Monday, November 06, 2006

The Literary Devil's in the Details

Since I'm taking this English class that is all about defining your terms and warrants in an argument, I got to thinking about the term "literary". I talk a lot about it, feel like it's the warm, coastal waters of writing I'm comfortable in. But what does "literary" really mean to me? I certainly don't mean that it's better than genre fiction, just different. So how is it different? I'm not going to offer up an explanation, just an exploration. I realize this is a touchy subject and there are debates raging all over blogdom about it. Besides, it's bound to mean different things to different readers. All I want to do here is clarify what I mean when I use the term.

The first thing I notice when I try to organize some kind of definition of literary vs. genre is it really feels more like a matter of degree instead of a matter of one being the opposite of the other. Here's what I mean:

Point #1: Literary is more concerned about the "why"; genre is concerned about the "how". Seems like two opposing goals, right? Literary explores the motivations of humanity on a large scale and the motivations of the characters on a smaller one. Genre explores how the characters get from A to B. But then take a look at the genre of romance. Sure there's the "how," how two people meet, how they are kept apart, how they eventually beat the odds and live happily ever after. BUT they also have the "why." Why the characters fall in love, why they fight to be together. It's just usually not explored as deeply. A matter of degree.

Point #2: Literary is more focused on the prose. Genre is focused on the action and plot. This seems to be a myth in both my experience as a writer and as a reader. There are genre writers out there that, while the action is what moves the book along, the thorough descriptions and character insights are what keeps the reader engaged and moving along with it. As a writer who really does love words and not just stories, I still find it necessary to have a plot. (Understatement?) Just to a lesser degree than say the crime writer who must set up a gruesome death, international chase and exciting capturing-the-killer scene. In this case, the plot is cake; the meaning & description is the icing. In my case, the plot is more like the yellow spongy part of strawberry short-cake. No good without the strawberries and whipped cream. A matter of degree. (Hungry yet?)

Speaking of description. Anne Rice is cut & dry horror/fantasy right? I remember reading her book LASHER and thinking to myself as I read a two page description of something or other (don't recall what it was now) but I had become aware of the writing instead of the story, and I wondered to myself if her fans liked all this description or if they just tolerated it. I enjoyed it, studied it actually. But, like I's all about the words for me. So, is this literary? Or is it just a writer's self-indulgence?

Point #3: Conflict within the characters vs. Conflict outside of the characters. My first novel includes great detail on the conflict within the main character, therefore I consider it literary. But it also has a plot with a central theme of a sound weapon that can break the bonds of DNA. Not literary. With my WIP, I am trying to focus more on the conflict outside the characters. There is still conflict within. More genre. A matter of degree.

My final thought on this is the one that rings truest to my own meaning of literary.
Before I had my twin boys, I had a small wedding photography business. When we would shoot a wedding, my partner was really good at capturing the action of the day--the bridesmaids coming down the aisle, the bride and groom shoving cake into each other's mouths, the flower girl pinning the ring bearer down on the dance floor to kiss him, etc. Me, I was good at capturing the details--the sunlight pouring over one flower on the edge of the church bench, their names engraved in delicate silver print on the napkins, just their fingers weaved together in an impromptu embrace, etc. To tell their wedding story, it was of course, important to capture the action. But, to tell the complete story, I filled in the details. So, this is my comparison. My partner is a genre photographer. I am a literary one. The clients that chose us, did so because they recognized this. There were others that didn't choose us because they didn't need this. I'm hoping that with my writing, I find the readers that do need this.

Why? What does it matter if it's literary or not? Because it matters to the agent who has their own opinion of literary and only reps genre cuz it's easy to sell. It matters to the publisher who only buys genre cuz they know where to put it on the shelf. And it matters to the readers who just want to kick back after a twelve hour day at work and enjoy a piece of chocolate cake.


Anonymous said...

It seems that the days of the truly literary author are waning (that's a purely personal opinion, not a professional one). I call my fiction writing "genre with a literary bent," but most people just look at me like they're thinking, What the heck does that mean?

In one of my workshop groups, the term "literary" brings a backlash of angry responses from the contingency of genre writers. In fact, one writer dropped out because she wrote literary fiction and felt that she was being demeaned and "weeded out," that no one understood the reasons why she wrote the way she did.

It will probably be debated for many years to come, with no easy answers except divisive ones.

Shannon said...

I guess this just illustrates a few points about basic human nature. Our need to belong to a group, to be understood by ourselves and others, and our sensitivity to prejudice...either real or imagined. Too bad our brains need so many labels to catagorize and digest our physical reality. Anyway, I agree with you, this will be a long running debate with fires burning on both sides of the fence.