Monday, December 21, 2009

Literary What, Literary Who?

What exactly is a literary novel? A large number of agents claim to represent literary fiction, but a quick glance at their client lists will show they clearly do not. Presumably there’s a certain prestige value to claiming literary fiction on the agency resume. But when faced with the real thing, most agents will flee.

The easiest and perhaps most accurate definition of a literary novel is a book that isn’t expected to sell many copies. If the author is well known, he or she may be successful with reviewers, with other writers, and with a core readership, but the sales figures will be several orders of magnitude lower than those for a mainstream bestseller. These are simply the economics of publishing as currently constituted.

Beyond that, literary fiction can be defined in a variety of ways.
I would suggest that a literary novel is one that involves a certain level of complexity and an approach to narrative writing that isn’t usually seen in mainstream commercial fiction. Novels on the bestseller list really are written according to certain formulas. Commercial fiction stresses plot above all else, even to the detriment of character development. There’s something else, something more insidious. The aim of commercial fiction is to seize the reader’s emotions and to twist, very hard. Engaging the reader in a dialogue or allowing him or her to think is distinctly discouraged. The exception is the well-written mystery, where the reader’s intellect is called upon, albeit in a highly stylized way.

Now there are several problems here. Those of us who read books like to think of ourselves as more refined, more intelligent than people who don’t. For decades, television has been blamed for a general lowering of our culture’s intellectual level. Why? Because television directly engages and plays upon the viewer’s emotions, because television turns the viewer into a passive thing, because television offers a level of easy excitement or easy relaxation that books don’t always achieve. And so, bestsellers have been targeted to duplicate the experience of television or high-budget films without possessing the technological weapons these media possess. What pass for literary novels these days are simply novels that don’t completely follow this commercial approach. That isn’t necessarily a good thing.

We live in a culture where television programs are increasingly varied, pitched both lower and higher on the intellectual scale than in the recent past. One can watch a reality show, or one can watch Mad Men. Unfortunately, novels seem to be set at an increasingly lower level of intellectual sophistication. Few currently published novels are as good as Mad Men, a show that certainly leans on literary sources (eg, Cheever and Marquand, among others.)

Europeans—and no doubt the rest of the world—regard Americans as dull-witted and supremely ignorant. The English intelligentsia are particularly acerbic about this. It’s easy enough to look at reality shows as a prime example of the depths to which our culture has fallen. But what if we examine the allegedly higher levels? What if we examine the books written, music composed, and paintings exhibited in a given year? What if we took the arts and book pages of The New York Times as our evidence?

I would like to make the somewhat counterintuitive suggestion that by refraining from publishing difficult work, by discouraging the writing of complex fiction, book publishers have made a significant contribution to what is colloquially termed the “dumbing down” of our culture.

If a novel makes no demands on a reader’s intellect, is it really all that superior to a television show? Might it not be significantly inferior both intellectually and artistically?

Literary Who?

Can anyone honestly say that the later novels of Norman Mailer are literary novels? What about John Updike? What about…

No, I don’t mean to suggest that this question has an absolute answer, merely that the answer is a bit slippery. Was Dickens a literary novelist? What about Balzac or Jane Austen? The later Henry James, James Joyce, Proust—the answer is pretty clearly in the affirmative there. Who else?

(If I were to attempt an answer, I’d say that Dickens, as much of a bestseller as he was, as much as he played upon the emotions of his readers, should be considered a literary writer because of his attention to language, an intensity of nuance we simply don’t see in current bestsellers or even in the majority of fiction that is currently construed to be “literary.”)

Then again, one can imagine revising Flaubert so that Madame Bovary reads as a novel with a lurid plot that is tone-deaf to the resonance of language. You’d have to change the ending though—a homicide rather than a suicide is in order, I think.

One can imagine Henry James without the moody introspection and the long sentences, but why would one want to?

When we get to Henry Miller and William Burroughs, the question starts to devour itself. For if William Burrroughs was a literary novelist, then isn’t Sapphire, author of Push, a novel that deals in a very different form of transgression but has what is arguably an innovative approach to form?

Then there’s crime fiction. Not just literary mysteries, but hard-boiled, street smart crime. Raymond Chandler and Richard Price—might they be considered literary writers simply because they write as well as they do?

Finally, I would like to say that writing about one’s personal relationships or the personal relationships of one’s characters does not necessarily make a literary novel. Writing about the new immigrant experience isn’t essentially literary, nor is writing about art, politics, race, or technology. Descriptions of outlandish wealth, grinding poverty, outrĂ© sexuality, intravenous drug use, or simple drunkenness do not necessarily make literature. How one writes about these things is what counts.

What if we were to say that complexity and sharpness are the hallmarks of literary fiction, even to the extent that these qualities may be viewed as opposing each other? What if we were to say that a literary novel is a novel that makes us think?

Now that should really confuse the issue…

Due to the holidays, the next posting of the blog will be on Wednesday, January 6. I would like to wish all my readers Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all the best for the coming year.


  1. Thank you, Ms. or Mr. X. This is a necessary blog. I'm posting a link to this entry on my own blog, quoting your paragraph "Finally, I would like to say . . .," as it sounds remarkably similar to utterances I've often made.

  2. A 1/2 definition of the "literary novel" I've at times used is "a book that enjoys being a book rather than being a self-advertisement for wanting to be the next Hollywood blockbuster." Or, I guess, "Una novella que no esta una puta," to pick up on another of your quotes. But don't get me started on stories about my life in the publishing industry — that's the plot of my next unsellable novel...

  3. You took the words out of my fingertips. I absolutely agree. I would only add that writing a novel about one's divorce experience doesn't qualify as literary, either, and that accounts for roughly 50 percent of what are considered literary novels.

    Paul A. Toth

  4. When I read a book that I think of as a literary novel, it's impossible not to think that it is destined to become a classic. That eliminates a lot of novels.

    Eileen Elkinson