Thursday, May 30, 2013

Armchair BEA: Literary Fiction

Design by Emily @ Emily's Reading Room

Literary Fiction.  The genre title alone is enough to inspire fear and aversion in most readers.  This is most often because many of our first encounters with works deemed literary fiction occurred as part of the dreaded required reading component of our middle school and high school English classes.  The archaic language and puritanical themes of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter do not translate well to today's contemporary tenth-grader.  The overwhelming prose of William Faulkner is tough for a graduate student to decipher much less a student who is used to conversing in 140 characters or less.  Personal experience has taught me that most classical literary fiction is worth a revisit and a re-read due to the more mature life experiences and perspectives I can now bring to a work.  Does that mean I don't think literary fiction should be taught as part of the middle school and high school curriculum?  No.  I do, however, think that educators can structure their curriculum to build a bridge between readers and more challenging texts by broadening the definition of "literary fiction" and incorporating more accessible texts with similar themes into the classroom.

Before I expand upon this theory, let's attempt a working definition of literary fiction.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term "literary" means "of, relating to, or having the characteristics of humane learning or literature" or "of or relating to authors or scholars or to their professions," which means literary fiction would be fiction with these qualities. But what does that mean? Through my experience, this broad and very vague definition refers to books that have been esteemed as possessing merit by critics of note. Still broad and confusing, eh? Most classics fall into this category, but that doesn't mean contemporary novels and novelists are not also considered literary fiction.

Examples of classic literary fiction by author:
The Bronte Sisters
Mark Twain
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Henry James
William Faulkner
T. S. Eliot
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Virgina Woolf 

Examples of classic/contemporary literary fiction crossovers by author:
Toni Morrison
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Examples of contemporary literary fiction by author:
Nicole Krauss*
Jonathon Safran Foer*
Don DeLillo
J. M. Coetzee 
John Updike
A. S. Byatt
Philip Roth
Jeanette Winterson
*ironically these two are married

There is something exclusive about literary fiction.  In an attempt to narrow down the definition and put some meat on its bones, I often find literary fiction to be meta-textual. It makes allusions to other (often prestigious) works, which creates two audience camps, those who "get" the references and those who do not, thus, heralding those in the know as literary experts and excluding those who do not as simpletons. Literary fiction can be very alienating that way. Similarly, literary fiction is often meta-cognitive. It talks a lot about itself and literature in general and the writing and reading processes. Personally, this is one of the draws for me. I love a book within a book, and I can't deny that when an author makes an allusion to a favorite book/author/play/poem etc. I feel a sense of kinship. Bonus warm and fuzzy feelings if the reference is to something obscure, and I still get it.

However, literary fiction endures despite its snobbery because it delves into the recesses of the universal human experience. It is this complex dichotomy of exclusion and inclusion that makes literary fiction such a compelling if challenging read. Literary fiction often deals with over-arching big issues from companionship to racism to aging. Therefore, the closer your experience to these issues, the more likely that piece of fiction will resonate with you, which is why I stand by the observation I made above:
Personal experience has taught me that most classical literary fiction is worth a revisit and a re-read due to the more mature life experiences and perspectives I can now bring to a work.
It also highlights the struggle then with teaching more classic and literary texts in a classroom full of students with limited life experience.  What is the solution?

Tandem teaching or pairing a contemporary work and a literary work that have similar themes.  The contemporary work acts as a bridge for students to understand the more complex literary work.  This pairing also opens the door for discussions on tone, writing style, and exploration of common rhetorical modes like compare and contrast and analysis.

One of my favorite pairings, and actually the one that inspired this post, is Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Laurie Anderson's Speak.  The two texts have many parallels in terms of theme, imagery, and character and relationship development.  Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would also be excellent additions to a unit including the two titular novels.  Also, When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is a contemporary espionage tinged re-telling of The Scarlet Letter that may spark interest, or at least understanding, of this century old text.  Rick Riordan's acclaimed Percy Jackson series would make an excellent introduction to a unit on classical mythology, and there are numerous contemporary revisions of Shakespeare's works.  Similarly, The Help by Kathryn Stockett would be a wonderful companion to traditional texts discussing race relations.  Another pairing rich for comparison and exploration would be Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Megan McCafferty's Bumped, which reflects on present-day attitudes towards teen pregnancy.  Incorporating Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Don DeLillo's Falling Man into a historical unit to trace attitudes towards war and national security.

What are your feelings towards literary fiction?  Love it?  Hate it?  Proceed with caution?  I want to know!


  1. I never knew NK and JSF were married!
    I think the way literature in general is taught in high schools should be revamped. Who chooses the books anyways? There are tons of good books out there that would be accessible to tenth graders, but more often than not they are not offered in high school.

    1. They are! In fact, some people think that NK and JSF co-authored or cribbed each other in their best sellers - The History of Love and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - but I've read both, and although they have some similar themes, I've never gotten that impression.

      In NC, the Department of Education sets out a common core of objectives that must be met at each grade level. I don't know if they dictate the books too (I teach at the college level), but I do know the standards dictate which books can be taught and which cannot.

    2. I've been thinking a lot about your question, so I did a little research. The common core doesn't require that certain books be taught, but it does offer a suggested reading list of books that meet their SLOs. The list is mostly classics like The Great Gatsby, but there was at least one contemporary piece on each grade level's list like The Book Theif.

  2. Fabulous post, Kristen. My introduction to literary fiction came in my high school literature classes. I loved every work I read, which included Wuthering Heights and The Grapes of Wrath, and was never bothered by required reading.

    Today, however, I tend to avoid contemporary literary fiction. I used to read a lot of books that critics raved about, and enjoyed them, but these days I find a lot of literary fiction deals with topics I would rather not read about (I read to escape so I don't like reading depressing books).

    Of course, definitions of literary fiction vary among readers, but I look at it much the same way you do and the authors you've listed are not authors I've read or, if I'm being honest, want to read. That's not to say I won't read any literary fiction, because I will, but I just don't go out of my way to do so.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Something I didn't really address in my post but you allude to in your comment is the pressure many readers (especially those who majored in English or Literature) feel to read everything and like everything - especially if it is a work that is critically acclaimed, which is the category most literary fiction falls into.

      That's a hard habit to break, but I don't think anyone should apologize for reading what they like.

      I read mostly YA because, like you, typical adult fiction depresses the hell out of me. At times, it seems its only focus is to highlight the very worst in humanity and represent hopeless situations and characters with little to no agency.

      With that said, I have read all the authors listed in my post, and although I didn't like all of them, I can respect the aesthetic of their work. For example, John Updike, J. M. Coetzee, and even Henry James are not my cup of tea but are still phenomenal writers. However, I will go to bat for Krauss, Foer, DeLillo, Winterson, and my beloved Bronte sisters any day.

    2. I should have noted in my comment that I'm not much interested in reading the contemporary authors you've listed. Then again, I don't read a lot of contemporary novels in general, literary or otherwise. I do love the Bronte sisters :-) Funny how I like classic fiction but not contemporary literary novels.

    3. Contemporary literary novels can be a little out-there whereas classic fiction (being classic) deals in tropes and with concepts we're often familiar with. Again I say, life is short - read what you like!

      P.S. Have you read The Secret Diary of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James? I think she did an excellent job at representing all three Bronte sisters in fictionalized form.

    4. I've read a couple of James' other novels, both dealing with Jane Austen, but I do have The Secret Diary of Charlotte Bronte sitting somewhere on my shelves :-)

      Also, there is a well-reviewed book by Jude Morgan on the Bronte sisters called The Taste of Sorrow, or Charlotte & Emily (the title depends on where you live). I have it here, but haven't read it yet.

    5. I'll have to check that out!

  3. I love JSF, his words resonate with me. I've seen so many people mention When She Woke, I definitely need to check it out. I don't purposely pick up or ignore literary fiction, I just read stories that seem interesting to me!

    Also I LOVE Tess, that's where my blog name is from!

    my ABEA post

    1. Confession: The first time I read Tess I hated it. In fact, I didn't even finish it. Then I re-read it in graduate school and adored it. I did my Master's Thesis on Thomas Hardy's poetry - specifically his Poems of 1912-1913.

    2. I didn't see this until now (I need to start commenting with a google account of blogspots!)but I can understand why people would hate it. I think if I hadn't been in love with his words from early on, I might not have wanted to continue. I'm glad you changed your mind though! I need to read his poetry, I think I'd really enjoy it!

    3. His poetry is great! Although I've come around to Tess, I still love his poetry more. It's more simplistic than his novels but still showcases his evocative use of imagery.

  4. I really liked that you noted Nicole Krauss. I love her books!

    1. The History of Love is quite possibly my favorite book ever.