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Author Topic: Literary Genre
rcmann
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What is it? Please? Help me? How can you tell a "literary" story from a plain old story-type story? When I was younger, I used to think that literature meant that the book was old and the author was dead, and/or nobody wanted to read it because it was boring. But then I found out some "literature" wasn't boring. Like Treasure Island. But then, it seems that it wasn't "literary" in it's day, but it is now. I'm confused.

How can I tell if something is literary? Some magazines say they want submissions with a literary...um..is it flavor maybe? Or a literary bent? I dunno if I can bend that far or not. What is "literary" and why?

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extrinsic
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Literary genre goes by many variant definitions. One of the more straightforward ones I've heard is realistic characters in realistic settings with realistic problems wanting satisfaction portrayed in a realistic and vigorous voice.

Some add in features like character emphasis, where a protagonist experiences a major personal growth or decline transformation outcome as a consequence of the dramatic action. Sometimes parody for social commentary is a literary feature, homage, lampoon, satire, sarcasm too.

Socially relevant and meaningful message and theme fits some definitions. Meaningful and accessible subtext fits many definitions. Some require more than average efforts to unravel deeper meanings or interpret deeper meanings and intents.

Some place literary movement in context, how a work may represent the features relevant to a particular movement, school of thought, or be a seminal work that introduced a movement or is a capstone to a movement. What distinguishes a movement from another is a significant departure from what has come before, i.e., Postmodernism grew out of but signals a significant departure from Modernism.

One of the enduring ancient defintiions of literary genre that is often overlooked today is a work with a complex plot. Not intricate, per se, but involving an anagnorisis and a peripetia: respectively, an abrupt, profound realization of true circumstances and an abrupt, profound reversal of circumstances. Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus has examples of both. Oedipus discovers he slew his father and married his mother. Anagnorisis. He makes the discovery when he has accomplished his life ambition, puts out his eyes, and becomes a beggar for pennance to the gods. Peripetia. A narrative that has neither has a simple plot. Not simpleminded but straightforward plot movement without any abrupt, profound, major turns.

A voice that represents and resonantes with a cultural era or group may signify an acclaimed literary powerhouse. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, though controversial, is an example of a voice that struck a chord with readers, culture, and critics.

In other words, there are many positions from which critics evaluate what's literary. In general, though, character emphasis and personal problems wanting satisfaction with public implications and significant personal transformation outcomes and a notice-worthy voice will fill most bills.

[ June 15, 2012, 12:15 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Extrinsic writes [another provocative and informative post redacted], which is wonderful so far as literary critique is concerned, but it doesn't necessarily describe what will prompt an editor to put your story in his "literary" pigeonhole.

I have a nagging suspicion that the litmus test is whether the artfulness of your prose *shows*.

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extrinsic
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Are editors not critics too, speaking with the black and white absolutes of acceptance or rejection? Who isn't.

Jonathan Franzen is in some circles considered an up and coming literary writer. Yet some critics condemn Franzen for using popular culture references and portraying conservative mid Western belief systems.

Franzen's prose does not, per se, call undue attention to the artfulness of the writing. He shows by writing a close voice in imitation mode. If that's showy, I don't think so. Artful. Freedom, Franzen's latest novel, is sublime but eminently accessible.

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rcmann
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Dost thou, then, imply that nobody else knoweth what the hell it iseth either? eth?
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MattLeo
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I should say I have nothing against literary fiction; what I detest is market segmentation, which necessarily puts a story into some neat pigeonhole.

As for Franzen, he's in good company. Bluenose critics who condemn anything they don't see as suitable for literature despised *Huckleberry Finn* either, but their modern heirs wouldn't dare condemn it's subject matter for fear of looking ridiculous.

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extrinsic
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Plenty of readers, critics, people, etc., distributors, booksellers, editors, know for themselves what literary fiction is. The infamous words of "United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)", "I know it when I see it," is a best practice guidance. ("I know it when I see it.")

In other words, define literary genre for yourself. I encourage everyone to establish their own writing definitions, seeking guidance, adopting, and adapting where they will. If everyone conformed to exactly the same conventions and principles, there'd be nothing novel under the Sun coming along. Reading would be dreary. Life would be dreary.

I know what's literary satisfactorily for myself. I share what I know for guidance. Not for the absolute, universal truth of the matter asserted. There is no such thing where opinions are involved. More like an infinity of positions to select and cherrypick from, take a stand, establish one's own, and support it.

"I know it when I see it." Wikipedia. Web. 14 June 2012.

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rcmann
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I think I'll just write my little stories and ignore pigeonholes. Thanks for the info.
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Brendan
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rcmann

One definition of literary is whatever is deemed worthy of study by academics. In the past, that meant the exclusion of most genres, as being somewhat beneath academia (but that is changing). As a result, there are certain elements that could separate literary from other market segmentations. Below are some.

An emphasis on prose and/or style - the story is meant to be sipped like wine, not guzzled like beer. Beauty and subtlety are prized. The prose often describes a lot more than is usually accepted by other genres, especially science fiction which can be quite bare.

An emphasis on meaning - one can rake through (reread) and glean new insights as one studies the text. Beauty and subtlety are prized apart (or is that out? [Wink] ). It is written to be reread, and therefore pacing can be slower and elements such as surprise endings may not work. The genre values symbolism and subtext, which are only developed or understood by interaction with the author and/or others. Escapist, literal or technical idea stories are not expected, and usually not wanted.

A de-emphasis on plot, pacing and action - these can occur, but they are not what the audience is primarily reading for.

An emphasis on character - although, not necessarily on character arc. Slice of life vignettes are quite valid, which are usually deemed unfinished by many specfic editors, including some earmarked as literary spec fic (e.g. Strange Horizons).

An emphasis on realism and real situations - although specfic magazines with a literary bent ignore this characteristic, by their very specfic definition. Situations can be exotic (giving rise to the number of Indian books heading the major western literary prizes over the last decade), so long as they do exist. This has been described by one author (of both specfic and literary genres) as a relic of the personal taste of a particularly influential editor (of The New Yorker), which has persisted throughout last century.

If you are interested, I am considering running a Literary versus Spec Fic challenge next month. I have a few ideas about how this can work as a challenge, and am wondering how many would be interested in such a challenge.

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Robert Nowall
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Marketing, mostly. It's so the bookstores can group certain books in certain sections, the better for the browser to find them. Writers, of course, are not so easily pigeonholed and will likely write something that spreads itself across two or more of these categories.
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robertq
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Hello rcmann,

I think the lack of a speculative element and contemporary time period are two hallmarks of lit fic. There's a lit fic sub-workshop at Critters and I've been looking through them since I've been studying the Best American Short Stories (early to mid-forties.) I can say that of the sixty stories from BASS 1942 and 1943 only two had a spec elements and both were humorous stories. Of the sixty, only 2 or 3 took place in the past, and then no more than 30 years. More recent BASS stories have the traits described by Brendan. The prose tends to be in itself more akin to poetry, as Brendan says, more like sipping wine. At the negative end this can be be "hip" stylistic cleverness and be utterly empty of story value as genre readers understand it. The implicit assumption being a very European "Life has no meaning, so why have stories with meaning?" As you can probably tell, I'm not a huge fan of contemporary lit fiction. Which is why I chose to read BASS from the forties, before appealing to an academic audience was a critical factor.

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extrinsic
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Maybe a predominately commercial era transpired during the early Twentieth century, when big business got involved in mass-marketing literature because technology made it possible and necessary to appeal to mass culture. But critical audiences have always been a factor, including academic audiences.

Homer's Odyssey, Dame Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, H.G. Well's The Time Machine, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, George Orwell's Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, all have fantastical premises intrinsically tied to their plots, though they are themed idea stories with enthralling plots and characters and settings. Each enjoyed the most elusive of writing goals, both popular and critical acclaim. They stand proud in the literary genre canon.

[ June 15, 2012, 01:09 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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babooher
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If it would be at a con (ComicCon for example), it might be a genre story.

If someone would make fun of you for liking that kind of story, it might be a genre story.

If it is about ordinary, terrible people doing ordinary, terrible things and having ordinary, terrible things happen to them, it might be literary.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Another possible emphasis might be on the journey instead of the destination (as a literary friend of mine explained to me). The writing is about exploring how things develop and not about what happens next or how things will be resolved.

What I understood from what she said is that genre fiction is written to deliver the readers to a resolution (the end!), but literary fiction is written more to deliver an experience (that may have no resolution, it just is) to the readers.

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rcmann
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It sounds more and more like the consensus is that a genre story is actually about something. Whereas a literary story is just a rambling stream of thoughts and impressions? Like Hemingways, "A Clean, Well Lighted place?" that has no plot, no conclusion, no conflict, and the characters end up essentially unchanged?
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extrinsic
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We must have read different Ernest Hemingway "A Clean, Well Lighted Place" stories.

Plot, an old waiter wants men's platonic companionship to while away the wee hours of the night. Rising action, rejection by younger men at every turn. Theme, the alienated individual in society. Dramatic conflict, acceptance or rejection. Character transformation, outcome, the old waiter finds another late night pastime, though an unsatisfactory way to successfully pass the late night terrors and try to cope with suicidal ideation until he can go home to sleep, suicide because he can't bear to be alone, to be "nada," nothing, suicide that the pitifully lonely old war veteran tried to do and failed. For the old waiter, tomorrow is another day's struggle with loneliness. One that he fears he will eventually lose. Tragically beautiful. Both tragedy and comedy outcomes.

Note, late night settings and late adult waiter protagonist and late adult veteran. Exquisite symbolism.

The story is more meaningful for late adult audience niches, particularly those who followed Hemingway's cult of manhood, aging along with the author, not exactly for younger audiences who empathize with the younger waiter's problem wanting satisfaction.

[ June 16, 2012, 12:14 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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I'm a retired grandfather. I don't think my lack of empathy for the characters is based on being too young to understand them.

The story I read is about two waiters arguing. One wants to go home to his family. The other one doesn't have anyone waiting, so he is in no hurry. They are watching the last customer, a lonely old drunk, get drunker and drunker until it's finally so late that they have have to chase him out. Whereupon the young one goes home and the old waiter goes out and proceeds to get drunk himself.

Since I almost never drink, very little about that story spoke to my heart. Those old farts could have chosen to go volunteer at a local orphanage, or school, or something. They didn't have to be alone.

I see no plot. The theme seems to be that life sucks and then you die.

I can't help remembering it because my high school literature teacher was a merciless old witch who pounded it into our helpless brains. Not because it found it memorable.

Young children still grow up reading Twain for fun. And Stevenson for fun. Does anyone but academics, other writers, and the forcefully educated read Hemingway voluntarily? I certainly don't. Not once I escaped from the evil clutches of that madwoman.

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MartinV
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Sad but true, rcmann. That's more or less what I was forced into in school and the prime reason why most people I know don't read at all.
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extrinsic
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Same words different stories due to different approaches. I had teaching terrors in school too, and college and elsewhere, but didn't become a casuality of the Eyebrow War. When I see them eyebrows a beating, hammering at the brows and nose, high brow or low brow, I make allowances, for there cannot be peace in our time.
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MattLeo
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Well, I don't see what's so terrible about a brilliantly written vignette that makes you think about and feel for characters and setting but doesn't have a great deal of plot. If you had to choose a single book to have on a desert island you might not choose a book of stories like that, but it certainly does you no harm to read a piece like that.

From time to time I like to read a bit of poetry. Poetry is often full of vivid description, characterization, atmosphere and so on, but usually is light on plot. I also like to read a good space opera. You can do both.

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Robert Nowall
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One shouldn't forget the influence of The Critic---someone who points to something and says, "That's literature," and "That's not." If there are divisions in literature, somebody is making them. (I turned out a short story a while back that seemed like the first chapter of a Harlequin Romance---it wasn't SF or fantasy, I couldn't make it into that, and, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how to market it. I might put it up on my website in a few weeks---right not it just sits there in my files, reproaching me.)
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MattLeo
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quote:
I turned out a short story a while back that seemed like the first chapter of a Harlequin Romance
There's no shame in writing a genre romance. There's an art to it after all (albeit one that doesn't speak to half the population); not everyone can do it well. Murray Leinster, the double-Hugo winning inventor of the alternate history genre, was one of the few early 20th C pulp writers to survive the higher writing standards of the "Golden Age" of sci-fi. He also wrote mysteries, westerns and yes, genre romances (as "Louisa Carter Lee"!!!).

What generates more heat than light are the struggles over defining what it is respectable for someone to read if he wants to be seen as a person with intelligence and taste. On one side are the people who confound "literary fiction" as a genre with "all fiction with literary value". They're obviously prigs, but they inspire counter-priggishness in people who respond that all literary fiction is pretentious, self-indulgent twaddle.

Anybody who sets himself up in the business of telling other people what they aren't allowed to like is a prig, regardless of his specific tastes.

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robertq
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extrinsic states: Plot, an old waiter wants men's platonic companionship to while away the wee hours of the night. Rising action, rejection by younger men at every turn

If that was there, I certainly didn't see it. I'll look at it again

A Clean Well Lighted place appears, to me at least, to be Hemingway's worldview quite explicitly put into a scene. "Debonair nihilism" is one way I've heard it put.

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robertq
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Martha Foley's account in the intro to the BASS (Best American Short Stories) anthologies (1942-'45) is interesting. Foley was the editor of the very influential Story magazine, and then took over editing the BASS series when O'Brien died. She states that she and a bunch of writers, including Sherwood Anderson, argued all night over a definition of the short story. They brought up Poe, O. Henry, etc. At the end their conclusion was that a short story has two characteristics 1) It's not too long and 2) at the end, the reader is left with the feeling of having had a memorable experience. That's the best that a bunch of experts with a vast knowledge of stories could come up with.
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robertq
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Hi Kathleen,

It's been a while since I've been posting at Hatrack, but I recall a similar thread a year or so ago. Do these ever get collected into one place, sorted by idea, so one can peruse peoples' thoughts over the years about various subjects?

Robert q

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by robertq:
extrinsic states: Plot, an old waiter wants men's platonic companionship to while away the wee hours of the night. Rising action, rejection by younger men at every turn

If that was there, I certainly didn't see it. I'll look at it again

While you're about it, see if you can locate the old waiter's most appreciable character transformation. Hint, routine interrupted and a revelation outcome are causally involved.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by robertq:
Hi Kathleen,

It's been a while since I've been posting at Hatrack, but I recall a similar thread a year or so ago. Do these ever get collected into one place, sorted by idea, so one can peruse peoples' thoughts over the years about various subjects?

Robert q

I've gathered a few links to topics and posted them in the FAQ area, but most of them are for subjects like "passive voice" and "show vs tell" and so on.

What you do, if you're interested in making such a gathering, is do a search on relevant keywords (in this case, "literary") and then check the topics out to be sure they are what you want. Then copy the URLs for each topic and create an FAQ topic for them. The FAQ area is also for "links to topic discussions."

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