On Literary Fiction

Once upon a time, I used to work for a major book publisher. The company prided itself on publishing literary fiction, and the books were generally well reviewed. They weren’t necessarily best sellers, but they did win awards.

As an editorial assistant in the trade and reference division, I proofread flap copy, checked bound galleys, and eyeballed blues. (I also prepared corrigenda, ordered supplies, filed, and did whatever my supervisor or the editors asked me to do, but that has nothing to do with this discussion.) So during my time there, I read a lot of literary fiction–more than in all the years since. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts on why I don’t, as a general rule, enjoy literary fiction.

1. It’s pretentious. Today’s literary fiction aspires to be tomorrow’s classic. The text abounds with themes and hidden meanings that beg to be analyzed, which is great if you’re a college student writing an English paper. On the other hand, it’s not so much fun if you want to just unwind with a book after working hard all day.

2. The jacket description is too profound. The prose is “luminous” or “lyrical.” Sometimes it’s “elegant” or “elegiac” (especially the latter if tragedy is involved). It might even be “compelling.” Translation: Expect complex compound sentences.

3. It’s sad, or at least ambiguous. Someone almost always dies. Consider Cold Mountain. I remember spending a fair amount of time engrossed in the story. It’s a great read. Really. There’s adventure, there’s struggle, there’s love, there’s redemption. And then the main character dies. And at that point the book stopped being a good read for me. Instead, I felt angry that I’d spent all this time only to be disappointed. (What can I say? I prefer happy endings.) Exceptions exist, of course; The Color Purple comes to mind. (I have to admit that I saw the movie before I read the book, so I might be thinking about the former, given how Hollywood takes liberties; for that, remember The Natural.)

I don’t mind editing literary fiction. As an editor, I pride myself on being able to edit everything and anything. Just don’t ask me to read it in my spare time.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Soozie
    Jan 23, 2011 @ 02:44:31

    Pretentious. My sentiments exactly. Thanks for a great post.


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