Literary fiction

I’ve been watching a series called Love, Nina on the ABC. It’s based on a book by Nina Stibbe about her early days as a nanny working for a single mum (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) in a somewhat bohemian household in London.

Bonham-Carter plays Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, who Stibbe worked for as a young woman. Nick Hornby wrote the script, and it’s very amusing, especially the dialogue between the two boys and their mum. There’s also an odd neighbour (a Scottish poet) who comes to their house for dinner every night and constantly criticises Nina’s cooking.

In the series Nina moves from Leicester to London and discovers ‘literature’ because of her friendship with a young man who lives three doors up. Early in the series he sees her reading Shirley Conran’s Lace, a trashy novel popular in the 1970s, and gives her a copy of The Return of the Native (Thomas Hardy), but she finds it frustrating and impenetrable. There’s a delightful scene where she’s reading it to her nine-year-old charge and pretending that it’s Enid Blyton so that he can help her understand what it means, but he sees through her plan and demands that she reads him The Famous Five instead.

Eventually Nina realises Hardy is writing about the characters’ interior life and not just documenting their everyday activities. She marvels at the idea that everyone has an interior life, even Aunty Gladys, and that this is what literature is all about.

I’m not sure whether this is true, and to be honest I have read little Hardy since I was about 17, but I have noticed that when you go into a bookshop, there’s always a shelf labelled ‘literary fiction’, and one labelled ‘fiction’ or sometimes ‘general fiction’. Sometimes there’s another shelf called women’s fiction, but never a shelf called men’s fiction. Poor men, why don’t they get a shelf?

Writer and teacher Allison K Williams says that in simple terms, a literary book is just one that has sold less than 10,000 copies, but I think there’s more to it than that (and I think she’d agree). She is merely making the point that if you are planning to write literary fiction, then you’d better not expect to sell thousands of copies unless you win the Booker Prize or another big literary award. Commercial fiction is written with the market in mind, and the big publishing houses seem to think that most people want to read books that are just like other books. That’s why you see books marketed as the new Eleanor Oliphant, for example.

The dictionary defines ‘literature’ as written work that is considered superior or has lasting artistic merit, but I’m not sure who decides these things. Some books are more thoughtful and engaging than others, and these are the ones that I like to read, regardless of the label.

I’m keen to know what things mean, and perhaps be moved to think about wider themes such as the value of friendship, honesty, and love, but I think these ideas can be explored in a well plotted murder mystery or a romance novel. In order for a book to move me there needs to be something that resonates at a conscious, or perhaps unconscious level, but I’m not bothered if it’s also a page-turner. I like complex characters and long sprawling multi-generational books, but most of all, I like strong storytelling.

I like books that stay with me after I’ve finished reading them. Sometimes I even catch myself wondering how the characters in the book are going, as if they were actually friends or people I’ve met somewhere. I like flawed characters and dislike one-dimensional goody two shoes. People who are good all the time are just not realistic in my book. Who’s nice all the time in real life? Not me, that’s for sure.

10 thoughts on “Literary fiction

  1. I’ve subscribed to the London Review of Books for quite a few years now so I enjoyed reading Love Nina when it came out and brought some of the people associated with the magazine to life.
    Most of the fiction I read would probably be described as “literary” – but as far as I’m concerned reading anything is a good thing these days when the Internet is so all consuming (yes, and here we are on the Internet 🤣). I treated myself to Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. Definitely literary fiction but a joy to read. Literary fiction doesn’t have to be difficult. Mind you I’m up to Page 320 and still not quite half way through.

    1. I just can’t seem to get into Hilary Mantel’s books, there’s something about them that defeats me. It’s not the length (I love a good long book), but the level of detail in her books just does my head in. I also don’t really know who all those people are…
      I haven’t read historical fiction for a long time, too busy reading contemporary fiction I guess. A few years ago I read Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Margaret George. I’m not sure how literary it was (it had gold embossing on the cover), but it was a cracking read. A romance novel really!

      1. It can be a confusing read. There are so many characters. But, for me, the writing is wonderful and the plot – hard to believe she hasn’t made it up! But literature is very much a personal thing and what suits one person…. Hopefully your retirement is giving you some time to catch up on reading – it doesn’t matter what so long as you enjoy it 🙂 But I suspect from your previous posts you might not actually have as much time as you initially expected 😊

  2. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the distinction between mass market fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction etc etc and I even worked in book publishing at one point. I usually know fairly quickly whether I want to continue reading a book, but sometimes not. Too complicated to even say what I like to read, but often I find myself attracted to brilliant, difficult writers so that I have the feeling I’m being led by someone intelligent who is going to show me something new or complex; so the minute I sense a book is being too simplistic with reality or with characters, I put it down. That said, though, I hate self consciously literary writing – but even that is hard to describe. Or writers who are brilliant but writing about matters I’m not interested in. It’s complicated.

    1. I agree that it’s incredibly difficult to explain what you really like to read, and of course sometimes that changes like the weather. I think that’s why I spend so much time musing on the topic here. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always wary of people recommending books to me unless they know me well.
      There are a few people I trust, but often people think I’m more literary than I really am. I’d love to pin it down the way you have, but for now, I just say that I’m very choosy.

  3. That sounds like a show I would like! I think that some literary fiction can have commercial appeal as well. It’s like a Venn diagram where there will be some overlap, but it’s rare.

  4. Keen to try Love, Nina . Just finished The Good Sister which I described to someone as having an Eleanor Oliphant like character. I enjoyed it and was a fairly quick read.

    1. Love, Nina is a lovely series, although I did find it irritating that she never wears shoes.
      I’m looking forward to reading The Good Sister.

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