I’m excited that the Blue Bookcase started a “Literary Blog Hop” this week. Of course whether a blog is “literary” is a little bit subjective. I read a mix of books, as do most of us, some literary and some not.
What makes a book literary? I think that’s a question many of us wrestle with – although most of the time it doesn’t matter since we read what we like. But I like to think about whether a book is literary or “fluff”, and whether I enjoy both types of books equally, and whether it’s even possible to distinguish one from the other.
For the blog hop, Blue Bookcase asked us to highlight one of our favorite books and why it’s literary.
I think a book is literary if:
- It’s written well;
- It tells a good story but has meaning beyond the story;
- The characters and dialogue feel real;
- It’s a book I think about long after I’ve read it;
- There’s enough to it you could teach a class about it (e.g. symbolism, themes, political/social implications);
- It transcends the time in which it’s written; and
- When I sit down to write a review, I can only cover a tiny portion of what I really want to say.
One of my favorites is Fahrenheit 451. This is an easy one to describe as literary, because Ray Bradbury writes beautifully. The story has so many layers of meaning, and so many implications for the way we live, that it’s taught to students in high schools all over the country.
Even better, Fahrenheit itself is about literature and what it means for the written word to be meaningful.
Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway.
For more, see my review here.
I also wanted to write about Fahrenheit 451 because it raises an interesting point about when science fiction is literary. It seems like any book that falls into a genre like science fiction has to try much harder to be literary. A book like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is considered “literary” right off the shelf but a book classified in a genre has to be much more powerful and somehow transcend the genre it’s in. Is it fair to say that most genre fiction is not literary? I enjoy a lot of semi-literary, genre-ambiguous science fiction like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
My husband would say those aren’t really science fiction. But Ray Bradbury himself didn’t want to call his books science fiction. What makes something science fiction? If it’s futuristic or involves technology we don’t have yet? Or does the science and the technology have to be really integral to the story?
Of course the question of literariness applies to other genres as well. George Eliot didn’t want to write as a woman so she wouldn’t be classified as a romance writer. Are Agatha Christie and Sir Conan Doyle literary even though they write mysteries? What makes In Cold Blood literary when other true crime is not?
In the last six months, I’ve read a lot more literary fiction than fluff, and I have to say the literary stuff wins. I just enjoy it more. Although fluff has some value – it’s still better than most TV and movies, still makes you use your imagination, and it’s a great stress-reliever when work or school is overwhelming. But blogging has expanded what I read, and how I think about what I read.
If a book makes you think, maybe that’s enough to call it literary. And with limited time, and so many options, why waste your time on books that don’t make you think?
Hope you enjoy the literary hop, and thanks for reading.