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When Literary Fiction Goes Wrong

If you read last week’s fiction-genre Definition, Challenge and Rule, you may have noticed a little bit of an attitude on my part toward literary fiction. In which case, you would have noticed correctly.

Here’s my problem with literary fiction: It tends to be pretentious.

It’s not the word choice or Victorian-sense sentence structure that necessarily makes it snotty. It’s the sense of moral superiority that so many readers – myself included – have an issue with.

I’m trying to think of ways to make my point without using specifics, and I’m honestly not sure if I can. So let’s try to give a specific positive example of literary fiction and compare that to more abstract negative ideas of literary fiction.

Here goes…

Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief is most definitely literary fiction. Told from death’s point of view in the midst of Nazi Germany, it follows a young girl as she learns how much she loves reading. As The Guardian says, in The Book Thief, “We meet all shades of German, from truly committed Nazis to the likes of Hans Hubermann [who saves a Jew]. Zusak is no apologist, but able to give a remarkable insight into the human psyche.”

The book explores what it means to be human, detailing a little girl’s drive to learn, a little boy’s delightfully innocent obsession with a cultural taboo – the African American Olympian, Jesse Owens – a grown woman who can’t see past her longing for her deceased little boy, a family that is desperate to protect their living children, and so on. It covers the good, the bad, the beautiful and the horrific all in a quietly eloquent language that always presses readers to read on…

Of their own free will. There’s nothing pushy about it.

It presents a worldview. It doesn’t preach it.

Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. The norm, at least as far as I’ve read, is an impenetrable belief that life is meant to be suffered through. That beauty can only be found in pain. Or confusion. Or happenstance. And anyone who believes otherwise is common. Or bourgeoisie. Or non-intellectual.

If that’s your belief, then that’s your belief. And if you want to write that belief into a novel, literary fiction or otherwise, then that’s your choice too. But:

  1. I think that’s a really sad worldview to live by.

  2. I’m all for having strong beliefs, but there’s also this thing called respect that’s a nice little addition to one’s list of mentalities and expressions.

  3. It’s just not my cup of literary tea.

If that keeps me out of the literary fiction circles, then so be it. I’ll stick to more hope-filled reads that treat me like an adult.

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