The Literary Fiction Book Tag

Spot the connection…

I enjoyed reading Karissa’s interesting take on this tag that’s doing the rounds, so when she said “consider yourself tagged”, I considered! My answers to questions 2-7 share a common link. No prizes for guessing it, but if you do you have my permission to wear a smug expression for the rest of the day…

1. How do you define literary fiction?

I struggle with this all the time when deciding on what tags to use on reviews. I think I’d define it as indefinable! Generally, though, we all know it when we read it, I suspect. But I’m looking for great writing – and by that I don’t mean creative writing, I mean writing that uses a vocabulary that stimulates the brain without baffling (No to Nabokov!), that reads effortlessly (Fie to Faulkner!) and that creates wonderful images of places or people, or both, with beautiful descriptive prose (Kiss me, Hardy!). I want emotional truth – the characters might be realistic (as in McIlvanney) or exaggerated and even caricatured (as in Dickens) but they must fundamentally act in ways people would act. If it’s historical fiction, it must be true to the time in which it’s set. If it’s genre fiction, it must transcend the genre but must never forget its roots in its desire to be literary. If it’s contemporary fiction, it must say something intelligent and preferably profound about society, culture and/or the “human condition”. Please don’t ask me to define the human condition…

Publishers rejoice! Books survive into the 24th century!

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. From the review:

Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.

Docherty by William McIlvanney. Written partly in standard English, but partly in a beautifully sustained and authentic Scots dialect, this tells the story of Tam Docherty, a miner in the west of Scotland in the early 20th century who vows that his youngest son, Con, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.”

“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”

High Street, Kilmarnock – the town on which fictional Graithnock is based in William McIlvanney’s Docherty
“High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.”

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes. From the review:

The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. This first volume of Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. From the review:

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie in the dreadful film of the book.

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison. This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. From the review:

…the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. None of them is perfect – each has her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The two eldest, Julia and Emmy, are a little like Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility – Julia’s strong feelings masked by her outward calm, and with the intellect and strength of character to overcome the slings and arrows of her fortune; Emmy driven by emotion, unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept society’s restrictions. Lisbet is clear-sighted about her sisters, and about herself. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time. 

And a quote:

The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.

The Long Drop by Denise Mina, based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. Part true crime, part crime fiction and wholly literary – a wonderful book. From the review:

The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize [it won] and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I love literary genre fiction so would be happy to see more of it in all the genres I enjoy, especially crime, science fiction and horror. Come on, authors – get multitasking!

* * * * *

Your turn – I tag you!

And if you don’t blog, then I tag you to reveal all in the comments below…

No, no, no! Not that kind of “all”! I mean, reveal your opinions!

51 thoughts on “The Literary Fiction Book Tag

  1. ‘How do you define literary fiction?’ is such a hard question. I’m never sure what ‘literature’ even is, but what makes a book good (in my opinion) is if in years to come I can’t forget it, either because the plot lives on in my imagination or I’m still questioning something about a character, or because the writing is exceptionally good.

    • I think I define it differently every time I’m asked, but I do feel as if I recognise it quite easily when I’m reading it. The quality of the writing is vital, and I agree they’re usually thought-provoking and linger in the mind. I think they often leave me wanting to re-read them too because I feel they have layers…

    • I was thinking of doing a Dickens-themed one, but felt I should show a bit of patriotism! I suspect you’ve read far more Scottish fiction than most Scots – and probably than me! 😀

      Ponder away – I shall be awaiting your thoughts… Or this could be your inaugural blog post!

      • Literary fiction: ditto all you said. Great writing, especially, but not only, reflected in the quality of the written word.
        Brilliant character study: Plumb by Maurice Gee. A story of clergyman, George Plumb, who is self-absorbed, difficult and locked into his own ideals, and who, through his attitudes and actions, neglects and damages his family.

        Unique style: Patricia Grace’s Potiki describes the inherent cultural conflict and abuse of power when a significant piece of land is ‘developed’ in the 1980s. It is written from inside Māori perspectives. Māori words are used without explanation, and while these are known to many Pākehā (European) New Zealanders now, this was not so in the 80s, and nor were there online dictionaries. The characters’ language often reflects a Māori English dialect.

        Interesting structure: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is a Victorian novel in a NZ setting, which starts with 12 men in a room, and extends across many exotic characters, and multiple plot lines which tell and retell what happened to try and resolve an underlying mystery.

        Social themes: John Mulgan’s Man Alone is set in the depression of the 1930s, and, from a very male perspective, depicts the deprivations of that time.

        Human condition: The Story of a NZ River by Jane Mander, was written in the 1920s. Englishwoman Alice Roland lands in a bush clad part of NZ and lives with, and eventually pushes against, colonial attitudes and moralities.

        Literary hybrid: The Changeover by Margaret Mahy. This is YA (low) fantasy and, for me is clearly literary in the quality of Mahy’s writing. Laura Chant is a girl finding her way through teenage transitions while saving a bewitched brother. The depiction of family relationships is one of Mahy’s strengths. A book I’ve come back to a number of times.

        • Ooh, these sound fab – thanks for doing this! I’ve read The Luminaries and loved it, but haven’t even heard of the others, so parochial we are. And they all sound like books I could love with the possible exception of the YA fantasy, though you recommendation is a strong point in its favour. I’m thinking of a new challenge to replace the Around the World one when it finishes soon, and coincidentally these recommendations will fit in perfectly. And even better, they’re all readily available over here! 😀 I’m kinda hoping Potiki comes with a glossary of terms – it’s a Penguin Modern Classics edition that’s available, so fingers crossed. But at least there’s always Google to fall back on…

          Great stuff – thank you! 😀

  2. I wonder when the phrase, Literary Fiction came into existance? It is certainly a very fluid term, but I agree that it is very recognisable when encountered. I definitely think authentic characterisation, social criticism and re-readability all come into it, but these are probably just part of the equation.
    I’m loving the Scottish theme, as I think many of our classics, IE Sunset Song etc are underrated out with Scotland, which is a real shame. I’m sure you could quite easily have come up with a Dickensian themed tag as well though, as I would say that all his novels from Nickleby onwards could be classed as Literary Fiction.

    • Good question! I’m trying to remember if the term was used when I was young, and I’m not sure it was. I think the division might have been between “literature” and “light fiction” back then, and the divide seemed much more obvious. I don’t remember us talking about “genre fiction” either.

      I think they’re underrated in Scotland too! I’m always complaining that at school and Uni I don’t remember ever being given a Scottish author to read – all English or American. Result: I know Dickens better than Scott and Shakespeare better than Burns. I hope it’s changed now, but I suspect not. I was thinking, as a sort of joke, of answering “Bleak House” to every question – I think I could justify it… 😉

      • Now that I think of it, I wasn’t really introduced to much Scottish literature at school either. I have a vague memory of a book called The Desperate Journey, which was a fictional account of the Highland Clearances, but that was about it. Oddly enough, I think Scotlit is given better priority in Scottish schools nowadays, so it seems like we both missed out.

        • I’d like to hope it is, especially now that we have devolved government. I’m always a bit sad that, although we have loads of successful crime writers, we don’t seem to have produced so many literary fiction writers over the last century or so, or at least not ones who write about Scotland. I keep hoping for signs of it picking up, but Scots writers still tend to flee South…

  3. What a great meme, FictionFan! It really is interesting to think about what ‘counts’ as literary fiction. I think we all might define it a bit differently; but, as you say, it’s something we know when we read it. I like your choices for the novels, too… Oh, and I must read His Bloody Project. I very much enjoyed The Accident on the A-35, so I’m especially interested in that one.

    • It was a fun one to do, and so many different choices available for the answers! Ha – I define it differently every time I think about it – it’s elusive! His Bloody Project is great and I think you’d enjoy it a lot. I did marginally prefer The Accident on the A35, though – a simpler structure that worked better for me.

  4. Brilliant! Love the theme and the memes accompanying the post. Oddly enough, last week a friend and I had a discussion about what makes literary fiction. Neither of us knew, so I appreciate your answer! 😄

    • Thanks – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 Haha – ask me again tomorrow and I’ll define it differently, I bet. It’s elusive, but it always seems fairly obvious when we’re actually read it, I think…

  5. Literary Fiction is a difficult term for me to define and I have it paired with contemporary fiction in my categories. A cop-out, probably. I use it for what I call “beautiful writing” (Gilead, Home, and Lila – all by Marilynne Robinson), books that leave me feeling good (Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger), or just contemporary novels that I can’t really place into any other category (An American Marriage by Tayari Jones). Ask me again tomorrow and I might tell you something different! 😉

    • I quite often find I’m tagging things as both contemporary and literary too. Contemporary’s an odd one – it kinda feels like a category for books that don’t fit into a category! Beautiful writing is a must, but I don’t mind great books that make me feel bad too, so long as they’re not doing it gratuitously. Haha – my definition changes every time I’m asked… 😀

  6. What is literary fiction is a really tough question partly because the answer tends to get all mixed up with accusations of elitism. As if literary fiction was the only kind of fiction worth reading. I tend to think of that kind of book as one that is more about character than plot, a certain interiority if you like. That makes it sound dull but if done in an interesting way, it’s anything but. His Bloody Project is a great example of an author getting it right.

    • Yes, I think “literary” should be considered a genre itself, and then maybe there would be less elitism about it. I do think literary fiction tends to be more thought-provoking and is probably more likely to have a longer shelf life, but I get as much, often more, enjoyment from genre fiction. I know what you mean about character, although my personal preference is for a reasonably strong plot even in lit-fic, which is why I tend not to enjoy a lot of the women writers of domestic subjects that so many people around the blogosphere love. I’d still consider a lot of them lit-fic though…

  7. I have enjoyed following this tag. It is interesting how everyone defines literary fiction in a slightly different way. Not sure, I could come up with a good definition, but I will think about it.

    Unfortunately, I am ignorant about Scottish literature (unless you count crime fiction), I am still trying to get up to speed with English literature. I loved reading your post though, and I am sure I will get to the Scottish authors. One day… 😉

    • It’s extremely difficult to define, maybe because part of the point is for it not to fall into a standard format?

      Sadly, we have far more crime fiction than lit-fic in our Scottish culture, certainly over the last few decades anyway. A lot of Scots writers quickly move to London and stop writing about Scotland – I think Scottish books are seen as quite parochial. But I’ll do my best to keep brainwashing people to try one or two of the best at least… 😉

  8. Melanie at Grab the Lapels was discussing literary fiction last week, and I said what I’m about to say now… it’s like that old definition of porn – you know it when you see it! 😉

    Like BookerTalk above, I don’t like the elitism associated with discussion of literary fiction. I hate the thought that people might miss out on good books because they are “too literary” or “not literary enough!”

    • Hahahaha! Yes, perfect analogy! 😉 I was saying to BookerTalk that “literary” should maybe be considered as a genre like “crime” or “science fiction” – that might make it seem less elitist. But I do know people who really sneer at genre fiction – usually people who haven’t read any!

  9. You reminded me I want to read His Bloody Project. I love how you did this tag!

    The last person hanged in _____ seems like a common literary conceit, hey? Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue, Burial Rites…

    • Thanks- I’m glad you enjoyed it! 😀 His Bloody Project is excellent – he’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors.

      I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right! I loved Burial Rites, but haven’t come across Slammerkin – I shall investigate… 😀

  10. This is so much fun, and you brought back a memory. I am pretty sure one of my first trips to your blog included a rec from you for The Gowk Storm, and I bought it. Alas, I have not read it, but I will one day and will relish it with delight, I am certain. I think your definition is pretty darn comprehensive!

    • Aha! I think I managed to talk a few people into The Gowk Storm but I think most of them still haven’t managed to read it – too many books syndrome! 😀 Haha – I’m quite sure the next time I define it, I’ll be saying something quite different… 😉

  11. What a great tag! I enjoyed reading your answers. It is hard to define literary fiction – though I am glad you pointed out that it should be readable. I recently DNFd a book that has had praised heaped on it for being the perfect mix of genre and literary fiction, but the sentences were so wordy and chockfull of metaphor that in the end I couldn’t follow it. Not to say that literary fiction can never be challenging, but I think that books that are so impressed with their own cleverness don’t quite make the cut for me.

    • It’s great fun to do, and so many books could fit into many of the categories it’s quite easy too! Oh, yes, I’m so tired of books been hailed as wonderful when they’re so badly written as to be almost incomprehensible. I think sometimes people have a tendency to blame themselves for not being “clever” enough to understand them, but I reckon the author’s job is to help the reader to understand…

  12. Hmmm I’ve been tagged to do this, but I need to actually sit down and find the time to do it! It will probably be in a few weeks once the kids go back to school/daycare.

    Anyway, I like your answers. I too struggle to define literary fiction, but you’re right in that, I know it when i read it!

    • I must admit I cheated by just cut’n’pasting from reviews which made the whole thing much easier! I look forward to seeing what you come up with! Yes, the whole literary fiction one is tricky, but I do think we all tend to agree on it even if we can’t quite come up with a definitive description of it…

  13. This is great! I’m glad you considered yourself tagged! (I am just now catching up, at the end of summer holidays.) I particularly like how you describe literary fiction as having emotional truth. I can wholeheartedly agree with that.

    • I had fun doing it, so I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, it’s a tricky thing to define, but if it doesn’t hit the right emotional note, then it never really works, I think…

  14. Great stuff as usual. Because my own novels are classified “literary fiction,” I often struggle to put the definition into a nutshell for people. I’ve pretty much come down to this: “Literary fiction is not a measure of quality but a kind of style – where the value of the reading lies not in the conventions of a genre or even in the story that gets told but in HOW the story gets told.” I reserve the right to change this definition without notice 🙂

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