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.
I wish I had taken part of this hop. Next week!
I agree that sci fi, horror, mystery, etc all have to work that much harder to prove they are literary. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that the non-literary books in those genres are so numerous that it’s the assumption the books won’t be literary. It’s easy to dismiss these genres as anything other than a fluff story.
Fahrenheit 451 is a great story and definitely literary.
Alley, I think you’re absolutely right — these books get lumped in with a huge pile of books that aren’t literary, so it’s harder for them to distinguish themselves. Well, that’s what we bloggers are here for I guess.
You ask a good question. Why DO sci fi and mystery and (I would even add) humorous novels have to work so much harder to be considered literary?
I can think of several examples of sci-fi writers who are also literary–Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin to name two. There are writers in every genre who could also be called literary. I guess the largest distinction is that while literary fiction can entertain, it also “instructs”….This sounds so teacherly! But there is nothing wrong with a book written only to entertain–I just want a book with more!
Thanks for joining us with the hop! I really enjoyed your post and the points that you raise.
However, I’m not sure I entirely agree with the idea that literature is something you can teach a whole class about. For example, I know there has been an occasional class at my old university about Twilight, and I am not buying into the idea that that qualifies as literature 🙂
Also, I totally understand with your points about Bradbury, and I love the quote you put in, but I personally can’t stand Bradbury’s writing style, especially Farenheit 451. Just a personal preference.
I’ll have to reconsider that as a factor if classes are taught about horrible books like Twilight! Sorry to hear you don’t like Bradbury, obviously I think he’s amazing. But that’s what is so much fun about reading, we all react to books so differently.
I think the reason genre books have to work so much harder to be considered “literary” is that they often fall into cliches. Otherwise they wouldn’t be grouped into a genre. However, certain books, like you pointed out, can transcend these cliches.
Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a genre book just as much as you do, to relax and whatnot, but now that I’m reading literature (even literature I don’t enjoy), I don’t feel as satisfied when I finish a genre book. Do you get that as well?
I love Cloud Atlas, and haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 yet, but hope to soon.
I think some genre books ARE literature, but I agree it’s hard to tell because they are mixed in with so many books that are cliched, or too plot-driven, or follow too predictable a pattern. Fahrenheit 451 may or may not be a genre book, but it’s definitely literature. Maybe the better question is, how do we define a genre book?
Yeah you’ve included speculative literature!
We are also part of several of the same challenges.
As for your ending thought – I do think sometimes people read to escape not to think and fluff is just the thing. So I try not to knock it too much, besides its refreshing to escape now and then. 🙂
I agree, I think fluff is generally a great thing, but I’m appreciating literary work more these days. I think when you’re a student you need the fluffy stuff more to balance. But when your day is spent in an office writing TPS reports, it’s nicer to challenge yourself in your off-time.
Hi! I found my way here through the Blog Hop! I love Ray Bradbury, he’s a classic! I don’t really think of him as Sci-Fi because although he is touching futuristic themes and elements of the sci-fi genre, there is that special spark and elegance to his writing that lingers over details and is a human document is beyond telling a story …as much as I loved Fahrenheit 451, I adore Dandelion Wine more because it was so magical and beautiful.
I’ll be passing through again soon!
I really enjoyed your thoughtful post.
I tend to read a fairly wide variety of books, with a few exceptions (no romance, no western-theme, very little horror/fantasy). I definitely enjoy what most would call “literary fiction,” and I would have to say that there are few classics that I have read that I have not loved, or at least liked alot.
That said, I think the term literary is so subjective, and is all too often used as a means to disparage genre fiction.
I want to read some more of Ray Bradbury after reading your post 🙂
I haven’t read this this one but I have only heard good reviews – ill keep an eye out for it. I enjoyed reading what your idea of literary fiction is – I think that there is more to it than the usual definition of it. Ultimately it is so subjective because a literary book can also fall into different genres as well. I will definitely be back to your great blog
Awesome post. Incidentally, I just finished Fahrenheit 451 the day before yesterday – I had never read it before and it resonated with me very personally. I sat down and wrote about 10 pages non-stop in my journal after I finished. I’m not sure how much of it will end up on my blog as it’s more personal than I usually share there. But that book spoke to me more deeply than I expected due to some past experiences.
Like you, I prefer literary fiction to “fluff.” I rarely read for pure entertainment value – I leave that to the movies. When I read, I want something I can sink my teeth into, think about, devour, and analyze.
You pose some interesting questions. It was a pleasure to read your post.