commercial appeal or the commercial work that's so beautifully written" becomes more prominent.

Generally speaking I think our society wants the escape of the story (as so many people said in yesterday's comments, beautiful prose will only get you so far if you're not really using it to tell a compelling story)---and many people are willing to forgive less than stellar writing if it allows them to read the story they feel drawn to. That doesn't mean they wouldn't read a fantastic story that happens to also be written with amazing style and gorgeous prose. I think they would.

Rather than looking at it as the "downfall of literary fiction", as though it's a loss or a bad thing, I prefer to look at it as setting the bar for literary fiction not higher, but at a different angle. Mind-blowing, thought provoking, stylized, intelligent, character driven stories can still have plots, and can still have commercial appeal. Is it hard to do all of that in one book? Sure it is. But no one ever said writing a book was easy.

Becca said...

I just think all it's going to take is one person to right the novel, the "literary" novel, and it will always be there. It may decline, but I don't think it will ever go away.

cheekychook said...
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cheekychook said...
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Ken said...

My take is that the cultural impact of literary fiction is indeed declining, and it's in large part because there are more forms of competing high-quality storytelling than existed a few decades ago.

The Wire. Red Dead Remption. Grand Theft Auto 4. The Sopranos. Those have been able to grip the cultural moment in huge ways, and literary fiction has to compete in that space now.

Should we worry? No. Just like we don't need to worry that ebooks will end quality books as we know it (you'll just need to know where to look), the same will hold true for lit fic. People will still want to write it, and people will still want to read it.

Kate said...

I don't know. I'm more up-to-date on the book industry now than any other time in my life. And I was an English major, which was part of the problem. I was too busy reading the "classics/cannon/whatever" to read the new stuff. That is until I realized the book business is cranking out awesome books every year.

I do tend to prefer books with a literary element and I define that as something going on beneath the surface. In fact, I love books that do both and more and more authors are accomplishing this I think. Some of your clients' recent releases are perfect examples. In both Rock Paper Tiger and The Secret Year, both protagonists have a lot going on inside. But the authors (wisely) don't inflict pages and pages of narrative summary on the poor readers to establish those internal journeys.

I don't think the literary novel is dead. It's just evolving to accommodate the culture.

P.S. I'm friends with my Victorian lit professor on Facebook (I know...) and I happen to know she taught Twilight in one of her classes last semester. And she's no softy. Twilight is changing the way people think about books and romance and love and all that stuff. If that's not literary, I don't know what is.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Interesting question.

Certainly I don't think literary fiction is dead, or meaningless. And the meaning, the impact, of literary novels is usually much easier to see somewhere down the road. It's easy to look back and see the influence of the Roths and Mailers and Updikes. But the influence of Aleksandar Hemon and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? We'll probably have to wait a bit.

I do think things change. Popularity shifts, and forms shift with it. I think the market for difficult literary novels has shrunk in North America (though it was probably never that huge to start with). Is there a shift to more of a populist literary fiction? I think so. But these things are culturally oriented, and culture is fluid and malleable. Popular taste is rarely static.

Niche markets buoy up certain forms, and then niches slide into mainstream once again. And then out, and then in.

I watch kids on skateboards, sometimes. There was a time when they were very rare, sort of an interesting sub/counter-culture. But when I was a kid they hit mainstream. People were riding skateboards everywhere. Shops flourished. They made video games about Tony Hawk. And then it slipped out of the mainstream, returning to something that more resembled its subculture roots. And yet now? I see more kids on skateboards again. Will it hit mainstream again? Perhaps. Perhaps not. And there are offshoots, too. There's these new things, I don't even know what they're called. Thin middles, paddle ends. One spinning wheel at the front, one at the back. The foot sways the rear of the board back and forth, sort of a fanning motion, with the energy transferred into forward speed.

Things change. New forms come along. Tastes shift, shift again, back and forward.

Dead is pretty definitive. And in this, the age of the vampire, things rarely stay dead for long. All it takes is one good bite...

j.leigh.bailey said...

While I'd hate to see any area of fiction (genre or literary)go away, it probably wouldn't affect me much if it did. I have to say I'm not a fan (in general) of literary fiction. I'm definitely a genre-fiction girl! However, I truely believe that a well written story, no matter the genre classification, will find a home.

D.G. Hudson said...

Literary fiction will survive, but it may have to take a back seat for a while. IMO, you need a certain amount of education to read and understand literary fiction, which does put it into a different class and makes it less appealing to the unwashed masses who look to Amazon for their reading suggestions.

Also - literary as a term tends to turn some writers off as it evokes the idea of elitist writing.

I hope literary fiction isn't dead, but perhaps it's time to give it a boost of reality. Strip away all the pretense of elitist literature - and make it easier for the readers to understand a 'deeper' sort of novel. Of course, it involves thinking about what one is reading.

Unfortunately, if there are fewer literary books to choose from, isn't that partly because publishers choose not to select those types if they think they can make more on a genre book? A lot of decisions these days are made based on the bottom line.

Eowyn Ivey said...

Literary fiction dying? If you mean well-written, compelling stories with depth of character and metaphorical language, just look at some of the movies to come out in recent years. The Road, Cold Mountain, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Shipping News, All the Pretty Horses, Memoirs of a Geisha, Bee Season, Lovely Bones, Blindness, Brokeback Mountain, Revolutionary Road, Atonement, The Kite Runner, Stardust. Just to name a few. Regardless of how you feel about either the books or the movies they inspired, there is no denying the connection. If film is one of the leading media today, the fact that it looks so often to books means something. Literary fiction may be changing, adapting, being used in different ways, but for as long as I can imagine, people will want to hears stories that provide insight into humanity, that capture something both unique and universal.

beth said...

If I understand correctly, (and I'm not claiming to), literary fiction is fiction with a higher meaning than the story it tells. If you think about Twilight as a story about overcoming temptation rather than a vampire, and Shiver as a story about losing yourself rather than turning into a werewolf, can genre fiction not also be literary?
beth-project52.blogspot.com

Nathan Bransford said...

eowyn-

Interesting though, that all the movies you mentioned were based on novels published before 2006.

Jihad Punk 77 said...

Lit Fiction is not gonna die! rather, it will EVOLVE into something else...

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I agree with Megan and Mary. We force young people to read literary classics in school, test them, study each paragraph and deeper meaning to death and then expect them to fall in love with it? We make it boring work for large number of students and they never get the chance to fall in love with novels of any type. If schools are still using the same novels today they used 30-50 years ago why would young readers understand there are modern works and new authors out there putting out great material?
We authors hear about promote, promote all the time but I seldom see literary novels buying those expensive spots at the front of the bookstore. They need to accept what the rest of the publishing world knows instead of expecting the world to find their novels just because they wrote it.

Anonymous said...

Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP has been on the NYT besteller list for like a year now.

I'd say that's literary.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

It would be sad thing if literary fiction were to pass into the shadows, but I don't think that is going to happen. The Dactyl Foundation for the Arts and Humanities in NYC has something to say about the current state of literary fiction and has started their own review site. They even have a nice comprehensive definition of what literary fiction is and should be.

Hopefully more review sites like this will pop up to give Lit Fic readers the sort of the books they crave whether they be NY Published, Indie Press Published, or even Indie Author Published.

http://dactylfoundation.org/?p=1529

Phyllis said...

"Interesting though, that all the movies you mentioned were based on novels published before 2006."

4 years, is that a long time for books made into movies? I really don't know, but I think it's a short time for claiming there's a trend showing that literary fiction loses its cultural impact.

Nathan Bransford said...

phyllis-

Good point.

Fran said...

I'd say that what has been dying is the access of sharp literary fiction to media mavens, since the figure of the literary critic as someone influential is gone.

The closest you can get to see a book related to real life matters is Colbert making some witty pun.

The public is also aware that most spaces are marketing minced-meat books that two weeks later will be rotting in oblivion. I don't remember the last time I saw an ad for a book meant to rock anybody's personal culture.

Given that the essences of literature and human nature remain mostly unchanged, the problem has to lie somewhere else.

Robert said...

After many years of hand-wringing and procrastination, I finally sat down and wrote my literary novel over the last year. My poor timing in this endeavor is rivaled only by my timing in bed.

Scott said...

Lit fiction was stillborn in the 1700's (or whenever you want to trace its earliest origin to).

It has always been dead, in the sense that not very many people like it or want to read it. And writing without readers is like a skate park in a retirement community.

People cite Dickens and similar names as the greats of lit fiction; I may not be the eminent expert on this, but wouldn't most of those guys have been considered mainstream bestsellers in their day, much like Stephen King now? I'm sure even Shakespeare's contemporaries that weren't as widely read/performed scoffed at his crowd-pleasing, low-brow antics when compared to THEIR high-minded and literary work. And now they are gone and forgotten, and he is still around.

There may have been a brief 20th-century spurt of interest in being literary, but it's definitely over. John Grisham and J.K. Rowling put paid to that.

Robert said...

"the only time anyone really reads literary fiction is if it's for a school assignment."

Spoken like someone who has been in school all her life.

Kellye Parish said...

Major publishers are publishing fewer literary novels. Review space is almost nonexistent. The Internet has empowered the crowd at the expense of elites. Could it be real this time?

I don't think so, because the Internet can go both ways. I have been more exposed to literary fiction through the Internet since college due to the fact that almost every credible small press has its own blog and website now, and through those outlets I am constantly exposed to literary short stories and novels I wouldn't be exposed to otherwise. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and the Internet has been good for niche markets I think.

And if we are witnessing a slow decline in the impact of literary fiction, what's behind it?

Looming Western illiteracy? :P

Most of all: is this something we should fear?

Mostly I think it will probably push literary aspects of novels into genre fiction, which I tend to think of as a good thing.

Literary fiction might die back as a genre in its own right, but I think this trend has the potential to diffuse literary fiction's strong points into other genres.

My favorite kind of books are genre fiction with literary aspects - so maybe we'll just lose stagnant, self-indulgent and obtuse literary novels in lieu of what Nathan defines as "commercial literary fiction" and what I define as "literary fiction that doesn't double as a natural sedative".

Mayowa said...

Literary writers have to make their work more inclusive without dumbing it down. Overall though, I think great culture is dying in all mediums Nathan.

Listen to the new breed of dance bubbleheads on the radio, watch the countless dance/hair dressing reality shows, check out the recycled sequels and prequels that flood the movies every summer.

Deep thought no longer excites the people, hard truths no longer interest the people. Literary fiction just feels the effect more than most other mediums.

Great post

Gehayi said...

First I think you'd have to define what you mean by "literary fiction." If you say "literary fiction" to me, I hear that as code for "a boring, self-important story where nothing happens but which the critics claim is Deeply Significant For Our Times." I suspect a lot of people feel the same way, which is why literary fiction is losing ground.

I don't think that literary fiction HAS to be boring or self-important. I do think, however, that for the past thirty years or so that it's been caught in the trap of pretentiousness, which makes people less and less willing to read it--and less and less willing to see it as accessible. The genre is going to need to change if it wants to survive.

Anne R. Allen said...

Self-consciously literary fiction may be dying, but I'm sure real literary fiction will always be with us. These days it often masquerades as crime, historical or women's fiction.

And a great point was made by a couple of commenters here: most of the classics weren't written to be "literary." Dickens was the Stephen King of his time.

I'll bet kids a generation from now will be whining about having to read "Carrie" or "Get Shorty" for English class.

Kim Batchelor said...

First, thanks for the tip on that spell-thingy. But I digress...

I've always struggled with the genre-mainstream-literary distinctions, making it hard sometimes to find the book I wanted when a bookstore tries to segregate them. Most readers, I'm going out on a limb here, want a good story told well. I'd like to see some of the distinctions erased as they don't serve us very well. And if there's a boom in the sales of whatever format of book, it says to me that people are reading.

Ken Hannahs said...

How pertinent! I am currently looking to produce a podcast/book club that will talk primarily about books with a literary bend. I'm doing it primarily because of these reasons that are all mentioned below, namely: literary has a decidedly bad connotation to most people; they're considered boring; people think that there's no plot in them. That's simply not true! I love them, and I'm actively looking for other people that love them and want to talk about them in a podcast format.

Interested? Please visit my website (cheekondesk.blogspot.com) for all those lucious, lucious deets.

And also, before you get your hackles ruffled (or whatever) I asked NB if I could post this here before I posted, so as not to stir animosity.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to hear from you!

-Ken

Wild Orchids for Trotsky said...

To Amy B, who laments a lack of anyone other than white guys writing literary fiction, I'd like to recommend Jhumpa Lahiri and Toni Morrison. Both excellent non-white non-guy literary authors.

Amanda Sablan said...

So long as people are willing to keep on buying hybrid fiction, I'm happy. I personally love to write literary fiction with action elements, and I would absolutely love to see more of that out there. Maybe then literary fiction wouldn't have its rep as the books "where nothing apart from philosophizing happens."

cheekychook said...

Four years is not a long turnaround time for a book to be made into a movie---it's probably about average---sometimes it's much quicker, other times it's way longer---it's dependent on multiple factors (director interest/availability, studio interest, screenwriter schedules, market analysis, release schedules/trends).

I think the more relevant question is how many novels published in the past few years have had people buy the rights to make them into films eventually?

Nathan Bransford said...

robert-

Good recommendations, but please post without the personal attack.

John Jack said...

The times when town crier doomsayers most demonize a niche is when those gifted few rise to refuse the veracity of such self-serving agendas.

The motivations of the gifted and the doomsayers are identical, to be heard and to promote personal agendas and to rise to challenges.

Impishly, literary writers pursue proving literary genre doomsayers wrong. Saying it's dead, dying, whatever, encourages someone to prove it's doomed is wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum, which is a way of saying things gravitate from high pressure areas to low pressure areas, and where there's a niche to be exploited it will be.

There is a literary masterpiece or two in the augurs which will supress all the nonsense for a while. Just as dragon fantasy once was on the outs, came back, is out again, building for a comeback, biding its time. Vampires were all but extinct in the '60s when Anne Rice said no, they're not.

Literary fiction's niche is not as large as most. What the scratch, recognition of the genre as a distinct category is barely half a century old, far younger than fantasy, adventure, Western, science fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, etc., in fact, it is the current youngest genre category distinction, sub-subgenre groupings notwithstanding.

Switch-handed orphan stepchild literary fiction is still finding its place in culture.

The next literary masterpiece will generate buzz, Buzz, BUZZ, be a great global novel, and come into its own in its own time. Soon.

ryan field said...

Literary fiction will just evolve, like music and the visual arts. But it's never going to lose it's place in culture.

ryan field said...
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B. A. Binns said...

I certainly hope literary isn't dead. (At least not as long as literary isn't a synonym for boring and pompous) The literary novel may be a little sick, but then in today's economy there is a lot of that going around. I think part of the issue is that people once bought "literary" books to show off, they might not like the books themselves, but they wanted people to know they read so-called upper class books. Those days, and those kinds of books, can go. But books that speak a message outside any of the popular genres, and that do so in an interesting and page-turning manner, should continue. At least I hope so, since my own literary YA novel is being published in October. I'm hoping people will consider it more than just literary - I want it considered good. And fast paced and enjoyable, something that does not belong on their coffee table to impress others, but in their hands to read and re-read and think about and discuss...and enjoy.

jjdebenedictis said...

Argh, commenters.

Enough with the snobbery; when a book doesn't sell, it's almost always due to the content.

Literary fiction isn't dying because people are too stoooopid to comprehend its brilliance--it's dying because it isn't giving enough people what they want from a reading experience.

Smart people still exist. And smart people do still read and have an appetite for clever books.

Honest, society is not devolving into a pack of grunting Orcs anymore than it was 20 years ago.

Polenth said...

The article makes it sound like literary fiction is the only one hit, but the truth is the whole short story market has suffered. For example, many women's magazines no longer publish, or have cut back on, romance and women's fiction.

In genres were short stories are still surviving reasonably, literary is well received. The SFF market has more professional magazines open to literary work than it's ever had. There were more magazines in total in the past, but they wanted pulp and action-adventure. Now, a literary tale is often easier to sell than an action-adventure.

So I'm not convinced this is a special singling-out of literary works when it comes to the short story market. It's more a case that short stories as a whole are suffering. Fiction-only magazines of all genres have been struggling to keep going.

(I don't know enough about the literary novel market to comment on that side).

Kelly Wittmann said...

"I think the identification of ‘literary’ as a genre has had a stultifying effect. The things I like best as a reader have both literary credibility and perceived populist features like narrative drive and a focus on relationships. But my perception (looking in at adult novels from children’s publishing) is that if you write a book that is good in both those ways you are actually sunk nowadays because, increasingly, both literary and genre publishers will consider it too far outside the ballpark to fit their list."

This has absolutely been my experience, Anna Bowles. I have heard it time after time: "This too literary to be mainstream and too mainstream to be literary. I don't know where I would slot it."

Ramsey Hootman said...

I think literary fiction isn't disappearing, it's just being moved into genre classifications. The best two examples I can think of are Iain M. Banks and China Mieville, who both write incredible literary fiction... shelved in SF/F.

Most literary fiction probably has an element that can be linked, however loosely, to some genre classification. Genres sell better, so literary fiction is being shelved there if at all possible.

Nicole Grotepas said...

Particularly salient to this discussion is B.R. Meyer's Reader's Manifesto, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Reader%27s_Manifesto) which outlines the failings of much of what's passing for literary fiction these days. I don't want to criticize anyone's heroes, but the works and authors the critics currently herald as great seem a little vapid and self-indulgent.

Someone on here pointed out that a lot of those who strive to be literary writers are in MFA programs and have little life experience. I think that's true and it doesn't contribute to the stories they tell.

What passes for voice in the current list of literary greats is actually just bad writing, as B.R. Meyer's points out. And I tend to agree. I tried to read a McCarthy novel and there was a pompous tone to his work that offended me. He seemed to say, "Oh, I'm doing something awesome here. Too awesome for you to understand." While some buy into it, I don't.

I don't think literary fiction is dying. I think it's still a beautiful thing to aspire to, and I think there are loads of fantastic writers out there. They're simply overlooked at the moment because the system is seized up like an engine without oil. There's a good old boys network in the literary fiction realm and it consists of the editors at the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly (places like these), and the prestigious universities hosting MFA and Phd programs in creative writing.

Your thoughts?

p.s. I don't write literary fiction. And since leaving college, I haven't read much of it, unless we're talking about the old greats like Tolstoy, Hemingway, Cather, et. al.

Steven Till said...

I think a lot of these things are cyclical, whether it be in fiction, in music, etc. Readers' tastes are constantly changing, so at some point there will be a stronger return to literary fiction. On a national scale, we have even returned to the written form as the dominant form of communication, where decades ago it used to be the telephone, and before the telephone, it was hand-written letters. Email, texting, twittering, blogging (while not hand-written) are a return to the form of written communication. Literary fiction will have its place at some point in the future, yet again.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...
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Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...
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Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I suppose it depends on how we define "literary fiction." If we think of literary fiction as a certain kind of highly introspective writing that developed esp. in the 20th century when there was a mass market for "intellectual" fiction and when magazines like the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the NYRB, Times Literary Supplement, Granta et. al were nurturing short stories that created a market for mass appeal intellectual writers --- well, then probably --- because that market doesn't exist anymore.

But that doesn't mean that we should worry that equally smart fiction won't be written, read and disseminated.

While the wider implications of the e-book for the publishing industry are hard to discern, it's pretty clear that one thing it will allow for is the commercial viability of mid-market, as opposed to mass-market fiction. I think that one of the reasons why we're accustomed to seeing the occasional high-quality stylism/"literary"-lite writer in so-called genre fiction is that genre-fiction has a viable marketing model that helps to predict a certain commercial success and builds up a potential readership. Relying more on individual authors' reputations and without being situated in any particular "genre" straight-
up literary fiction runs the risk of being too costly to fail on.

I think of the many prizes, magazine outlets and review culture that makes "literary fiction" as a way of building and channeling the small market that there is.

On the other hand, when the cost of production and distribution go down, it becomes possible to succeed with a high quality book that doesn't necessarily appeal to everybody. I'm not talking about self-publishing or vanity writing, but work that professional writers and serious readers recognize as good but can't guarantee a wide market.

My suspicion is that this will reduce the distinctiveness of literary fiction as opposed to other genres of fiction. we will find that some of the characteristics that make literary fiction good (experimentalism in style, emphasis on deep development and ideas over quick action or shallow plots, attention to prosody, moral imagination) will show up in a wider range of "styles" or "genres" because attention to these matters won't only be rewarded for the small walls of "literary fiction."

Of course, that's really the way it's always been.

One of the great stylists of the last century was P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote puff high society pieces that all have virtually the same plot. But try to imagine Salman Rushdie without the rub of polyglot Indian English against the polish and wit of high-society British passed through a Wodehousian lens.

Rushdie fits squarely into the world of "literary fiction," but he doesn't just dwell within a literary fiction bubble. His work ranges over the whole field of literature. As Milan Kundera, another great and succesful writer of "literary" fiction reminds us, the task of the novel is to discover what only the novel can. This isn't distinctive to one genre or another, but is true of any novel worth devoting hours or days of reading to.

Amy said...

If literary fiction goes away, I won't cry for it. I read a few literary books each year, and I always wind up regretting it and asking myself why I even try to connect with this genre. It's full of silly pretentiousness, like leaving out the quotation marks (WHY?), and why do we think a novel can't be serious unless it has a tragic ending?

Weren't most of the books we consider classics today actually considered popular fiction at the time they were written? I'm not sure that setting out to write a classic is the best way to produce one.

I do like some literary/genre hybrids, like Thomas H. Cook's mystery novels that have a literary bent but don't go overboard with it. Some end in tragedy, but not all of them do, so I'm truly in suspense with each one, having no idea how it will end.

Nicole said...

I think it's time for lit fic to be considered a genre, just like everything else. Rather than being the pinnacle of writing (as it so often seems to be considered) make it one of many options. I don't think it's dying, I just think it's not the popular genre at the moment. These things are cyclical, based on who is writing what, and how well.

Aoife.Troxel said...

I LIKE LITERARY FICTION. Sorry, I know that's shouting, but I am. I also like other fiction, but I don't think literary fiction should be allowed to die. I suspect it will just evolve into something else. I don't mind as long as that something else is up to standard or better.

Perry said...

If Literary fiction dies, who will win awards and what will schools, colleges and universities use for their English courses.

I don't know that literary fiction is dead, perhaps it's going through a major change as the genre writers tiptoe into literary style. As long as people read it someone will publish it.

Alex said...

The concise version of your definition of "literary" might be Neil Gaiman's quote, paraphrased as "There is room for stories to be about more than they're about."

By that standard, I don't see any change in the percentage of literary fiction coming out each year. If it happens to involve something other than mopey WASPs, well, that might pull it off of the radar for a lot of folks. Seems fine by me.

Rebecca said...

I don't think literary fiction is dead or dying. Some of mine and my kids' favorites are newer literary fiction. Books like Sharon Creech's Heartbeat and Walk Two Moons, even her Love that Dog--these are books that are more about what happens below the surface than external forces.

Perhaps literary fiction is evolving a bit, just as readers are. But it won't go away.

Fawn Neun said...

I adore literary fiction. Quite frankly, I think the trend is that literary fiction isn't so much dying as genre fiction is beginning to catch up with the cache.

Now, JKR, Brown and Myers are no where near literary fiction, but I do believe that in order to stand out, genre writers are incorporating literary technique into their fiction. I think this is catching on and I think the trend will continue.

So, maybe as a genre, litfic will die out, but I think the principals and standards by which genre fiction is held will escalate.

We'll get more hybrids, like The Road and Nightwatch. Which is fine by me. After spending three days paddling through Atonement, I had to shake my head and wonder why, as beautiful as it was, I'd spent three days on a short-story's worth of actual plot. There's no excuse for that.

Peter Dudley said...

No for real this time?

Thanks for my biggest laugh of the day. So far.

Michael Pickett said...

I think that your post about the definition of literary fiction gets at something very important: no one agrees about what literary fiction is. In so many of my undergrad English classes, literary was synonymous with "good." If they liked it, it must be literary, because they would never condescend to like genre fiction. These days the boundaries are blurred, so maybe literary fiction is disappearing as it gets swallowed by the genres.

Literary Cowgirl said...

Not dead. Just evlolving. There is no reason why something new can't take everyone by storm just like the genre writers have done. To skip over to another art form for a second, in Victorian times painting was ornate and filled to the brim with details. Along came Whistler's Mother. It was sparce and ahead of it's time, but when it took off in the 30s it took off! It was front page news for two years in the US. We're just waiting for Whistler's Mother to show up in the world of literary fiction. It will be sparse and catch our limited attention spans. It's coming, and likey it is already out there waiting to be discovered.

Video games didn't kill the game of chess, but people play chess on computers.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I don't think it's completely dead or ever will completely die, but I think the market is doing as much to kill it as the readers who are supposedly not reading it. Books have to have action! and be less than X number of words and appeal to __,___, and ____ segments of the market or they won't sell.


Also, perceptions of what literary fiction is might be changing, since so many books cross genre lines. Literary books that become very popular are usually noted as commercial, at least in the eyes of the public. And there are many genre books that are literary, but they are categorized as genre first. Perhaps people don't know what to expect or how to define literary novels, and thus think of them as dry, boring, books you're forced to read in school when you're young. I think it's also associated with a certain amount of snobbery, given the Hollywood culture of books these days. Not that that's a fair assessment, but it happens.

Mostly I think literary fiction is just evolving with the culture, as every genre is want to do. We can look back and say they don't publish books like ____ anymore, but fail to realize that _____ wouldn't be published if it were pitched today. Our books and the way we categorize them change with us. Literary fiction isn't the exception.

Meghan Ward said...

I think this article in The Nation explains a lot: http://bit.ly/aKeyVA

I love literary fiction, but discounters like Amazon are making it impossible for a) Readers to discover new authors and b) for publishers to be able to afford to publish books that aren't guaranteed to be mega-bestsellers. The perfect example is The Passage by Justin Cronin (which I'm reading now). He's a literary fiction writer who's won the PEN/Hemingway award but needed to pay his bills, so he sold a vampire trilogy for $3.5 million.

John Jack said...

Fawn Neun wrote, "genre fiction is beginning to catch up" and similar sentiments by others, reflects my view convention-based genres are adapting more and more creative literary methods. Most importantly subtext, which goes to Mr. Bransford's opinion, "In literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface."

Cultural coding expectations from literature tend to level out in strata. Narratives that challenge readers to understand subtext, and readers enjoy the challenge, fit the generic definition of literary.

Pete Miller said...

A lot of what is selling now is YA fiction or fiction being sold as YA fiction. That can only be healthy for the world of literature at large - children are still actively reading. I think this is a bit of sky is falling panic.

Since YA is considered a 'genre' the people reading that 'genre' tend to not consider genre nearly as much as adults do. They'll read fantasy, sf, contemporary, and what ever else is in the section with much less regard than adults.

They will soon enough be adults who read across genre and maybe even read literature.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Someone in one of the comments wrote, "only time anyone really reads literary fiction is if it's for a school assignment." Which is just a mistaken idea. This post is slanted to make it seem as if literary fiction is in fact dying, when in fact it is not. Excellent novels in beautiful, world-class prose are published almost daily and are as widely read as literature ever was. That it's less visible among all the noise of other forms of fiction and all the non-fiction books has to do with markets, but are there any hard facts (not opinion pieces writ by folks who don't like literature and want to see it die, or by folks who don't like genre/pop fiction and are afraid it's killing literature) about literary fiction readership/sales? Why are people like Peter Carey, David Mitchell, A.S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, ZZ Packer, Phillip Roth and others able to make livings writing literary fiction? Why are people like Victor LaValle, Jonathan Evison, Jon Clinch, Vendela Vida, Gina Frangello, Sam Munson, Lorraine Adams (and the list goes on and on) getting book deals? Literary fiction is in pretty good shape for a corpse.

G said...

I stopped reading literary fiction (mostly short stories) years ago. I don't know about you, but the absolute last thing I want to do while reading is having to go intellectual while reading.

I rather become emotionally attached to a story than intellectually stimulated.

After all, is that what textbooks are for?

S Yarns said...

Honestly, and I can't quote facts or books, I think it's a cycle.

I think back when I was in school, I didn't want to read anything that made me think. I wanted an escape, but only if it was quick and easy and mindless.

I grew, and my tastes changed. Literary fiction became what I wanted, BECAUSE it made me think.

Now that I am even older, (we wont go there)I read everything. Whatever I can get my hands on.

I don't think that there can be an -ist or -ism attached to the writing. It's simply a matter of one writing what one is comfortable with. How can it be otherwise? An agent doesn't know what color you are or what sex you are by a query letter or a full manuscript. Or maybe I am just not getting it...

No, I don't think that literary fiction is losing it's place. There are simply more people writing for different genres.

Or, I could simply be naive.

MJR said...

I think there's a certain prestige value in literary fiction and it will still be sold and people will still want to read it. I don't read it much anymore. I like well written commercial fiction, like THE HELP (I don't consider that literay fiction), quirky books like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, etc. I wish agents and publishers would think about people like me more often--we want to read well-written novels that aren't necessarily following any trends...but aren't self-consciously literary either.

Anonymous said...

The only time anyone reads literary fiction is for school???

Right.

Look at Jhumpa Lahiri or Zadie Smith's success. Doubt it was all "for school".

I just finished' Zadie's "On Beauty" and then picked up a mainstream book. I am SO missing the rich writing, the depth of Zadie Smith's prose, the fullness to her characters, the MEANING of her work. It's like going from gourmet to fast food. I'm quite sure I'm not alone, based on her sales/reputation.

gsfields said...

I don't mean to be flippant, but who cares?

I have never sat down and read a genre. I read stories. So who cares if someone in an academic or journalistic ivory tower declares the end of a genre.

Stories will still be written by people who have stories to tell regardless of what category it is placed.

Rebecca said...

G said: "I rather become emotionally attached to a story than intellectually stimulated."

Why can't it be both? Just because a book is considered "literary" doesn't mean it won't be an emotionally stimulating story. Actually, I would say that a literary work is MORE likely to be an emotional read than most popular fiction.

scott g.f.bailey said...

@G: I like the way my brain feels when I'm thinking. Intellectual stimulation is sexy. The opposite is also true.

K.L. Brady said...

No, literary fiction will never lose it's place in culture because the world will always be laden with book snobs who love nothing more than reading books that give normal people headaches.

I'm sorry...that was my outside voice. lol

just kidding...I like some literary fiction. Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors. Her work makes my head hurt but in a good way. It makes my brain expand. We all needed that from time to time.

Anonymous said...

If you were going to be a snob about something, wouldn't literature be a good place for that? I mean, it's an intellectual thing that you're insisting on high standards for, not a car or a pair of jeans or something. We complain about the dumbing down of our kids and then somehow elevate it when we grow up and don't "have" to do it anymore. You can eat Oreos all day, too, if you like. No one's going to stop you.

Thad said...

As an author, owner of a small press, and bookstore I can tell you without any doubt that people are as hungry for literary fiction as ever. It's almost exclusively what we sell and publish. And we are thriving.

The book industry is imploding because it (collectively) cares more about money than art and readership. The outcome of this trend (which we are now approaching the end of) is that the market is glutted with so much content competing for readers' money that readers are lost in it.

Provide readers with specific recommendations and choices limited to what you can guarantee to be exceptional literature and people can't get enough of it.

There are literary writers out there writing brilliant works and being almost completely ignored because readers can't find them amid the marketing plans and the dreck congesting the shelves at B&N.

The sooner the big six die, the better for our reading culture. Selling books for a living has done nothing if not prove to me that this business has been sick and upside down for years. The death of such a bloated, profit-hungry, titanic of sycophants is the best thing that can happen for writers and readers both.

Anonymous said...

I think this culture is going through another phase. Remember the game show phase? The superhero phase? Well, this is a reality phase. People will tire, especially when they've had their fill of bad reality.

People still enjoy hearing a good story and always will as long as imagination exists. And, I think imagination will exist until mankind no longer exists.

Aimee said...

Uh, that last one was me, Aimee, Midgedear, http://whiteroses-aimee.blogspot.com--Meeeee!

Victoria said...

Readers are looking for a good story, well told. Something that can transport you, make you laugh, make you cry and maybe even make you re-examine your life a little. Things that can do this, regardless of genre, style, or literary status become bestsellers. (Or in the case of film, major must-see events. Do I need to reference Avatar here, or is that pointing out the obvious?)

In an e-book world where books of all styles will be available, I believe the cream will still rise to the top. Regardless of what genre the creams is designated to be.

Hopefully, this will make some people reconsider their snobbery regarding genre fiction.

Vic K

Jeff said...

Nathan's take on what is literary and what is not is a nice flashlight in the right direction. I recently bought a book of Orwell essays and, apparently, the argument in 1936 was the death of the novel itself (In Defense of the Novel.) Orwell blamed it on the critics who for money wrote that any book they picked up was just fabulous! I thought it was a contrived argument to perhaps spur writers to write something new, and who knows, maybe it did. So my knee-jerk reaction to this question is of course the literary novel is not dead. But perhaps they seem boring because popular psychology has become such an integral part of our thinking there doesn't seem to be any unexplored caverns in being a person. But is that true? Is popular, ganglion based understanding the height of intellectuality? Formulaic emotional and moral reactions to, hopefully, a strange plot? I don't think it needs to be boring at all. I think if literary fiction writers dug around a little more, the genre of literary, in Nathan's definition, would become interesting to more people again. Although, maybe I'm stretching for my last gasp.

my lonely journal said...

"Could it be real this time?" I think not.

"And if we are witnessing a slow decline in the impact of literary fiction, what's behind it?" If anything, a rise in bad taste.

"Most of all: is this something we should fear?" I'd say no. We live in a consumer driven society. If there's demand, there'll be product, and I know dozens of people who demand good literary fiction, and thousands of people who will continue to provide it.

Dan said...
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Melanie said...

Just curious: How much do publishers and agents care about their authors winning awards like, say, the Pulitzer? Surely there's still some incentive for a handful of great literary novels to make it through the cut, no?

Also, my guess is that if the big houses stop or seriously cut back on literary fiction, there will still be plenty of small presses who are undoubtedly dedicated to publishing ONLY literary fiction, and they will only benefit from the shift. I think we'd see more people looking to that arena for the books they want to read, if that's what they're into. As MFA grads find out how bleak the job market is, many of them are starting their own journals and presses, so no, I don't think literary fiction will die. The market may just look different.

And finally! I find it somewhat ironic that the General Public's insatiable appetite for reality is what makes them less likely to enjoy literary fiction, the best of which delves into the deepest, universal questions of the human condition. TWILIGHT, for example, isn't based on reality. I'm not knocking it, but the dialogue is heightened for romance, and character development only goes so far to let the pace stay quick. These things make it less-than-reality, don't they? It seems that the term "reality" should really be substituted with "snippets of melodrama extracted from countless hours of real life," which is turning into "snippets of real people pretending to have dramatic lives because they've seen it on TV extracted from a few less hours of tape." (This is, of course, based solely on reality television, not reality books like biographies. Unless they're memoirs about former reality show contestants.)

Joshua Peacock said...

Cormac McCarthy is pretty big. He's literary to my understanding. People still really like books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men.

But will this continue? I dunno.

Sally Jo said...

Nah. I think it's just that the packaging is different AND that it's at the mercy of the Great Unwashed--which is how I feel I am viewed because I read more genre and less literary, because let's face it, literary characters are often just so dang unlikable!

There, I said it.

Sally Jo said...

And one more thing, The Road made me want to stick a fork in my eye.

Adam Heine said...

I dunno. Isn't one of the defining features of literary fiction that it is unappreciated in its time?

Laura Martone said...

I'm not sure if it's the end for literary fiction as we know it, but I sure hope it isn't - it's my top genre of choice as a reader... and as a writer.

Hannah said...

I really hope that literary fiction isn't on the way out, because that's the genre I most enjoy reading and writing. But I do agree that people are growing more and more impatient with their entertainment. They want it when they want it, and they don't want to wait for a novel to build upon itself slowly.

I'm sure that literary fiction will survive, but in order to become more popular it has to change. The literary fiction novels of a hundred years ago aren't the same literary fiction novels being written today. No one would read them if they were the same novels that had been written in the last century. It'll change, but it won't go away, and it's up to the writers to adapt with the changing tastes of their audiences while remaining true to their craft.

AndrewDugas said...

This is most promising! Nothing guarantees a resurgence than a declaration of a demise. If the big guns are fretting, then we are only a few years shy of a new literary renaissance!

Laura Martone said...

Then again, when I hear my nieces talk and I realize just how much younger generations (heck, even MY generation) are influenced by short-attention-span media like Twitter, Facebook, TV shows, and the Internet in general, I do fear that slower-paced, literary stories are going to fade away, which makes me sad. Sniff, sniff.

But then, an intelligent (albeit bad-ass) film like INCEPTION rules the box office for three weeks in a row, and hope is once more renewed!

AndrewDugas said...

If only as many people read literary novels as tried to write them. If everyone in an MFA program bought one literary novel a month -- hell, a season -- business would be booming.

Erik Hare said...

I think that the future of all fiction is up in the air, but literary fiction even moreso. The future is likely to be along the lines of commercial literary fiction, I think.

This is part of the reasoning behind my newest online project <a href="http://Mythnology.com/>Mythnology</a>. It's an online serial novel with a very series literary substory. And it deals with the workings of the mind - but as a plot device.

The interactive / performance aspects of it are an attempt to return to the roots of storytelling. Please visit to see the first three chapters and a detailed explanation.

Dave said...

Eowyn,

Thanks for saying this, I feel this way too.

Literary fiction may be changing, adapting, being used in different ways, but for as long as I can imagine, people will want to hears stories that provide insight into humanity, that capture something both unique and universal.

Jil said...

In Nathan's previous blog about literary fiction he mentions empathy and that is something often lacking in today's world. I think good literary fiction is very important to a child's (and adult's) social development. I read in last week's newspaper that schools are going to cut the reading of fiction in favor of nonfiction. A sad thing, in my opinion. Seeing inside the hearts and minds of people different to ourselves, through the stories in literary fiction,helps nurture a kind and understanding society.

Jenny said...

This is such an interesting conversation, and I think that there might need to be a re-defining of 'literary'. Nowadays we read books written by the likes of Hawthorne or Melville or *insert name of school reading author* and we can point at it and say that the works are 'literary' but the truth is, they writing like people spoke in those days.

Contributions to the lack of literary punch today? Partly, we might be looking in the wrong place--and the Stephen Kings and Stephenie Meyers and J.K. Rowlings are the authors that define our modern times, so we would have to look at them in a different light. At least two of those writers do have college classes available on some campuses.

Then, we may also truly be lacking in writers willing to talk about the issues that pound at us today. All of the authors listed above are fantastical in one way or another--providing an escape.

The writers who are considered the best at the literary style break the rules. Stream-of-conciousness, all fragments, magical realism, these are all styles that broke the rules when established. Now? What rules are there to break, and what is accomplished when they are broken? There doesn't seem to be an author who is the 'Voice of the Generation' at the moment.

But, like all things shifting around in this publishing world, I'm sure they're coming. Just wait for it.

SueB said...

No, literary fiction is not dying. As lots of other people have said above, it has always had a smaller readership than the more mass market fiction, and I don't think that's changed. Storytelling will go on, regardless of fashions and the market and technology, as humans need stories to live full lives.

Jeff said...

I feel the need to kick in twice. This, indeed, is an interesting conversation. Unfortunately, I don't read many modern novels except, lately, Caribbean fiction, or works that are coming out of that people. But to add a reference for what I consider literary that isn't formulaic and challenges my emotions and sense of morals without creating other-worldly tropes is a book from 1964 by Jean Genet called The Thief's Journal. The first chapter had me so wrapped up in honest writing that I couldn't put it down. Now, I have to admit I still scramble to divorce myself from personal empathy because popular ideals of success dictate my disgust, yet, this is beautiful, honest writing. Is he telling the truth? I don't know. Do I try to read the whole thing once in a while? You bet. Do I own it and does it sit on my book shelf? Yes it does. Does it challenge my sense of humanity? Again, of course. Anyway, I consider this a good example, though it's old now.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I have to agree with Mira on this one. Seriously. Sort of.

I can safely state literary fiction isn't dead outside of America, as many continue to read "literary" novels in translation, because it seems to do more than mirror or reflect even a particular society or country's "popular" culture--it reflects humanity.

To me, "literature," as in "literary" fiction, is storytelling (can't let that go) presented artfully, containing all the elements of artistic expression, touching on some commonality or interest among humans, making it more than fodder for "Lit" classes or publishing houses lists, making it something that will be read and relevant perhaps 100 years from its first publication.

Literary novels,(I hope), are far more than "new" or "obscure" or "esoteric" or "elevated" writing that some professor or critic or publicity machine determines are "must" reads.

So, I don't believe literary fiction is dead or ever will die. As for losing its place in our culture, perhaps, but its place in our culture has always been somewhat precarious, having to compete with whatever makes more money for the publisher or media company (don't forget movie adaptations, toys, and other "marketable" offshoots).

But literary fiction has always been a "hard sell," to people looking more for excitement or thrills than thought provoking art.

I am more interested in trying to use writing as an artistic method of storytelling than generating an income through my writing.

So, literary fiction, and my attempts at it, will continue until others who feel like me are dead. Hopefully, each generation of literary fiction writers encourages the next.

But it never, really, has sold all that well.

(The Great Gatsby's sales made F. Scott Fitzgerald despondent, despite Max Perkins' attempts at encouraging him).

Perhaps literary fiction only becomes relevent when readers start telling others about it. And eventually, a professor or even high school "lit" teacher makes it required reading...:)

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Because genre fiction is largely composed of stories where the reader would like to be the main character and literary fiction is the opposite.

Because genre fiction is escapist and literary fiction is the opposite.

And Amy B.? You found most literary fiction to be written by white males? I assume this was 1940. Come on back, the water's fine.

Mike said...

Agree with Katharine Hyde. I read a very small book, adapted from a magazine article, which demolished much current literature as overstuffed nonsense -- but I can't remember the book or author and I quickly passed it on because it was so funny and brilliant and right. "Literary" fiction has become stylized, pretentious and unreadable. Read some Turgenev and see how natural and straightforward literary fiction can be. Turgenev would never make it at a writer's workshop, however, and he certainly wouldn't get an MFA with that kind of prose.

Amber Forbes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amber Forbes said...

Ack...stupid keyboard.

In any case, like I've said before, if people want to keep literary fiction alive, or some part of it, write a story that straddles the line between commercial and literary. It's very possible to have both a great story and amazing writing. I've read several YA novels this year--bestsellers--that do this masterfully. These novels are accessible to the general public, but also leave something for those who love to delve beyond the surface of a work.

MedleyMisty said...

So I just finished commenting on your previous post and my comment there deals with parts of this, I think. Like the bits about how I see writing as art but I don't have an MFA. I don't have a four year degree at all.

So that does color my definition of "literary". I think of the 19th century classics I read for fun growing up, not the boring and pretentious although it did have a few nice sentences Pulitzer winner I flipped through at the bookstore the other day. So I guess I tend to definite it as "great story, great writing, unique and interesting and not written to fit into a market".

Literary fiction may be losing its place in publishing culture. But I've got a writing forum full of links to free stuff online that's better than 90% of what I see in corporate bookstores.

Okay, so it's mostly stories illustrated with the Sims game so it's not viable for professional publishing anyway. But I only invite the best authors I see in the Sims community and the quality of the prose in between the pictures is quite high. The stories are imaginative with high concepts behind them and wouldn't fit comfortably in any genre. And there's quite the subculture surrounding them. The Bloomsbury Group has nothing on us. :)

Been cruising Web Fiction Guide lately, and while it has some clunkers I've found some absolute gems. The weblit culture doesn't seem as active and cohesive as the Sims story culture, but I think it's growing.

Maybe the correct question is "Are corporations who only focus on the bottom line losing their place in culture?" Because I'm still reading great stories with beautiful prose and deep meanings. Just I'm reading them online straight from the author.

Nicole said...

I doubt it. In the end, the market is always fluctuating.

After all, who thought a single, moody, sparkly vampire would make the whole paranomal/urban fantasy scene explode?

I don't read a lot of literary fiction, but I wouldn't count it out. All it takes is one book for everyone and their grandma to get back into the literary groove again.

The real question is: What book will it be?

tsc@bonalibro.us said...

I think there is always room for literary fiction that communicates in a nonetheless stylish way. The problem is the stuff that doesn't. It baffles the reader with its seeming brilliance and leaves her feeling like a moron because she doesn't get it and feels she should, because everyone pretends to. Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, William Vollman, Kazuo Ishiguro (e.g. The Unconsoled) are some of the most notable examples. It's the syndrome of the writer as tailor of The Emperor's New Clothes.

But if you look at the work of Richard Powers, for example, whom almost no one but the Lit professors read, you realize you're in the presence of a master. The Time of Our Singing and the Goldbug Variations were particularly brilliant. But Powers likes to write about something other than words. Science, music, computers, medicine; whatever subject he delves into, his vast erudition is unquestionably clear.

There are still people making contributions to the culture in the form of literary fiction but, as at all times, the market seldom recognizes them.

Anonymous said...

Last time I looked, Kenyon Review was not on the book shelf in check out lanes at Walmart.

I wonder whether Shipping News and Kavalier and Klay were ever in the paperbacks shelf at Walgreens. Don't think so.

In decades long ago, did For Whom the Bell Tolls outsell books from Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie?

Sophia said...

This comments on this post have been so interesting; thank you everyone.

I was thinking about how literary fiction perhaps sometimes has the aim of speaking for a voiceless generation; of capturing the spirit of a time. If that is sometimes the case, then I think Nathan's description of the internet empowering the crowd is an important one. Through Twitter, especially, no one with internet access is voiceless. The trending topics list gives us a snapshot of what millions of people are talking and thinking about at any moment. We're receiving the thoughts of humanity every second, and they can be beautiful, or mundane, or prurient, or hurtful, or hilarious, but they're real.

A literary work that tries to tap into the universal aspects of being human needs to find its place amongst those distinct voices, and perhaps the culture just needs to find an equilibrium after the choppy waves caused by this sudden explosion of voices, before the literary voices can be heard again.

Sheila Cull said...

I don't think there's a need for worry. Asking if literary fiction will die is like asking if classical music will.

Sheila Cull said...

I don't think there's a need for worry. Asking if literary fiction will die is like asking if classical music will.

Anonymous said...

Geez, Nathan, you took a risk misspelling the most famous curse of all time :-)

Al DeLuca said...

I think it is experiencing a lull, however it is clear that the publishing industry in general is experiencing a lull.

Because of this, I think traditional publishers are doing more genre fiction because it sells, however this is a temporary fix. It's putting a band-aid on a crumbling building.

I think within the next five years we are going to see a new publishing model that is NOTHING like any of the current attempts to bring fiction to the 21st century. I fully expect something as game-changing for fiction as YouTube, iTunes, and Netflix were to the music and video industries.

reader said...

I still don't know what constitutes literary fiction, from say, book club fiction.

And that's the problem. I think I love literary fiction, but I consider lit fiction to be Michael Chabon and Curtis Sittenfeld. Then I hear others spout off names of famous lit fiction authors and not only have I never read their work, I've never even HEARD of them.

Everyone is using different terminology for what lit fiction is -- even if they agree with your (link) definition.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@3:21-

Fixed, hopefully before you-know-who noticed.

Kate Lacy said...

Perhaps what one is missing in the big picture is the answer to "Are we who read willing to forego the chance to savor both stories and the art of expression that we have found by authors known to be 'literary' writers?" Would we willingly go into tomorrow knowing that we'd never stumble over another _____ insert your favorite 'grand master.' I suggest that some bloggers and those who write commercial articles often jump on trendy bandwagons because they gather a reading audience and that's where the fun begins. It's so much easier to be a nay-sayer. I recall that first movies and then television were going to make the printed word obsolete also. Hmmmm?

Kay Richardson said...

For 'literary' read boring. All these bloody writers using their own names in the novel and all that postmodern nonsense. Whatever happened to stories? You know, like Bambi or Snow White?

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Once again, you get so many comments it seems pointless to make one, but here goes, and I'll quote you -

"First off, I'd like to bust one of the myths about literary fiction -- that it doesn't have a plot. Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It's just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem -- absolutely nothing is happening and thus it's (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot. It starts in one place and ends in another. The characters face challenges and evolve. Even in quiet books like GILEAD (a seriously amazing book, btw), things happen. A literary novel might not end in a shootout or with the death of an albino, but there's a plot there."

You've nailed the problem for me with much of today's literary fiction - no plot, only annoying plot devices. Good literary fiction does indeed possess a plot and it will sell, Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is a case in point. Or, Cutting for Stone - wonderful book.

In recent years, I've actually found genre fiction to be far more interesting. Why? Because much of today's literary fiction seems so self-absorbed, narcissistic, and whiny. If I want whiny and self-absorbed, I'll call my sister.

Great literary fiction? Under Heaven, Cloud Splitter, Ahab's Wife, The Handmaid's Tale...I can go on and on...

Dan said...

Creative writing programs and Barnes & Noble invented 'literary' fiction, and though it says as much about me as it does my taste in fiction, I don't know anyone under the age of 40 who reads literary fiction and hasn't pursued some form of an advanced degree in English. Literary fiction has become an acquired taste. As these labels lose some of their heft, it should free things up. We're seeing really fun fiction being published right now. Jennifer Egan. Joshua Ferris. Gary Shteyngart. Just this summer! I hope things trend in that direction.

Pamela Livingston said...

Isn't excellent literary fiction the exception over the rule? The true trend setters with new and unique voices of our past produced works that stood-up over time but were not necessarily best sellers to begin with. Some of these works were too revolutionary to be viewed adequately without the benefit of perspective.
Personally, I am encouraged by M.T. Anderson's "Octavian Nothing" Volumes I & II. He moved from writing "Feed" to something completely different with an exceptional voice. Although it's marketed for young adults, which may have to do with audience of his earlier works, it's a completely differnt genre, historic fiction instead of fantasy. It seems that this is a case for marketing and "type casting" successfully expanding the audience for a more literary work.

J. T. Shea said...

Of course the literary novel is dead! This new-fangled typewriter thing killed it. It's now much too easy for the Great Unwashed to write novels about unworthy subjects like their own pointless lives and dreams.

But hark! What's that noise outside the window? Good heavens! What are those strange carriages whizzing by in the street? Where are the horses?

What day is it? What YEAR is it? 2010!? Omigod! What happened to the twentieth century? Could Queen Victoria be dead? The horror! The horror!

Amy Lundebrek said...

I really enjoyed your discussion of the difference between commercial and literary fiction. After reading it, I'm thinking, maybe the traditional literary novel is fading in popularity because we live in a time where things are happening- and really fast at that. We as humans are forced to live our internal life amidst a daunting flow of external events. Due to the internet, we are also forced to internally process a lot more "events" than people used to even hear about. So maybe a quiet novel where most of the plot is below the surface just isn't something most people are able to identify with at this time in history.

I don't think it's dead, though.

Anonymous said...

I think these times are not going to support depressing literary fiction.

Fantasy is all the rage.

Let us escape into a world of adventure, imagination, love.

When the culture at large is in crisis (economic depression/oil spills/health care crisis/etc.), we need stories that will carry us through or take us away, not ones that will make our worlds ever the more grave.

However, beautifully written, uplifting literary works, embedded with hope, will have a chance.

But probably literary fiction will be anemic for a good while.

This is a time when story-buyers, both in print and in film, are looking for escape from reality.

Mira said...

I have to agree with Terin Tashi Miller on this one.

Seriously. :)

I thought your point that literary writers are frequently writing for Art's sake, and will continue regardless, was well said.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Katherine said...

So I was just at this writer's conference with more than six hundred people and everyone's writing YA and it's all about vampires or zombies or space ships. I asked why and they said because it's so popular. Wrong answer. If you don't write about something that moves you....if you don't read something that moves you...you won't survive for the long haul. You'll be chasing trends. You may as well chase the stock market.

There are things I have read that Hemingway wrote that still resonate with me all these years later. The Time Traveler's Wife TO ME is literary and an amazing story that still moves me four months after I read it.

READ. READ. READ. Write prose, develop your own style and write honestly (that doesn't mean chasing trends like vampires because that might have been Stephanie Meyer's dream, but is it really yours??)

Terin Tashi Miller said...

OK. I have one last thought on this because I think it's a great question.

I think self-publishing, and ebooks, as first inklings of literary fiction once again gaining attention, will supersede "traditional" publishing.

Because "literary" fiction doesn't make enough money for shareholders, and taking on new writers--without proven sales or other measures--is becoming not only too great a risk but too often a costly mistake.

Few people outside journalism seem to have noticed, or been aware, that for the first time in history, a Website won a Pulitzer this past year (ProPublica.com, begun by the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and some other WSJ alumni).

An ebook, on its own, or for that matter a self-published novel, has yet to win such recognition.

But that is where the cost to publish is extremely low, the royalties are comparatively higher, and "literary" writers are bound to go--the place where as a writer you can get the most readers at the less economic cost to you personally.

It isn't losing its place in American culture. It's finally (in my opinion) evolving into a place where it can benefit humanity as a whole most--the internationally accessible (relatively speaking) internet.

So. Keep your eyes and ears out for the first Nobel Peace Prize for literature being awarded to an e-book writer. Or even the writer of a self-published book. I predict it will happen.

Who read "100 Years Of Solitude" or "Love In the Time Of Cholera" in this country before Gabriel Garcia Marquez was given an award?

One last recommendation: you want literary fiction? Read Christian Bauman's "The Ice Beneath You" or "Voodoo Lounge."

It isn't boring. It isn't narcissistic whining. A lot happens. It has a plot.

The Great Gatsby was a murder story.

The Brothers Karamazov, essentially also a murder story.

L'Assimoir, a story of economic tragedy.

Mihail Lehrmontov's "A Hero Of Our Times," essentially a story of the development of a moral code.

Old Goirot, a story of aging.

A River Runs Through It, similar.

The Angle of Repose, similar.

I've never been a great fan of narcissistic whiny writing. If that's what now passes for "literary fiction," kill it.

If I read a paragraph I don't understand, or can't follow or get into a story, I put the thing down and consider how I might get my $30 or so back. I don't care whose name is on everyone's lips. I care if I get something out of reading the book.

Go ahead. Read Hemingway. Read it out loud. Drop it if you don't get anything out of it. If, however, you do, tell your friends how or why it moved you. And suggest they read it, too.

Do the same with not just Hemingway. Do it even, or especially, with an e-book or self-published book that intrigues you. Go ahead. Be bold. Be daring. Be independent. Read something because you want to, not because someone told you it was required.

M.banks said...

In societies of comfort there's less a pressing need for challenge, and this of course slowly 'dumbs down' society until easy-entertainment becomes less a choice than an expectation. (This is evident in the literature during the dusk of the Roman Empire, though today the internet certainly exacerbates the trend.)

So, yes: in comfortable cultures I believe that literary fiction is losing its place.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Katherine and Terin Tashi Miller - both of you on the bottom - brilliant! I did read One Hundred Years of Solitude when it was first translated into English - years ago. I hope I wasn't the only one! Katherine, that is an issue isn't it - writing whatever is trendy..vampires, YA, shifters.
I hope, in the end, regardless of genre, it's the story that will sell the book. Oh God I hope so...pipe dreams!

Morgan Ives said...

Can I just say I hate the differentiation between "genre" and "literary" fiction? Hate. It. I think it is completely artificial.

I think the solution to the whole "literary"/"genre" question is to recognize the literary value in genre fiction, and recognize that literary fiction sometimes crosses genre boundaries.

For example, Margaret Atwood is a "literary" author, but Oryx and Crake is science fiction (no matter how much she wants to deny it). Dan Simmons, on the other hand, is a "genre" author, but I dare anyone to read Ilium and say it has no literary quality.

Literary should not be a genre, it should be a measure of a book's value to society.

Sally said...

Ok, I'm generalizing like the devil here and I know it, and I apologize in advance, so don't give me too much grief. That said, I threw up my hands and gave up on literary fiction published after about 1970 a long time ago*.

I still read and enjoy literature, but after a point, everything I was reading started being almost exactly the same in, I guess tone is the right word? Feeling? Spirit? Always depressing, disaffected and somewhat navel gazing, as if looking deeply and with great introspect into your own completely screwed existence is to understand greater problems. Except that they are written by people who wouldn't know poverty or violence or real malice if it mugged them. And generally they're not even all that self aware, either. The ideas and feeling expressed in the books you've already figured out at ten if you really grow up hard, or at twenty if you've smoked a lot of weed. And past that, I don't need to read it, 'cause I got it, thanks.

I think the problem is that literary fiction is a genre. Trying to distinguish between the two is pointless now. You got space aliens and planetary colonization? Great, you're sci-fi. You got a dead body and a classy dame? Super, you're noir mystery. You got a total bummer of a book and exceptional prose? Way to go, you're literary, and I don't need you because I'm depressed enough already. I grew up in Appalachia fer chrissakes.

*exceptions, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I don't think it is losing its place, per se, but I do think its place is changing.

If we look at some of the recent film adaptations, we can see that many of them were literary novels. So, although the reading public might not necessarily be embracing them at first, they are recognized by somebody as something special, then they are adapted and brought to the greater masses (because more people go to the movies than read books; sad fact of life, folks) and appreciated in a different format.

Bob Mayer said...

The Elites? Spare us. How many have really read Ulysses word for word? The ramblings of a drunk. #1 book of the century? Let's all pretend we know what he was saying.
#1 book by readers of 20th century: Dune. Genre?
Lonesome Dove won Pulitzer. A western?
Toni Morrison? Come on. Incomprehensible crap. The Road? No scenes longer than a page. No narrative structure. Let's call the stuff what it is.
People pretending to know something that makes no sense but if we pretend to know what it means, we're smart.

Michael said...

I'm that most-hated among literary circles: the English Literature teacher who HATES a lot of modern literary fiction, for many of the same reasons Sally talks about.

I also agree with the commenter who complained about Genre novels being seen as having no literary merit. That's a crock; the conceit of lazy teachers and professors who don't see that the same archetypical issues pop up in a Harry Potter or Dresden novel as Dickens put his characters through.

Anonymous said...

What I find very troubling about this question is it does not identify "culture". I recently attended an internship for agents and was shocked an appalled by the fact that there was not one agent there who was of colour . If "culture" is reprsentative of all of society then Lit agents should come from all backgrounds and all walks of life otherwise there is a real danger that the consumer - buying public will only be offered a certain kind of lit. When great writers were wheeling out their manuscripts there were no set markers ie here's a story by a gay person here's a book by a female Genet, Simon De bouvoir and other great writers wrote without fear . Now in a celebrity led and mass tabloid "culture" the agent looks specifically at what he or she can sell . What of the writing , lit fiction would not be in danger of "losing its place in culture" if lit fiction represented all of society not just chicks in Prada or vampire hotties in teenage angst . It's about time that lit agents realised that just because a writer is black does not mean they will pen a history of discrimination and strife and just because a writer is female does not mean she's an authority on chick lit . I didn't see Sylvia Plath and others babbling on about how they write great chick lit . What matters is the narrative , the style the originality and the freedom to write without worrying that your generally WASP like lit agent is going to "connect" and understand and lit fiction is what makes writing worth it . Once the death of the existentalist hero is gone there is no literature only haggling in a market place for the latest fad. Culture is all of us the heart of society and if lit fiction is all about privileged boarding schools, ghosts and ghouls, slave driver bosses at up market fashion houses and trainee witches and rebel werewolves then I say all hail the new stars of lit celebrities with big fan bases no writing ability and a fat pay cheque from Random .

Carrie said...

I personally don't believe that Literary Fiction will disappear. Ever notice that everything runs in cycles? Right now, genre fiction is hot; Literary Fiction is not. In time, this will change. Don't give up on it just yet.

Carrie

Faye Davies said...

I read almost exclusively literary fiction. Not because I'm a snob, but because I don't get the depth of sentiment or thought from commercial novels. Plus, when I pick up something like The Da Vinci Code or Twilight, I find myself editing the language as I read. I try to enjoy them, but the thin plots, flabby prose, and clichéd characters give me anything but escapism.

As to whether it's dying as a genre, I'm loathe to think so as I'm currently trying to sell a literary novel. I actually wonder whether serious stories are just finding different formats. TV series like The Wire and Mad Men, the films of Clint Eastwood, Ang Lee - even Spielberg -, seem to provide a greater balance of depth and beauty than is perhaps found in books these days.

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