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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Just Sayin'

All "fiction" is "literary."


Vance Maverick said...

Sure. And yet there must be times you wish to distinguish between, let's say, brow levels of fiction. How do you do this in class? In your writing?

Jonathan said...

I never actually needed a word like that for non-genre fiction-fiction. Even genre fiction has different "brows" within it, and what people say when they mean "literary" includes the middle brow as well, right?

Thomas said...

I actually don't agree with your formula. Just as is makes sense to talk about literary non-fiction, it makes sense to talk about non-literary fiction. An easy example is the television sitcom. It both literally not literature and figuratively not "literary".

I would reserve the adjective "literary" for uses of language that transforms (or is likely to or at least intended to transform) the language we use to talk about a particular subject. (I think that's Bakhtin's view of it too.)

I would not count Robert Ludlum's or Dan Brown's novels as "literary", for the same reason that we should distinguish Truman Capote's non-fiction, which is certainly literary, from the bulk of the books that are written about crimes, which are certainly non-fiction, but in no sense (I can see) "literary".

There's a difference between "writing a story" and writing down something you've made up.

Jonathan said...

Capote's In Cold Blood is very literary, it just isn't fiction. (Well, parts of it are fictionalized.) I read it last year so I know what I'm talking about. It seems to me we don't want to confuse

a) Quality.
b) Genre
c) Level of "brow."
d) Fictionality

It could be that in some cases there is a coincidence, say, between belonging to a certain genre, being badly written, and interpellating the reader at a low level of 'brow" or cultural capital. Genre fiction uses literary devices like "fine writing," character development, plot structures, etc... I don't like the use of literary as an honorific, is what I guess I am saying.

Thomas said...

I wasn't suggesting that In Cold Blood is fiction. I was saying that we can certainly distinguish literary from non-literary non-fiction. Likewise, I want to distinguish literary (Paul Auster) from non-literary (Dan Brown) fiction. I'm not here using "literary" as a honorific (I'm no fan of Auster). I'm saying that these kinds of fiction are read (and, though it matters less, written) in very different ways, to very different ends.

I agree that we should not confuse this with quality. Even in very unaccomplished writing, it is possible to distinguish "literary" from "non-literary" ambitions. Some writing becomes bad precisely because the writer is trying to be "literary", other writing is good because it's not trying to be literary.

But the short version of my objection is just that the very existence of literary non-fiction suggests to me that the there's something wrong with the claim that "all fiction is literary". Otherwise we're just waiting for Kenneth Goldsmith to "invent" non-literary fiction.

Jonathan said...

All fiction is literary does not mean "only fiction is literary." I see now I misread what you said about Capote, and that you are drawing the right distinctions.

I don't remember 30 years ago there being a category called "literary fiction" at all. People just said fiction, tout court. It was only when genre fiction became so prevalent that somebody needed to carve out a space for what used to be an unmarked term. It does carry a whiff of the honorific with it, if you look at the way it is used.

Thomas said...

Maybe this is quibbling but I also don't read you as saying "only fiction is literary". As I read your principle, you are saying simply that if it's fiction it's literary. And I'm saying that some fiction ain't literary. Which is the disagreement I'm trying to have.

The sitcom example might be dismissed by limiting your principle to "all written fiction is literary". But I'm not even sure that's right. After all, there's something "literary" about the Wire and Mad Men, if you ask me. We don't want to exclude Hamlet from the canon of literature either. (This allows us to respect not just your point about genre, but even media.)

I can see your point about this implying an honorific sense of "literary". Literary fiction becomes something like "serious" fiction, language used non-utilitarian purposes.

I think Pound was right to distinguish between work that merely uses language and work that maintains or improves the function of language.

Jonathan said...

Ok. But then is all fiction written in prose, and consumed as imaginative imitation of life, literature? I think it is. Bad science fiction = literature. Poems by Billy Collins = literature. In other words, I use the adjective in the same way I use the noun. My reason is that a science fiction short story has the structure of, well, the literary genre of the short story. The fact that it belong to a genre that wasn't traditionally prestigious, or that it might not be any good, is irrelevant to me. You can't say "literary literature" or "poetic poetry." You can, but it's a bit redundant. The literary is not the opposite of various kinds of literary genres. You could take, say, the Libros de caballería that Cervantes was parodying in DQ. Those are still literature, in my book. I've heard interviews with Stephen King. Until you realize it's him, he just sounds like a writer, talking about imaginative fictions he has written, and theme character plot style. When David Mamet writes a play (literature) he is doing the same damn thing he does when he writes a movie script, or a television script. Why is a tv script by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld a different beast from a play by Aristophanes? I really don't get it. I understand that some things are better than others, and that there are differences in levels of prestige, but I don't see how that should affect definitions.

Thomas said...

I guess I want to be able to define the two terms independently. I want to be able to call something fiction without committing myself on whether on not it is literature (or literary in any sense).

Or I at least want to answer the two questions on separate grounds. So, while we might ultimately agree that Seinfeld (the sitcom) is both "fiction" and "literary", I think it's much easier to say it is fiction than that it is literary. It's literary qualities are not identical with its fictionality.

Or take advertising. Many ads involve fiction: a fictionalized family eating breakfast, etc. But you have to take the story it's telling out of its context to call it literary. Even then, it's often not going to pass on my definition.

I think some fictions are "ideological" in a sense that I would oppose to "literary". That's why I want non-overlapping definitions. Your "fiction is always literary" doesn't give me that.

Jonathan said...

I'll leave it there. No new thoughts that I haven't already expressed (for now). Thanks for your comments.