What is ‘literary’ anyway?

I hate being on the defensive about writing fantasy. And yet I find I am, all the time.

When people find out I am a writer, their first questions is: ‘What sort of books do you write?’
I am tempted to answer, ‘Very good ones’, or something similar because I do get sick of seeing the interest die the moment I reply ‘Fantasy’ , to be replaced with a look that says, ‘Oh, trashy stuff.’ (Unless they think I mean porn, in which case I get very strange looks indeed).

It truly is amazing how many people who would never dream of reading fantasy are so sure it is crap. I’d love to know why they have arrived at this conclusion. (If there is someone reading this who feels that way, please come and tell me why … I am genuinely curious and I promise not to bite your head off).

Yet it seems even ‘literary’ sf authors get hit with the same contempt, so what hope have I got? Over on Langford’s Ansible March issue is a story about the UK writer, Iain Banks, who writes both ‘literary’ works and SF. (I love his work, both kinds)

Langford reports:

Iain Banks‘s new book… is variously described. An invitation to the related `The Herald Sunday Herald Book Series’ event calls it `his first literary novel in almost five years’ — as distinct from illiterary novels like The Algebraist (2004)?
Private Eye’s phrasing is `Banks’s first “proper” novel (as opposed to the sci-fi stuff he turns out under the name of Iain M. Banks) for five years.’
And Radio 4’s Saturday Review, after acknowledging this author’s habit of alternating the `terrestrial’ and the `intergalactic’, went on to say: `
The Steep Approach to Garbadale
is his first novel for five years …’

Apparently, you see, when an excellent literary novelist writes sf, he suddenly stops writing well and writes such trash that it doesn’t even qualify as a novel. Or he doesn’t write a novel, he “turns out stuff”.

Other literary writers who suddenly write a fantasy actually write “magical realism” or some other catch phrase, because of course such a wonderful writer couldn’t possibly write fantasy, could they?

When I first had books published in Australia, they were unavailable in Malaysia, because I couldn’t interest the publisher’s distributor in supplying them to book shops here – Australian books, he said, were too expensive for the Malaysian market.

But I was being well-reviewed in Malaysian newspapers, so I approached a bookshop in Bangsar. I also wanted a bookshop I could send people to when they asked where to buy copies. I offered the proprietor a win-win solution. I was willing to supply the books, and he didn’t have to pay me until they were sold. He refused the offer, and told me that he didn’t stock non-literary works and the kind of people who read “those” kind of books (i.e. trashy fantasy?) didn’t come into his shop anyway.

While saying goodbye to him, a customer caught sight of the sample book I had brought along, started talking to me – and bought the book from me, right there in the shop where “people who read those kind of books” weren’t supposed to shop, right under the nose of the proprietor.

The next time I was in that bookshop, I saw he had copies of Harry Potter all over the place. Sigh.

It seems an obvious thing to say, but shouldn’t every book be judged on its merits?
It seems equally obvious, but apparently also needs to be said: shouldn’t you read a book first before you judge its literary merit or otherwise?

How does one define ‘literary’ anyway?

I think it was Miss Snark who said something along the lines of:
Literary novels get good reviews and commercial novels get good sales.

And one of her readers said something like this:
A literary novel impresses you with the beauty of its prose rather than its story.
In a commercial novel, the story comes first and if you are noticing the prose, you’ve got a problem.

My book group used to argue a lot about this. About the only definition we could agree on was that of a ‘classic’ as a book that was going to last beyond its immediate generation. Something that was going to continue to be read 30 years and more further down the line.

Anyone have a good definition of a ‘literary’ work?


What is ‘literary’ anyway? — 16 Comments

  1. Believe me, I understand where you’re coming from.

    Although I do feel that often the uneducated in the genre are judging all SF by the most visible reps of the breed, and that’s tv sf. And not all tv sf is particularly well executed. I don’t think this is particularly smart of them, but I do think it happens.

    At the end of the day, I don’t know how much good it does to worry overmuch about being ‘respected’ by the litwank crowd. I think we should care about their opinions as much as they care about ours. In other words, not at all. Because really … the proof of the pudding is in the sales. And we know who’s winning there, don’t we?

  2. For what it’s worth, Glenda, I’ve just come back from Infinitas where I’ve bought one of your books to take on an overseas trip.

    I would like to offer the following (very biased) opinion on what’s literary or what isn’t:

    Litarary are those books I have heard about and I know I should read (one day), popular ‘commercial’ fiction is what I buy, I read and want to write.

    Commercial fiction can be well-written. Quite a bit of it is. You can’t sell commecial fiction without plot and good characters. Booksellers want it because commercial fiction sells. I’ve noticed that quite a few of the mass-market bookstores around here are stocking more and more SF/F.

  3. I can so identify with those first two parargaphs! And I love the epiphet from karen there, the litwank crowd, heheh.

    ‘literary’ in my mind is on a par with (AbFab) Patsy’s ‘But is it Art, darling?’ and eccentricities of the Turner Prize for modern Art in the UK.

    I understand that Tolkien used to use the word ‘literature’ to refer to promotional brochures and instruction handbooks (‘that’s the literature that goes with it’) which appeals to my sense of humour. :oD

  4. think maybe people are able to suspend their disbelief to different levels. I know that one of my friends was really disappointed by the third book of His Dark Materials (The Amber Spyglass) cos she couldn’t accept a world where creatures had evolved with a different skeleton or used seedpods for wheels. She thought he’d completely ruined it.

    think perhaps that for some people foreign worlds with magic and dragons might as well be written in a different language for all that they can understand/accept it.

    just a guess, but I think it makes sense. On the other hand I’m sure there are plenty of people who just don’t want to make an effort and there are always people who like having things/people to be nasty to.

    as for popular/literary fiction… literary is the stuff that critics like because they feel the words are more important than the story and/or have read so so many books that they’re sick of everything “normal”, they’ve seen it “all” before, they can make educated guesses of exactly what will happen throughout the book.

    poor things who can’t enjoy stories any more, poor things who miss out on fantasy.. poor me because I don’t appreciate literary works… poor all of us cos there’s so much we’ll never read.

  5. Glenda, I could go on about this until the heat death of the universe (something that is guaranteed to be put off by several thousand years thanks to all the hot air blowing out of the self-appointed arbiters of literary culture), but I won’t. Instead, I offer a mental self-defence strategy and a return-fire:

    My mental self-defence is that I am sick of being upset by these brain-dead know-nothings so I now consider irrelevant those utterings that emanate (I’m tempted to say “weep”) from people whose opinion I do not respect (for the record, this means that only Stephen Fry has made a disparaging comment about SF&F that has upset me; the rest of them can say what they want – I consider their views so devoid of intellect and competence that if they told me the sky was blue I’d go outside to check).

    The return-fire is this: the act of reclassification to which you refer (“magic realism”? The prosecution rests. . .) is a very clear indication that these people are incapable of doing their jobs. Any intelligent, well-informed literary critic (surely akin to the thylacine: there might be a few left, but we’ve not seen any for years) would look at a so-called “literary” writer choosing to use science fictional or fantastic tropes and interrogate the rationale behind that choice: why did Writer X decide that he/she needed to borrow the trappings of SF or Fantasy to tell this story? And what does that tell us about the strengths inherent in the genre/approach? Of course, no such analysis is performed. Ever. From which we can draw the inevitable conclusion that these people simply aren’t capable/qualified/clever enough to do the job they purport to do. Rather than react with anger, we should react with sympathy for these poor, ignorant souls. Banjo-playing simpleton’s, sat forever on the village wall of criticism. . .

  6. I agree with patty, and have to say that when I was in my local bookstore (a franchise of a big chain) last Sunday and chatting with the manager (and dropping your name like you would not believe, Glenda) he made me cheer when he said he’s expanding the spec fic shelves because so many people are buying it.

    Yay for spec fic and boo to litwanks!

  7. Karen, you could be right. Especially as fantasy, I feel, often doesn’t translate to the screen very well. Sometimes it’s better to imagine those dragons…lol. SF does better on the screen.

    What I do think is this: that it’s a pity people don’t give fantasy – or SF for that matter – a fair go, because they have been brought up to believe it is poorly written stuff on a subject that has no merit.

    Thanks Patty and Barbara – I appreciate your support!

    Hrugaar – I shall store up that comment on literature for re-use at a future date. Lol…

    Inkpaws – I kinda feel that it is mostly the part of the author to persuade the reader to suspend belief. Write well, and you can drag your reader along with you.

    Darren, thanks for dropping by and wonderfully well put! (As an environmentalist in my other hat, I shall keep my fingers crossed that all that hot air blowing away will indeed lessen the impact of global warming…)

    Long live sff. You have cheered me no end.

    The puzzle remains why these biased opinions on sff ever spring into being. We all start with fantastical tales as children, no matter what our culture. We continue reading those kind of stories into primary/elementary school – even up to adulthoiod, but somewhere along the line so many of us forget how much we enjoyed the fantastic – or the wonder of science in fiction – and these folk start to buy into the idea that sff is badly written trash.

    Never mind, as you have all pointed out, we are the ones who have the fun, who have our minds stimulated, our imaginations stretched and our spirits uplifted.

    They lose. We win.

    Love you all!

  8. I have another puzzle for you, Glenda: why would a professional editor insert an apostrophe in a plural?
    Answer: well, it was. . . you know. . . kinda late. And stuff.

    How embarrassing. . .

  9. Oh, never. Not ever. Every time we have a conversation with you, Darran, we’re going to preface it with: Hey, remember that time you put an apostrophe in a plural on Glenda’s blog?


  10. Someone who perhaps prefers to remain anonymous just made a lovely comment in her email to me, which I can’t resist placing here. It’s too good to waste:

    “critics who complain about SF&F being unrealistic remind me of art critics who want Picasso and Dali to be more like Constable.”

    She also sent two links of relevance which I have put up on the main blog. Definitely worth reading.

  11. TV faced the same scorn for decades – it was seen as cheap and cheerful entertainment, whereas only movies were true art. (But not SF movies, of course.)

    Now we have big budget TV shows packed with big name movie actors, and the medium is finally being taken seriously.

    You’ll never convince the literati to read common-or-garden SF, but if you dress up worthy works in arty-farty covers they might get into it by accident.

    My stuff? Not a chance, thank goodness.

    By the way, I read Ansible every month and the ‘how others see us’ segment always throws up breathtaking examples of arrogance towards the SF genre.

    PS – Glenda, I see you’re on the Swancon 2008 website as a GOH. Excellent news, and well deserved!

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