Friday, November 5, 2010

Literary Fiction at its Finest

Literary Blog Hop
To my great delight, The Blue Bookcase has begun hosting a Literary Blog Hop. If the term "Literary Fiction" doesn't make you want to roll your eyes or gag, then you should consider checking out all the amazing bloggers that are participating.  You are sure to find some new books to put on your TBR list.

To join the hop, you are asked to highlight a favorite book and explain why you would consider it literary. The book that immediately sprung to mind was Olive Kitteridge.  Here's a book that seems to ride the line of many Literary Fiction Defining Points.

(HEY! ...I was in the middle of typing a lengthy literary discourse when a 3.8 earthquake hit a half mile from my house.  I love Southern California!  I'm definitely awake now.)

So here's the deal.  While you can put some qualifiers/definers on what Literary Fiction is, the truth is that it is a shady, grey, fuzzy line.  It can be an old book, or not.  It can be long, or not.  It can be difficult to read, or not.  It can be dark and depressing, or not.  It can be dull and humorless, or not.  And maybe...what is literary to one person will not be considered literary by another.

As I see it, Literary Fiction is something that doesn't rely on plot device to carry the book (not that all literary fiction is weak in this area, but that it typically doesn't play as important a role as it does in other adult fiction.)  Literary Fiction puts more time into writing style and themes rather than a lively plot and pace.  It is something that values the unique, that challenges you to think, to engage.  Complaints about Literary Fiction that say it is slow or boring, or that ask "What's the point?" or "Where's the story?" often simply express a preference for books that are plot driven.

When Olive Kitteridge was published, it seemed to share shelf space with general Adult Fiction, resulting in a confusion in what to expect.  As "a novel told in stories", about a rather unlikable character and without a distinctly satisfying ending, it definitely didn't follow a typical plot line.  But I flew through this book. I just could not stop reading it. The writing was lovely; fluid yet to the point. The characters very real to life, the stories heartbreaking but satisfying.
Olive is a big person.  She knows this about herself, but she wasn't always so big, and it still seems something to get used to.  It's true she has always been tall and frequently clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age; her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seemed to become the size of a man's.  Olive minds--of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much.  But at this stage of the game, she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat, dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage.
What enjoyable writing! Such a satisfying read. I really liked how the book was organized as short stories that added up to tell about Olive and her town in Maine. All the characters were so real that I found myself amazed at times. My only complaint is that it got to be pretty depressing. All the stories are about life changing calamities that aren't necessarily balanced out with hope. There was an overriding theme of the fear, loneliness and uncertainty that goes along with old age. Strout seemed to do a great job in expressing those feelings.

Have you thought about the role of plot in literary fiction?  Is a well-developed plot a quality you value over others?


  1. I too loved the writing in Olive Kitteridge but it was just so depressing that I couldn't finish it. I probably would have if I hadn't been bogged down with school and my thesis (a novel in stories, in fact, hence the reading choice) and planning a wedding, but that amount of sadness just wasn't worth the added stress. Maybe I will pick it up again some day soon.

    I like a good plot now and then, but mostly I'm interested in the writing and the characters. I want to believe it first and foremost, and be merely entertained secondly.

  2. Jennifer--I like a good plot too, but it seems that it is creativity and great writing that really make my heart sing. And I think that it's a good idea to read Olive Kitteridge when you aren't dealing with a bunch of stressful things--Olive's lack of real change/growth got to be discouraging.

  3. I definitely like plot in my literature. But I don't like to sacrifice good writing, character development, or thoughtful ideas on the alter of plot. Which is why I like a good thriller now and again, but usually stick with great stories, well told.

    Here is my review of Olive Kitteridge.

    Rose City Reader.

  4. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I like your definition of literary. I agree that literature is based less on how exciting the plot is than on the themes and the writing. But that's not to say that literature isn't exciting!
    I've had Olive Kitteridge on my To-Read list for a long time now, and I've recently read quite a few good reviews of it. I think I'm going to bump it up to a higher priority level. Thanks for the review!

    Emily @ Reading While Female

  5. Melody--thank you for reminding me of how much I loved Olive Kitteridge and why. Elizabeth Strout is a writer who writes what I think of as literary fiction and yet has achieved a popularity that is associated with more commercial fiction. I like the observations you make about literary fiction, that tricky, slippery category....

  6. Great post, Melody.

    I think literary fiction engages the imagination more than plot-based work, but that subjective, of course. Literary fiction expects the reader to want to write a bit of the novel, herself.

    I'm deeply interested in people/humanity, so it fascinates me. But then, a person who's fascinated by action might not care for it. :-)

    It's all in what you like, I reckon.

    I think writers have a special love of literary fiction, because we're keen to the music in words. For us, it's the writing that makes the novel. It's the construction that fascinates. It's sort of like poetry, only more straighforward.


  7. Really enjoyed reading your post! I loved what you said about the plot not being the main point of literary books. Also you definitely said right when you wrote that literary fiction is a fuzzy area and that it's often based on opinion. Everyone has their own definition of a good literary book, but I think all our thoughts really boil down to the same basics.

    Olive Kittredge has been on my TBR pile for ages now. I really need to read it!

  8. Rose City Reader--Thanks for leaving a link to your review! I agree, the best thing is a great story well told. I love it when that happens! But if I have to sacrifice something, a driving plot is one of the first things to go.

    Emily--You are so right! People seem to think that "literature" means not exciting, but I think that is one of the biggest misunderstandings about the whole thing. The truth is that different people find different things exciting.

  9. bibliophiliac--that's what caught my attention about Elizabeth Strout. I expected her to be more like popular adult fiction based on marketing, and found her to be more literary. An interesting experience.

    Jillian--I love what you said in your post about writing, because that has been my experience too. I also love what you said at the end of your comment: "we're keen to the music in words." So true! That's what gives me a thrill is seeing a thought or observation put together so beautifully.

  10. Kelly--it has been really fun to read everybody else's thoughts about literary fiction because each person seems to single out a different facet of what ends up being the same idea.

  11. Found you through the hop and I'm your newest follower :)

    I agree that writing style is crucial to a book being literary but for me it has to have writing style + great story, which is why it can be hard to find.

    Sam at Tiny Library

  12. I came over from the blog hop and browsed through some of your reviews. Wonderful blog! I'm following now. I have Olive Kitteridge on the chest at the foot of my bed- which is sort of a priority TBR pile. But I think it's not the kind of book I can read during my real life with all its distractions. I'll need to read it during a vacation week so I can give it my full attention.
    Susan from ReadingWorld.

  13. I loved Olive Kitteridge - it was one of my favorites last year! I wrote in my over-simplified definition that literary fiction offers more than just plot. I really value good writing and character development, too.

  14. Thanks for your post, Melody! "And maybe...what is literary to one person will not be considered literary by another." That's something I think I've started to learn and accept recently.
    I need to look more into Olive Kitteridge, it sounds like something I would really like and I definitely trust your taste in books. Thanks for joining our hop!

  15. Sam--a book with great writing + great story is a fabulous find. My personal realization (prompting the direction my post took) was that I really enjoy books that a lot of people view as slow/boring etc. So something I find exciting is not going to focus as much on plot on the grand scale of adult fiction (compared to James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark...)

    Susan--I think it probably would be best read when you can focus on it. Partially because it would foster continuity between the stories, and partially because it would prevent any emotional impact from affecting your life as much! And the good part is that it doesn't really take long to read.

  16. JoAnn--did you write a review of it? It was one of my favorites last year as well. And I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one talking about plot in this discussion. :)

    IngridLola--I've had so much fun on this hop--thanks for hosting it! I've really enjoyed the discussion and finding some great new blogs. (Not to mention how much heavier my TBR list has become!)

  17. Thanks for hopping by my blog :) I love your 5-star book choices. It's so great to connect with someone who has similar tastes in reading. Now following :)

  18. I like this definition of yours very much: "Literary Fiction puts more time into writing style and themes rather than a lively plot and pace. It is something that values the unique, that challenges you to think, to engage." To me, that explains my passion for it perfectly!

    I'm so glad that you visited me. It's been wonderful to participate in this literary hop and meet like-minded bibliophiles. (It's good the earthquake didn't damage your home while you were writing.)

    I haven't read Olive Kitteredge yet, but I do own it so there's a start. Glad to hear you liked it so much.

  19. Visiting from the Literary Hop, and like you I'm thrilled that it's been created. Reading all the descriptions of what makes something literary has been fascinating. I agree if something is too plot-driven it might not be literary. But there are many great novels that are romances and mysteries and also literary. The Woman in White for example. I think many of the Victorian lit books maybe weren't seen as literary at the time but now that we still love them, they are literary.

    I've been meaning to read Olive Kitteredge, thanks for the great review!

  20. Teacher/Learner--I agree, it has been very nice to find others with similar reading tastes. Thanks for coming by!

    Bellezza--I have yet to meet an earthquake I didn't like. ;) Thanks for returning my visit, I look forward to more lit-book-talk in the future.

    thebookstop--oh I loved The Woman in White. It is true that many books we view as classic didn't start out as literary fare at the time they were published. Similar case with The Three Musketeers, right?

  21. I have Olive Kitteridge with me but haven't read it yet... Great blog here and wonderful reviews! Will keep returning!

  22. Hi Melody,

    I'm passing through by way of the Literary Blog Hop, lingering through the list and taking my time to absorb all of the wonderful posts and books, books, books! Awesome.



I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!