I cannot define ‘literary fiction’ but I know it when I read it.
I love ghost stories ( as anyone who reads my Wedding Ghost blog will attest) . I read a lot of them and at the moment I am enjoying the Virago Book of Ghost Stories. It’s fascinating to read women writers that I might not have expected having a go at the genre: how about Stella Gibbons with a strange Cornish story ‘The Roaring Tower’ and Mrs Gaskell’s first person ‘The Old Nurse’s Tale’ ? Both disturbing and memorable in their own way, they have a strong forward momentum that draws the reader on.
A different sort is Edith Wharton’s ‘The Eyes’ . This story only makes sense at the end, and demonstrates a more subtle psychological approach than many others. Yet still there is an inherent drive for the reader to know more. There is a plot.
‘The Happy Autumn Fields’ by Elizabeth Bowen is another story in the collection. She is a much admired writer and this piece was full of beautiful language. It suggested this and implied that and hinted at another thing. The point of view shifted between heaven knows how many people. It was all awfully clever, terribly literary – and it annoyed me no end. It annoyed me almost as much as Henry James’ ‘What Maisie Knew’ ( one of the very few books I have actually flung across the room).
For me this sort of writing has a shifting sense of implication – and if you don’t get it, if you don’t appreciate the the oh-so-subtle references and sub-texts; well, you’re ignorant. I will cheerfully admit that sort of tone has a similar effect on me as The Oxford Voice on D. H. Lawrence.
Yet part of me, the part that went to Wakefield Endowed High School for Girls and took ‘S’ Level English Literature and actually read ‘To The Lighthouse’, feels I ought to value it. I ought to find ‘literary fiction’ somehow better and I ought to aspire to writing such quality work.
That’s where I am truly puzzled. But my one consolation is that there is a far bigger audience for more populist fiction ( which one is encouraged to sneer at) than there is for the clever stuff.
Where do you stand on this continuum?