Armchair BEA: Literary Fiction

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Literary Fiction

This is a cool topic. Many of the classics I’ve listed for the previous topic are literary works – where I am, when you say classic you say literary, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the term used for anything else. This is a cultural thing, meaning current use of words differ from cultural area to cultural area (yes, my Sociology is showing, lol!). So basically, to me they’re pretty much the same thing.

There is a certain elitist current that equals ‘commercial’ to simple, accessible – and not as good things. Literary works are more complex, more nuanced in meaning but also in presentation, often work with a lot of symbols and metaphors and layers upon layers of meaning. I could be mean and say the alternative is called commercial because it, you know, sells. Buuuuut I won’t be that mean, and I’ll say commercial is the popular thing because of its stylistic traits.

How do I differentiate between literary and commercial (where I see pretty much all genre fiction going into, btw). Literary has become a genre of itself, and I support that opinion. Literary works have pretty clear traits that are common among most of the works, which fits a genre description in my mind. But anyway, what makes something literary or commercial?

For one thing, and the most important to me, literary works are character-driven while commercial fiction is plot-driven. This means that action, the quick pace of events, the excitement factor tend to pertain to commercial fiction. Literary works often include slower rhythm in plots, more description and inner monologue, because the focus point is not what happens, but how that affects the main character(s). Sometimes the writing itself is a good clue too. Literary fiction can fall in the “purple prose” range – a term that has negative connotation most often, but that I see as a quality not a fault. To each their own. Literary works might have a more artistic language, a writing style that feels richer, more ‘done’. Commercial fiction writing is accessible, engaging and very easy to follow because its point is not nuance-ing something but telling you a story – so you need to read with a lot of ease so that the writing itself sort of disappears and you easily see the movie in your head. Literary works can often be thought of as poetry in prose, because it can be more cryptic.

Of course, as things evolve and change these things might slowly become fainter and fainter, and it might get harder to tell them apart. I don’t see it literary versus commercial, as some people do. I’m a person of many pleasures, I choose both. I started reading literary fiction because that was what you read when I began reading. Reading was a kind of extreme sport, by the way, few people our age read anything that they didn’t have to. Maybe because if you were reading, you were reading literary fiction. Which, I don’t mean this in a mean way, but it needs a certain kind of reader. You needed to be able to read “purple prose” and decipher the artistic language of the author without it slowing you down down from the meaning and layers of the book. Which is why there’s the stereotype of “people who read are very smart” – which they are, all of them 😀 – because a while back, because of fiction being mostly literary, reading was something of the equivalent of intellectual workouts. If you read a lot, you had strong mental muscles, you might say. I for one think it’s still a half-way valid stereotype, meaning people who read are smart, no matter what they read. A curious mind is a smart one, and you can’t be a reader without being inherently curious.
Nowadays, when there’s a lot more commercial fiction around, there’s a lot more youth reading. Because books are written to speak to them. A while back, books were written to speak to their author by large, in this artistic sort of way. Literary has a smaller public, like niche art generally does. Commercial writing is the slinky cool thing that everyone can get and enjoy.

But you shouldn’t be afraid to try literary fiction, even if just out of the curiosity that does describe your beautiful reader’s mind. Because a lot of literary works are superb, they’re masterpieces. Which is why they’re still read and loved, sometimes a century after they were written.

In my case, you can tell that I got started on reading literary fiction in one major point: I’ll never love a book based on plot, but only on character. Because I’ve been spoiled with all the in-depth character jewels from literary works, so now, perhaps unfairly, judge any written work on character too. It’s my pleasure 😀 And I’ll most often love books that make cry, that often have no happy ending – literary fiction is often more dramatic, darker than commercial that tends to lead to a happy ending. That’s another interesting difference. But anyway, I think if you’re very observant you can tell if a reader got in the saddle, so to speak, with literary or commercial works based on what they’ll get excited over. Force of habit for a literary reader, they’ll focus on character, on writing, on symbolism. Because that’s what literary worked with, so you get sort of trained to operate with them as well.

But it’s not an either/or for me, it’s a both. But I’m a hedonist, so it’s not surprising. I try out everything and take my pleasure from what’s good in it all. What about you? Literary and/or commercial fiction?


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