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Friday, June 04, 2010

Literary Fiction – Part II

After my posting last week on literary fiction, a colleague asked me who decides if a piece of fiction should be classified as “literary.” While I mentioned that such designations can be subjective, her question did get me thinking. Who does decide what is literary fiction? The answer – if there is one – is probably as slippery as trying to define the genre.

Certainly publishers decide which of the books they produce will be marketed as commercial fiction or literary fiction. For example, Algonquin Books is a well-known publisher of just literary fiction. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, a book group favorite, is one of its better-known releases. Algonquin also published Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. These were all popular among literary fiction fans. On the Random House Web site you can select a “literary fiction” category to browse the publisher’s titles, including books by E.L. Doctorow and Anne Tyler.

Literary agents, who market fiction to publishers, also decide what books they consider to be literary. One, Nathan Bransford, even described his requirements for literary fiction on his blog several years back. Another source for literary fiction titles is book stores, particularly independent book stores. IndieBound lists the weekly bestsellers reported by independent booksellers across the country. While the top 15 for this week include some genre fiction by Scott Turow, Elizabeth George and John Saul, the majority are in the literary category, including The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Imperfect Birds by Annie Lamott and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.

Finally, writers themselves determine literary fiction. Each year, the PEN -Faulkner Foundation, affiliated with the international writers’ organization PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists) bestows its Pen-Faulkner Award in Fiction. It is the only literary award given to writers by other writers. Among well-known authors who have won it are Philip Roth (Everyman and The Human Stain), John Updike (The Early Stories, 1953-1975), Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars).

So – there is no one authority that bestows a “literary fiction” crown on a novel or other work of fiction. Those of us who enjoy the genre tend to stick to the defense: “we know it when we see it.”

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