What makes it literary?

What makes a novel literary? I know when I was sending those eager submissions to less than eager publishers, I was advised not to call my writing literary - let the publisher decide if they think that's what it is, or so they said.

I decided one publisher, for whom I was reviewing lots of books, was definitely a publisher of literary fiction, only to be told by someone else that they specialized in mysteries. A case of letting the reviewer decide perhaps? Or the reader?

But what would make a mystery literary? Is it just that the story's character-driven, or is it something more--something in the background, the writing style, use of symbols, or perhaps a deeper message between the lines? What makes any story literary?

My own first novel, Divide by Zero, had an experimental style, with lots of characters and lots of points of view. Maybe that just made it hard to read but I wanted to call it literary--I even used symbols in the title! My novel had a message too, about the link between forgiveness and moving on. So would you call it drama or literary? Would you read it?

Infinite Sum is written in a pretty standard first-person style, but its flashbacks are all driven by the protagonist's art. Does that make it literary? The message is forgiveness again--and the hardest person to forgive is always yourself--a topic that's often covered in literary works.

Subtraction came out in August and is a pretty straight-forward third-person story... well, except for interleaved flashbacks as the man who can't forgive himself has to learn to forgive the world. Forgiveness again? One of my friends asked if maybe I've got it out of my system now. But there's a symbol in the title again. Literary? Perhaps.

And then there's Imaginary Numbers, still being critiqued by friends before it goes to the publisher. Technically it's still being (re)written too, and I'm not entirely sure how it gets from A to B. It will go there forwards, mostly. So maybe I'm getting the literary out of my system. But there's still some forgiveness involved, and plenty of mayhem. There again, perhaps there's forgiveness in all relationships.

Anyway, here are some book reviews of novels I kind of think are literary. Put some coffee on and enjoy.

The Running War by E. L. Carter has symbolism--a butterfly trying to escape its cocoon, and a woman running. It has a small cast of great characters. It contrasts cultures convincingly, with haunting images and events. And there's a very cool message--your gift is what you give. Enjoy with some seriously elegant 4-star coffee.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood offers reflections on the present through an almost plausible near-future where the social contract has possibly been betrayed. It's not quite dystopia, and it invites some surprising questions about the prices we pay for something we like to call freedom. A  literary novel--everyone says so--and a darkly fascinating read filled with great characters and dark mystery. Enjoy with some more elegant 4-star coffee.

In the City of Falling Stars by Chris Tusa is a different kind of literary. Starkly told, darkly humorous, and disturbingly plausible, it's set in New Orleans just after Katrina, and it depicts a family as storm-tossed as the city itself. Mental illness stands in for societal ills, inviting readers to wonder just who has lost touch with reality in our modern world. Great dialog. Haunting images. Enjoy with some dark 5-star coffee.

Is The Pool Boy’s Beatitude by D J Swykert literary fiction? It has intriguing symbolism--intriguing for me, since it involves black holes and the speed of light. It's filled with seriously odd characters. It draws the reader in to the unbelievable while making it believable. There's social commentary hidden between the lines... But maybe it's a thinking man's romance... or maybe... It's a very odd, deeply intriguing read anyway, best served with a dark 5-star coffee. Enjoy.

Then there's The Kill Circle by David Freed, a mystery from the publisher of literary fiction. I reckon it's literary mystery--it's definitely character driven; the plots always have more than just solving clues going for them; and the real mystery is always something different from what it seems. The novel stands alone, even though it's the latest in a series. It's got politics, romance, a mostly distant cat and... well, it's a really good read and it makes you feel like you've read something literary. How's that for a definition? Enjoy with some elegant, complex 4-star coffee.


Glenda Bixler said…
Soooooo, I take it we still don't exactly know what is literary fiction? I personally haven't figured it out after more than 10 years of reading almost continuously...but sometimes, books that are not specifically genre-related and because of the writing gets called literary when I tag it...it happens in my reading, but don't ask me to explain...
I am sharing this on my new group Words Matter! at Facebook...it's an interesting and worthy article to share more!

Sheila Deeth said…
Thank you Glenda. I hope someone might manage to explain.

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