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View Full Version : What's the definition of "Literary"?


bluntforcetrauma
02-29-2008, 12:15 AM
What's the difference between literary works and whatever the alternative is?

dpaterso
02-29-2008, 12:21 AM
Just my opinion here, I think of Literary as non genre, grounded in reality, perhaps a tad stuffy. :) Hopefully someone who actually knows will give the real answer.

-Derek

Mr Flibble
02-29-2008, 12:23 AM
Literary gets you more writerly brownie points?

I think it's supposedly that literary is character driven ( the internal change, more interior dialogue) and commercial is plot driven - more action.

jst5150
02-29-2008, 12:24 AM
From Yahoo! Answers, I thought this was pretty good:

Literary canon – The literature that some appointed body classified as authentic, representative, and thus “official” in some capacity. Frankly there are debates as to what works should be termed “literature,” making these works have greater impact, meaning, or worth in the field. The body decides on criteria against which written works are measured; they pass, they are canonical. See the steps it took to determine which works of Bible-era writings could be canonized and thus included in the collection deemed “holy” and inspired.

The rest of the entry is pretty darned informative, too:

http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080113204537AAQqeIx

Including:

Tone – Since we’re discussing literary matters, the tone is the overall mood set in the piece. Is it somber, lighthearted, coldly factual, warmly human, sarcastic, melodramatic, sinister? These are tones, which are set by how the writer chooses to describe elements of the story.

Plot – Basically, what the overall story is about. Sub-plots can be introduced and act as side-trips during the overall vacation. Just as the side-trips are not the main focus of the vacation, neither are the sub-plots the gist of the main plot. It’s the reason behind the journey from point A (introduction) to point B (conclusion).

Characterization – This refers, not to the characters themselves, but how they are used in the story. Description, expressed motivation, resulting actions and behaviors, internal as well as external, make up characterization. It is what turns them from 2-dimensional props to 3-dimensional beings.

Harper K
02-29-2008, 12:29 AM
I think it's supposedly that literary is character driven ( the internal change, more interior dialogue) and commercial is plot driven - more action.

That's almost exactly what a Houghton Mifflin / Clarion editor said in response to a "what's literary?" question that came up at a conference I attended last weekend.

As someone who dabbles in lit fic, I'd add that there's a language element to it, as well -- usually something about the word choices, the narrator's tone, the structure of the book, etc. contributes to the themes of the book.

Most editors, agents, and writers who deal with lit fic also add the "I know it when I see it!" caveat when trying to define it, too. ;)

KTC
02-29-2008, 12:41 AM
I write literary. I still don't quite get it myself. Stuff that is thick with life and almost flowery...but not purple. ???

Toothpaste
02-29-2008, 01:09 AM
I think literary is usually more character driven, it isn't a fast paced novel with a straightforward plot. The writing can be more poetic, more trying to capture the essence of a feeling or of a place. Shakespeare isn't really literary (at least not at the time he was writing), but when I read some of his stuff I can come across a line that perfectly describes a certain feeling in a way that isn't literal at all but still perfect.

Of course this is a generalisation, there is beauty and poetry in genre fiction, and interesting plot twists and turns in literary.

Snarke
02-29-2008, 02:07 AM
Or...

Literary: has the capacity to be assigned as reading in a "serious" college writing course

Non-literary: would most likely be picked up voluntarily and whose content might be pre-judged bythe color of the cover :)

? :D

Sophia
03-01-2008, 01:01 AM
I think what makes Literary novels different from the alternative is that they often don't appear to follow some of the conventions we talk about here a lot - plot twists, character changes, the solving of a problem at the end that was set up at the beginning. The change that does happen is in the reader. After reading the novel, they see the world and the types of characters that have been depicted differently than they may have done before.

Literary authors also tend to demonstrate a clear mastery of prose. That's not to say that authors of the alternative don't do that, but in literary novels, it's more of a necessity, something to keep the reader reading when you can't fall back on the more obvious page-turning benefits of action, plot, thrilling characters, etc.

Dave.C.Robinson
03-01-2008, 04:57 AM
I look at it this way: it's the difference between the telling and what's told.

Where in genre or commercial fiction what you write is most important, in literary fiction how you write it is almost if not more important. It's as often bought for the writing as the story.

People bought The DaVinci Code for the story, not the writing.

Drama Queen
03-01-2008, 05:05 AM
Commercial: covers with shiny embossed printing with lurid color schemes and clip art
Literary: matte card stock cover with artsy black and white photo

just kidding!


In my humble opinion, literary fiction is the eloquent and evocative description of psychologically-complex characters who also drive the plot. Internal dialogue is common.

Elodie-Caroline
03-01-2008, 05:07 AM
They were short-changed then; they should have bought The holy blood and the holy grail instead. :D

People bought The DaVinci Code for the story, not the writing.

Getting back to the original topic... I would like to think that my novel would be classed as literary if it were ever published.


Elodie

girlyswot
03-02-2008, 07:10 PM
I look at it this way: it's the difference between the telling and what's told.

Where in genre or commercial fiction what you write is most important, in literary fiction how you write it is almost if not more important. It's as often bought for the writing as the story.



Yes, I think that's true. It's almost like poetry in that the writing draws attention to itself, rather than trying to get out of the way of the story.

Also I wonder about theme, metaphor, motif. Again, not to say that genre fiction can't/doesn't have these things, but that literary fiction is made of them. I'd expect literary fiction to have multiple layers of meaning.

Here's a suggestion from C.S.Lewis - good, literary fiction is that which rewards re-reading. There is more to be seen and understood each time you pick up the novel. I'd say that all classic fiction, pretty much by definition, falls into this category, and I think it's what literary fiction should be aiming for.

Horseflye
03-03-2008, 04:37 PM
I had an English professor tell me that it was "whatever academia said it was."

Dave.C.Robinson
03-03-2008, 05:40 PM
I had an English professor tell me that it was "whatever academia said it was."

I like that one. It helps remind people that literary is also a genre of fiction, even if it's not what most consider genre fiction.

giusti
03-09-2008, 12:38 PM
Literature: A written work that influences the current world and the following generations. That's it. That's what it is.

The works taken to be literature, e.g. The Odyssey, The Oedipus works, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, etc., have all had extraordinary influence on the world. No matter what modern critics and literary analysts have to say, a work cannot be technically put into the category of literature until at least one, if not more, generations have gone by. Modern "literature" are simply the works that modern critics have predicted to have an effect on the world. A common trend in these books is to have a prolific understanding of the craft of writing, a metaphoric meaning behind the plot and events relating to the current culture of the world, and an overall larger theme. Take 1984. It takes place in the future, but was it about 1984? No. It was about 1948. It's all about meaning and effect.

-giusti

LaceWing
03-10-2008, 07:48 AM
Lit fic might take more risks with topic and craft. I liken it to a photo by a pro with a high grade camera. Yes, rereadable is an excellent short cut to a definition, because each reading zooms in closer and you might see in the details finer and finer meaning, more puzzling questions. It will be a book that takes digesting before I feel ready to try explaining what it's about. Whatever the genre it uses as disguise, it will be more "real" than its lesser cousins to the degree it reflects the complexity of the human condition.

Brighid
03-10-2008, 03:22 PM
It's almost like poetry in that the writing draws attention to itself, rather than trying to get out of the way of the story.


I would agree with this. Literary fiction utilizes more literary devices such as metaphors/similes and symbolism. I think of those novels we analyzed in school - peeling away layers while trying to determine what the author meant by the story.

I enjoy literary fiction, but I've also read a lot of stories where the writing totally overshadows the story.

RJK
03-13-2008, 06:56 PM
Literature - see Steinbeck
Genre - see Cussler

KikiteNeko
03-14-2008, 06:17 AM
I wrote my entire ms wondering what genre it was.. Turns out, the lack of genre is what made it literary. Non-writerly people still scratch their heads when I tell them I write "literary fiction" though. My personal definition is a character-driven story.

Medievalist
03-14-2008, 09:03 AM
Literary fiction is a catch-all category for fiction that doesn't easily fit a genre.

It doesn't really have much to do with style, specific rhetorical tropes, or a judgement regarding quality (it's neither better nor worse than any other sort of writing), and it tends to be associated with small presses and academic presses.

JJ Cooper
03-14-2008, 09:09 AM
This may be of use.

http://www.agentquery.com/genre_descriptions.aspx

Literary Fiction:

If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction. Literary fiction explores inherent conflicts of the human condition through stellar writing. Pacing, plot, and commercial appeal are secondary to the development of story through first-class prose.

Multi-layered themes, descriptive narration, and three-dimensional characterization distinguish this genre from all others. Literary fiction often experiments with traditional structure, narrative voice, multi-POVs, and storylines to achieve an elevated sense of artistry. Although some literary fiction can become "commercial" by transcending its niche market and appealing to a broader audience, this is not the same as commercial fiction, which at its core has a commerical, marketable hook, plot, and storyline—all developed through literary prose. Literary fiction often merges with other fiction types to create hybrid genres such as literary thrillers, mysteries, historicals, epics, and family sagas.

JJ

Bufty
03-14-2008, 07:27 PM
Literary Fiction:
If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction.

Or a pile of self-indulgent garbage. :snoopy:

Phaeal
03-15-2008, 03:03 AM
Literary: What is it? V.1.1

Any story or novel, no matter what the genre, can be "literary," where "literary" means written to the highest prose standards.

What people really want to know, most of the time, is what do those blasted agents and editors mean by "literary?" Here's my take on it.

When a market says it's looking for the literary, I assume it wants fiction set in the present or the recent past, emphasizing character rather than plot, more static than kinetic, and displaying an attention to language and style that can verge on the poetic. Sometimes markets call such fiction "contemporary." If it deviates at all from the depiction of "real life," they may call it "magical realism" or "surreal." If the structure or language are noticeably funky, it's "experimental." In addition, there are a lot of other descriptors that I associate with a desire for literary submissions: ethnic, feminist, regional, multicultural, erotica, gay, historical, prose poem, and so forth. (NB: This doesn't mean that no genre fiction can be ethnic, regional, gay, etc. These are just catchwords I constantly find in the lists of acceptable material put out by mags, journals, publishers, and agents.)

As for mainstream (that word so often paired with literary), the best definition I can come up with is: Literary, but not so much so, maybe something actually happens, could even toy with subject matter associated with the milder genres, like mystery and romance and suspense and thriller.

When the market doesn't want genre fiction, it doesn't want: Mystery, romance, suspense, thriller, adventure, or western. These are what I call the mild genres. Some markets would also throw religious and historical into the mild genre category. Some throw in children's and YA as "genre," but I'd rather call them "intended audiences."

And now we come to the Three Deadly Genres, which are so evil they are often mentioned by name in the lists of what-we-don't-want: Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction. Oooh, my favorites. I must be going to Literary Hell on a particularly fast handcart.

Phaeal
03-15-2008, 03:08 AM
Hmm. I was just thinking. Isn't it kind of insulting to label something a "literary thriller?" As if it really was a hybrid? That is, as if the thriller (or mystery or romance or fantasy) could not simply be particularly well written? Nope. It can't JUST be a thriller if it's well-written. A literary dog must have gotten over the fence of the thriller kennel and deposited its superior genes in one of the bitches.

Or am I being irritably obtuse? :P

steveg144
03-16-2008, 02:27 AM
The best definition of lit fic I ever saw was "not much happens, and the ending is ambiguous." Now, that definition was offered half tongue in cheek, but let's face it, it does have some truth to it. But when it's good (Carver, Russo) it's great fun to read.

donroc
03-16-2008, 02:31 AM
Other than academic beatification and Bennet Cerf's Modern Library Classics, I have not a clue.

I do not worry about being "literary" when I write. I'll let the perception dictate the reality yea or nay.

Chumplet
03-16-2008, 02:41 AM
I don't know exactly how to define it, but Evil Editor classified my sample query and opening paragraphs for my WIP The Yearbook as literary, even though I've published romance. It may well be, but I'll really have to raise the bar in order to earn that classification.

To me, a literary novel reaches down deep inside us and wrenches out feelings we never thought we had in the first place. It is thought provoking, soul searching stuff that we need, so we don't cruise through life in a bubble... I think.

JB Dryden
04-14-2008, 10:19 PM
As an editor, I define the term 'literary' as this: fiction that intentionally seeks (through the means of the author) to enlighten, teach, or bring to fruition some distinct point. Or, more simply, that fiction which does not seek to merely entertain.

Toothpaste
04-14-2008, 10:33 PM
That is interesting. I would imagine you get quite a bit of overlap then. I'm not sure I would class my work as literary, but by your definition I could. And that's kind of cool. But perhaps you have a certain particular definition of "enlighten, teach, or to bring to fruition some distinct point"? Lol, funny how one definition always leads to another . . .

Phaeal
04-14-2008, 10:51 PM
As an editor, I define the term 'literary' as this: fiction that intentionally seeks (through the means of the author) to enlighten, teach, or bring to fruition some distinct point. Or, more simply, that fiction which does not seek to merely entertain.

Like Harry Potter. And Beatrix Potter, too.

Medievalist
04-15-2008, 06:29 AM
As an editor, I define the term 'literary' as this: fiction that intentionally seeks (through the means of the author) to enlighten, teach, or bring to fruition some distinct point. Or, more simply, that fiction which does not seek to merely entertain.

Errr . . . that's pretty much true of any fiction.

maestrowork
04-15-2008, 08:12 AM
Literary is not the same as literature.

padnar
04-15-2008, 08:43 AM
Are slang words allowed in a literary work ?
padma

Tirjasdyn
04-16-2008, 12:47 AM
After many college years struggling with literary fiction definitions I came to a very firm definition:

Anything with broken relationships and/or dead grandmas. It's extra literary if you manage to get some incest in there.

Setting doesn't matter.

Mr Flibble
04-16-2008, 12:57 AM
After many college years struggling with literary fiction definitions I came to a very firm definition:

Anything with broken relationships and/or dead grandmas. It's extra literary if you manage to get some incest in there.

Setting doesn't matter.

*Mr Burns Voice* Excellent.

I'm literary!

Higgins
04-16-2008, 01:01 AM
I like that one. It helps remind people that literary is also a genre of fiction, even if it's not what most consider genre fiction.

I agree that it is a genre and not any harder to define than any other. Lit fict is fiction that lets the reader a little farther in to the game of how
fiction comes to be fictive and how it does or doesn't relate to the world as we know it or don't know it.

So just as cowboys are the central theme of the Western, fiction itself is the central theme of lit. fict.

Polenth
04-16-2008, 01:24 AM
I don't have a neat definition of literary, but I don't consider it a genre. You get literary works within various genres. It's more about how the story is written, than what the story is about.

Are slang words allowed in a literary work ?
padma

Yes. Literary works don't have to be written in formal English.

SPMiller
04-16-2008, 01:51 AM
I'm gonna say I think literary is a label which can be applied to works in any of a number of genres. I distinguish between literary and non-literary works by the the author's skill with language and the attention the author has paid to the prose.

Sometimes you get boring, long-winded musings on the decline of Southern society. Sometimes you get war novels where, at the end, the protagonist reaches for a butterfly and gets a bullet in the forehead.

But sometimes you get Zelazny's The Engine at Heartspring's Center, which is achingly literary.

And Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is also highly literary. He intentionally chose the voice and style and he spent a long time polishing it. Do you think he had to write like that? No, of course not.

Higgins
04-16-2008, 01:59 AM
Sometimes you get boring, long-winded musings on the decline of Southern society. Sometimes you get war novels where, at the end, the protagonist reaches for a butterfly and gets a bullet in the forehead.

But sometimes you get Zelazny's The Engine at Heartspring's Center, which is achingly literary.


I haven't read that Zelazny, but he can get pretty..err...pretentious in a good way. What would be called "ambitious" in a crate-of-writing class.

Literary Fiction as a genre is different from writing well. It's true that just about anything can be "well-written"...but only in Lit fict does the wellness of the writing partly consist in drawing attention to itself.

willietheshakes
04-16-2008, 02:56 AM
After many college years struggling with literary fiction definitions I came to a very firm definition:

Anything with broken relationships and/or dead grandmas. It's extra literary if you manage to get some incest in there.

Setting doesn't matter.

Setting most certainly does matter! Dozens of midlist CanLit novels can't be wrong!