Guest Blog by Sharon Blackie - The Case for Literary Fiction

Everywhere you go, you hear it. ‘Oh, we can’t sell literary fiction’ (from publishers). ‘Oh, publishers won’t take literary fiction’ (from agents). ‘The panel ended up with a list they described as “page-turning” and “readable”. According to Portillo: “We have brought you fun”’ (from a newspaper article about the 2009 Booker Prize panel of judges).

It’s enough to drive the thinking publisher insane. On the Two Ravens Press blog ( we often have a bit of a rant at the ‘dumbing down’ of fiction. Not that David and I believe in any way that a work of fiction has to be deeply literary in order to be worthwhile: I enjoy a whopping good story as much as anyone. It’s just that we get more and more desperate as, with every year that passes by, the less possible it is to find anything different and challenging to read on the bookshelves of most retail outlets. I have to admit that I get very bored with the kind of very carefully crafted novel (whose author has obviously devoured and internalised every page of whatever ‘How to Write a Blockbuster’ manual is hot today) that pushes all the right buttons but has nothing interesting to say. The truth is that we get that kind of novel submitted to us all the time, and we almost always turn it down. We don’t want a carefully crafted piece of work that’s carefully crafted to be like most every other novel out there today: we want something different, something that challenges us, something that makes us look at the world in a different way. We want to publish writers who take chances with language, chances with structure. Who aren’t afraid to write from the heart rather than to write to a formula. As our ‘publishing manifesto’ (see the ‘About Us’ page of our website) says: ‘Everything that we publish, we publish with passion. We love each of our books. They say something about the author, they say something about us and they say something about the time and the place they were born into. Each book is a person we like being around. Because each, in its own way, fights back against formulas and homogenization, against the analgesic washing-out of colour that threatens to fade our bright thoughts.’

We’re not necessarily talking about something so experimental that it’s virtually unreadable. We’re talking about books like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, like Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster, like Nikki Gemmell’s Lovesong. From the Two Ravens Press list, we’re talking about books like Angela Morgan Cutler’s Auschwitz, Stona Fitch’s Senseless, Lisa Glass’ Prince Rupert’s Teardrop, Suhayl Saadi’s Joseph’s Box (see Books that disturb, books that innovate. Our publishing manifesto goes on: ‘This is the Alamo. We want ideas, we want the language that Albert Camus demanded should “disorientate and challenge us.” We want language as a rallying flag, as a sanctuary, a bayonet, a broom.’
So next time you hear someone say that literary fiction is dead, think of all the small presses out there working tirelessly to preserve it. Next time you want a book that makes you think as well as a book that tells a superb story, look to those same small presses for inspiration. And buy the books direct from their website, giving both them and their authors a fairer deal, often at the same or better discounts than you can get from the likes of Amazon. We need all the support we can get!


Administrator said...

As you know, Sharon, my tastes are at the other end of the spectrum - i like to have certain routine expectations met when i read a book and certainly since having the kids, don't want to have to work too hard if i pick up a novel in front of the telly.

Having said that, i feel you put an excellent case forward and can understand exactly why you aren't turned on by the kind of fiction i like.

Really interesting post and fascinating to see the other point of view. Thank you.

Caroline Green said...

Interesting post, Sharon, thank you.
I tend to view books a bit like I do food.
Sometimes I fancy something cordon bleu, sometimes I want a very satisfying and comforting meal and sometimes I crave a rubbishy, tasty snack. I do find that being in a book group helps to push me towards reading outside my comfort zone a bit.
Nice to hear Lisa Glass's excellent book mentioned here.

Rebecca Connell said...

Thanks for this, Sharon. I read at both ends of the spectrum, but my writing veers more towards the literary. I do think there can be a kind of inverse snobbery directed towards literary fiction sometimes. I often hear commercial writers saying that their books are dismissed as fluff, but equally I think literary fiction can sometimes be dismissed as oblique and full of pretentious waffle, when in fact often it's anything but...

Gillian McDade said...

I read more literary than I do commercial, only because it excites me and sucks me up in a way I can't really describe.
I loved Lisa Glass's Prince Rupert's Teardrop - great to see it mentioned.

Sharon Blackie said...

I absolutely agree that all kinds of fiction should be available wherever there's a readership and would hate to be a literary snob :-) But I do think that commercial fiction still has the responsibility to be both literate and original. And I think that the best literary fiction also tells a compelling story. What I love about literary fiction though is that it can challenge my ideas and the way I look at some aspect of the world. I love that - otherwise I'd fear getting stale and set in my ways!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Really interesting post, Sharon. It's good to hear someone so passionate about what they do.
I get somewhat puzzled about the 'literary/commercial' divide. I've just read 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' (I know, I know, a bit late) - which blew me away with its freshness, originality and strong voice. Its use of language is totally appropriate for its subject matter, it deals with themes of attachment and cultural norms - but is it 'literary?'

Geraldine Ryan said...

I wish someone could explain the word "literary" in a way that encourages me to read it. A good story is a good story, surely? Good writing is a given - I don't want to read anything full of cliches and one-dimensional characters. But if I can't get past the writing, whatever end of the spectrum it's on, then I really can't enjoy the story.

I agree that there are an awful lot of really "well-written" novels out there but it's as if all the energy has gone into the prose. Many people can write but not all of them can tell stories.

Administrator said...

Yes, i'd agree with that, Becky.

But i do think there is still an enormous amount of prejudice against eg Mills & Boons writers - some quarters find it very hard to accept that some readers simply DO NOT want to be challenged.

Did you read that great interview linked on WW recently with Martina Cole (wasn't it?). At a do some well-known author came up to her and said, 'well your books will never win any awards' and her reply was 'i'm not worried, the Booker wouuldn't keep me in cigarettes for a year.'

It's sad that such a prolific writer as her still comes up against such blatant prejudice.

But yes, i'm sure the prejudice cuts both ways.

Nik Perring said...

What a brilliant post. Thanks Sharon, and all the very best.


RosyB said...

I think this idea of literary fiction as a category is quite recent. When I was a student I would have said that something that self-consciously referenced literature like Ullysses was "literary fiction" and, until I joined WW that is still what I thought it was. Now what is called "literary fiction" often seems to me to be what used to be called "general fiction". There is a problem both with the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction (can't genre be "literary" whatever that means? Is Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose not literary?) And there is also a problem with making a distinction between literary and commercial fiction (what about "literary fiction" that sells loads, or "commercial fiction" that sells nothing?). It makes no sense.

I am someone who likes comedy. In books, this seems to be a bit of a problem as there doesn't even seem to be a comedy category these days.

Where the literary fiction tag can annoy me is where - a little like conceptual art - the idea of quality is associated with the tag...and yet if it is being treated like a genre (which it now is - like conceptual art) the ideas might not be up to much at all. It also implies that those ideas cannot exist in "commercial fiction" - to continue the analogy, that painting or sculpture does not contain "ideas". The whole thing ends up unravelling until it becomes merely stylistic rather than anything else: conceptual art = people putting apparently unrelated video installations next to bits and pieces in glass cases and people have to work out what it's about...literary fiction = a bit difficult and wordy. Genre has plot therefore literary gets associated with lack of plot...etc. Empty stylistic stuff is really my biggest bugbear of all.

I am a reader who buys poetry sometimes and can enjoy writing that isn't immediately accessible sometimes if I think there is something there. But I have to admit that, as a keen reader of Two Ravens blog, I can feel put off sometimes by the way it forces the divide between the literary and "the rest" and, with that, divide, a decision: are you with us or against us?

I don't understand why people have to be one camp or the other really. There is good litfic and bad litfic, there is good comedy and bad comedy. There is good detective novels and bad detective novels....etc.

I, personally, don't feel I have to leave my love of comedy at the door to admit I also love something like The Waste Land. You can enjoy all kinds of things and respect all kinds of things. For me, Life of Brian is a work of genius and so is The Waste Land. I love both. I don't have to pooh-pooh one to love the other. Both make me think. Both are extremely clever. Both add to my life.

Roderic Vincent said...

Great comment, Rosy. Nowadays the only ways to identify literary fiction are the surefire references to slant rain and at some point someone dandles a baby.

Sheila Norton said...

There's a lot of interesting debate here! I was always puzzled by the term 'literary fiction', too. Before I'd been published I once had a conversation with someone who was also an aspiring author. On hearing that I was writing commercial women's fiction (or light fiction, or however I described it to him at the time), he sighed and said that it would of course be easy for me, (which it certainly wasn't!) - whereas HE was writing literary fiction so he would inevitably struggle. He was so pompous about it, I'm afraid to say that when he sent me a chapter of his work-in-progress to read, I was very unkindly delighted to find that it was dreadful. (No, I didn't tell him: I'm not that unkind!)

There should, of course, be room for all kinds of fiction,and ideally no snobbery, inverse or otherwise, about any of them. But I do agree that writers of romances with, for instance, Harlequin M&B, suffer the most unfair criticism in this regard. To be published in that genre takes talent, hard work and commitment - as in any other.

Susannah Rickards said...

Coming late to an interesting debate. What I took from Sharon's brilliant post was that she appreciates writing that is as much concerned with the power of language, of the effect of a deliberate selection of words, as it is of story.

If that's lit fic then I'm up for it. Some of the greatest stories are to be found within genre writing but sometimes I long for the authors to take more trouble over use of language. (Just as with some 'lit fic' I wish the authors would take more trouble over pacing and suspense.)

I do remember reading two books one after the other. One was lit fic, the other a womag freebie, and psychologically the r=freebie had far greater depth and empathy. the lit fic was so full of pretty phrases I gagged. But there is a balance. When it's right you end up with something like The Kite Runner, a lyrical, literary best seller. I'd defy anyone to leave that half read!

Geraldine Ryan said...

I'd be really interested to know who first coined the phrase. Was it a marketing ploy, initially? I don't remember reading novels that went under that name back in the seventies, say.

Kath said...

Should someone ever set out to write literary fiction? Isn't that going to make it too self-conscious? When Henry James or E.M. Forster wrote in the ways they did, weren't they just reflecting the kind of people they were writing about? I don't mention D.H. Lawrence because his imagery is so rich it actually can make me nauseous.

Roderic Vincent said...

I've been thinking about this again. In her original post, Sharon twice defines literary fiction as something difference and challenging. This idea that it should be challenging is one I've seen before. Doesn't Emma say something similar on This Itch?

Another view is that literary fiction is primarily concerned with character and non-literary fiction is primarily concerned with event.

By that I mean something different from character-driven versus plot-driven. All good fiction should have its plot resulting principally from the plausible action of the characters (apart from the odd earth quake, train wreck, etc).

A literary fiction might have big events too, but they are not the primary concern.

Roderic Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roderic Vincent said...

That should be 'different and challenging'.

Anonymous said...

Wow, rather cool topic. How can I find this RSS?

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