Monday, February 1, 2010

Literary or Genre

I have twenty-one published novels to my credit and I've been officially reviewing novels for almost nine years, but I'm still not certain why some novels are considered literary and some are not. I have long assumed that a literary novel would be one that is well-written, finely edited, and treats its subject matter at a deeper level than is usually seen. But over the years I've read many novels that have been described as "literary" only to discover the only thing that diffrerentiates them from other novels is wordiness, overdone descriptions, endorsing controversial causes, poor plotting, and crude language.

Don't get me wrong. I have my share of books I consider literary classics. They each have a message that has stayed with me though many years, the language is beautiful, they're superbly edited, they've introduced me in many cases to a new perspective and encouraged me to think on a deeper level. I'm also aware that a book that has a significant impact on one reader may be boring gibberish to another or at best a ho-hummer. Sadly I've seen few books I'd consider "literary" in the LDS market published by either the larger LDS presses or by the smaller ones, though I've seen a few authors whose work encourages me to think it won't be long until we see some really great literary works.

It's my opinion that LDS fiction writers have produced some really first rate genre novels. Historical, Mystery/Suspense, Science fiction/fantasy, are all being produced at a level comparable to the best in the general market. With one or two expeceptions, Romance novels in this market don't measure up to the general market. I've wondered if this might be because romance writers have been ridiculed so much, most romance writers combine a love story with another genre such as Romantic Suspense, Historical, or resort to Chic Lit. For those who scoff at romance novels it might be well to remember Barbara Cartland who amassed a fortune in her prolific career. I don't think she's ever been accused of being literary, but she has made a lot of readers happy.

Which brings me to another point. Why is it that many of those who profess to only read and enjoy literary novels look down their noses at genre fiction? And why do even genre fiction readers poke fun at romances? I think the true book afficiando would enjoy a wide array of books. Personally I sometimes want a book that explores in depth a concept or issue, sometimes I want a tight, but convuluted mystery, and sometimes I want a quick read that will only entertain for a few hours, then be forgotten. I'm not fond of speculative fiction or of imaginative retellings of scriptural events, yet I've found some novels in those categories that impressed me a great deal. In reading Whitney nominees, I found a number of books I didn't care for overall, still most had passages or sections I found to be excellent. I have found vocabulary and scenes in genre fiction that rival anything I've read in top so-called literary works. I've also seen ridiculous imagry in literary works that have made me want to gag or giggle.

I've always maintained that a book a writer writes isn't the same book a reader reads. Just as the writer brings his/her own background and research to producing a book, the reader brings his/her own understandings, experiences, and biases to reading it. A had a recent discussion with another writer, whom I respect and greatly admire, over a book we'd both read. Our opposing views surprised me in this way. She found the book a chic lit like light ghost story. I found the same book a not-too-well-done parody of The Sound and The Fury by Wm. Faulkner. I found the main character mentally ill and all of her "ghosts" merely representations of her struggling mind to regain functionality. In the end the main character's socially inept and not-too-bright cousin who always let others, especially her mother, run her life got the good job, the great apartment, and expensive furniture. The heroine, who had always been strong and independent, became healthy when she gave up her independence and ambition to marry her greatest competitor and work for him in a behind the scenes, no-stress kind of job. My friend loved the book; I found it sub-par.

I'd love to hear from readers what you consider literary--or what you don't think is literary--and about your feelings concerning the quality of LDS fiction, literary or genre. And by the way, this is the begining of a new contest. All those who comment or become followers on this blog or any of my blogs between now and Feb. 15 are eligible. The winner will pick his/her own prize from my overflowing bookshelves.


KarenG said...

Jennie, you blogging (or commenting) about fiction and writing is you at your best imho. What is literary? The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. That is one literary novel. Very character-driven, very thematic.

In LDS fiction, I felt like No Going Back was literary. I know I always talk about this novel everywhere, but that's because it was so amazingly and surprisingly awesome, esp. for LDS fiction, no offense to anyone. Usually LDS fiction that tries to be literary is also trying to question matters of faith, or mock our religion, or go off the deep end in some way. Which is a turn off for me.

Elizabeth Morgan said...

I definitely think that the combined Romance and suspense is the best type of writing and the one I enjoy the most.

Jennie said...

Karen, I was surprised that I liked most of No Going Back, but I didn't find it literary. It has too many weakness for that. It needs better editing, the main character is the sterotyped gay--absent father, controlling or babying mother. The authors premise would have been stronger if not every relationship had been weak or dysfunctional. I very much liked the point that the young man wasn't a helpless pawn to his inclination; he still could and did make his own choices. I also questioned whether 12 and 14 year-olds are actually mature enough to decide their sexual id for the rest of their lives. With strong editorial help this book could have been fantastic, but I'm still not sure whether I would call it literary. Or are you using the term to describe any book that doesn't quite fit into any of the established genres?

Laurie LC Lewis said...

Jennie, I think you're spot-on about authors blending their literary works with other genres-- to get them published. One LDS publishing house told me that the lack of LDS literary novels is a conscious business decision because there are enough non-LDS authors filling that market with acceptable plots and values to draw away sales. So they've decided to focus on publishing genres whose national titles fall below the standards and values most LDS readers want.

They've turned away manuscripts for these reasons, and sadly will probably continue to do so until the LDS market cries out for LDS literary novels.

KarenG said...

"Or are you using the term to describe any book that doesn't quite fit into any of the established genres?"

Probably. I'm labeling it as "literary", when a more accurate word might be "important". It's fiction dealing with same sex attraction while staying true to the Gospel view. To me, that makes it important. But no, not particularly literary.

Calder Clan said...

I am leaving a comment off subject. I friend let me read the books Journey Home and Run Away Home. I would like to have my own copies however, I am unable to find them in the bookstores. Is there anyway to buy these books?

Jennie said...

Calder Clan, I have a few copies of Run Away Home I'm still selling for Ten dollars which includes shipping. Just send me a check and I'll send you a signed copy. Once in awhile Journey Home shows up on Amazon, but all copies except my own file copy are gone and it's out of print. If you want to contact me my email is bhansen22 at msn dot com.