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Find more At Leisure with Joyce Saricks
Asked if I read literary fiction, I’d probably admit, “No, not so much.” After all, I served on RUSA’s Reading List, which recognizes outstanding genre fiction, not Notable Books. Yet, when I consider the authors I love and whose books I always read, I find that many fall into the literary-fiction category. I recently reread Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice and read MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Maybe I do read literary fiction, after all.
Not everyone considers literary fiction an actual genre, but I think that there are characteristics that unite this group of books, just as there are in mystery or romance. Basically, literary fiction titles are critically acclaimed, often award-winning. Language and literary style matter to authors of literary fiction. They pay attention to words and how they are woven together. Elegant, lyrical language may be used, and writers carefully choose every word. These are character-centered novels, and even secondary characters are vividly portrayed. Literary fiction is also provocative, often addressing more serious issues and raising important questions, which makes these novels excellent choices for book discussions. These complex, multilayered works wrestle with universal dilemmas, and their stories usually unfold at a leisurely pace. They are books that appeal to the mind as much if not more than the emotions.
Literary fiction covers an enormous range of styles and tone, from Peter Carey’s rollicking adventure novels (True History of the Kelly Gang) to Kazuo Ishiguro’s complex and evocative character studies (The Remains of the Day). Prose styles are often complex and experimental, with stories told through letters, diaries, stories within stories, and stream-of-consciousness narration. Rather than writing books in series, literary-fiction authors often write completely different types of book each time, and titles by the same author may differ widely. Comparing Isabel Allende’s swashbuckling Zorro with her lyrical Daughter of Fortune readily reveals these differences.
Luckily for literary-fiction fans and librarians, this genre is everywhere! Reviews appear prominently in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, and in online journals such as Salon. One need only look down the list of major prize winners to see names and titles we recognize, have likely read and enjoyed, and readily share with readers. Check out the list of winners of and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, the Man Booker Award, Booklist Editors’ Choice and Top of the List, and RUSA’s annual Notable Books list to appreciate the possibilities. Who can resist authors like Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Richard Ford? Don’t forget the classics, those books we read in high school and college and rediscover today with renewed pleasure and understanding. From Homer to twentieth-century titans like Gabriel García Márquez, these authors often gain new popularity through film and television versions of their works as well as inviting new editions and notable audio recordings. For a taste of up-and-coming authors, check out the short stories in the New Yorker, as well as the numerous collections of best short stories published annually.
Fans of literary fiction are a breed apart and often seem to be very discriminating readers—they know what they want, and they won’t read books that don’t meet their standards. However, they’re also adventurous, willing to experiment with award-winning authors in other genres. Not only do literary writers dabble in other genres, writers at the literary end of these genres make good suggestions for literary fiction readers. Numerous authors straddle the line between literary fiction and other genres. Emily Mandel St. John’s Station Eleven stands out as a recent example. Is it provocative postapocalyptic literary fiction, gorgeously written and rich in vividly realized characters? Or is it science fiction? Readers of both genres should have the opportunity to decide for themselves.
As in every genre, it’s a good idea to know what’s popular with your readers and have a few sure bets to offer fans and readers whom you think might enjoy the genre. Talk with readers, discover the most popular literary titles, and share them with a larger audience through annotations and displays.
One of my favorites is Michael Chabon, whose novels are both playful and stylish. They also feature the provocative stance typical of literary fiction, but they come about it from a different angle than more mainstream fare. Chabon is a supreme genre-blender, so his novels attract a wide range of readers. For example, his Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay offers historical fiction along with a look at the Golden Age of comics, Jewish mysticism, and the importance of family, while The Yiddish Policeman’s Union won multiple literary, mystery, and science-fiction awards for its blend of alternate history and noir in a story rich in characters, ideas, and polished prose.
Literary fiction offers a world of engaging reading: elegant prose, compelling stories and characters, and thought-provoking explorations of universal themes. There is neither a shortage of wonderful authors nor of interested readers.
RA Tip for March: Every library has devoted readers of literary fiction so it’s vital to keep up on trends. Fans love to talk about what they enjoy, and they have strong opinions, but they expect us to be informed as well. Keep them happy with lists of award winner and with reviews (so they can compare their opinions with those of the “experts”).
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