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.