“The term literay fiction has been invented to torment people like me” – John Updike

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I can only speak for myself but I feel pretty much the same as Updike and mostly agree with the full quote below which is taken from an interview with Lev Grossman in Time magazine in 2006 (you can find the whole interview here)

I think America is an increasingly book-free country. In the world of my boyhood, there were books everywhere. Your piano teacher had books, and there were lending libraries everywhere–your department store had a lending library. Books are still bought, and you see them being read in airplanes, but it’s a last resort, isn’t it? And the category of “literary fiction” has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I’m a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit. I was hoping to talk to America, like Walt Whitman, you know? Address it and describe it to itself.

I have seen quite a few debates circling around the questions about the end of literature and/or what “literature and literary fiction” means. Is it so-called literary fiction that is about to end? The modernist novel? Surely nobody can say that story telling will end? And what is literary fiction anyway? Isn’t that an absurd expression? For me, being a French/German native speaker the term “literary fiction” is an oddity. In French and German it is much more pragmatic. Literature is pretty much the same as what English-speaking people call literary fiction. If you want to be precise you can add “demanding”, “challenging” or “sophisticated”  or to describe the opposite “entertainment”. Or you can add a school or movement like “nouveau roman” which already excludes “genre”. But that seems to be a continental European perception.

Lately I came across a term I found even more absurd “literary genre”.  It was used for books like Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In German we would call that “gehobene Unterhaltungsliteratur” , meaning sophisticated entertainment literature. It’s a term used to tell the interlocutor that you’re not exactly reading trash, but nothing too demanding either.

In his extremely interesting book Writing 21st Century Fiction (I’ll need to review that some day), literary agent and writer Donal Maass argues that “literary genre” is the thing of the moment. I’d say it’s nothing new, it’s just another word for bestseller or mainstream fiction. Because being slightly more literary than the average genre novel, without being crime/fantasy or romance,  but accessible and well constructed, has always been the recipe for bestsellers.

In any case, literature is still alive and kicking, whether genre or literary. What seems to be dying is the patience of the reader, hence the popularity of so-called “readable” fiction, which means a lot of different things like simple sentences, short paragraphs, many chapters etc. Probably one of the many legacies of TV and other newer media that can be asborbed quickly. It’s no surprise that a lot of the current bestellers have been written by MFA graduates. They are well-constructed, have a stronger emphasis on metaphors and similes and take the short attention span of the reader into consideration.

Do you agree with Updike? Do you think literature is dying? And what about the terms literary fiction and literary genre?

My cat, as you can see,  couldn’t care less. Maybe he has a point.

Best Books 2012

Last year I had a hard time to narrow down the choices and ended up with a very long list. This year it was far easier. All in all it wasn’t such a great reading year. Still, there were 13 novels and 2 non-fiction books I found outstanding.

I added the links to my posts and a quote from my reviews.

Charlotte Wood – The Submerged Cathedral

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s lyrical novel The Submerged Cathedral caught me unawares. Reading it felt at times like daydreaming. It has a hypnotic and very gentle quality that isn’t easy to put into words. It is highly symbolical and complex but still down to earth. The voice and choice of themes are so unusual, I’m really glad I discovered it on Kim’s blog last year (here).

Virginia Woolf – The Voyage Out

Reading The Voyage Out makes me realize once more what I like the most about her writing. Yes, the style, especially in the later novels, is fantastic, with its flow of interior monologue, the way she uses time and how she describes the passing of time. But there is something else that stayed with me forever since the day I have read Mrs Dalloway. Her writing has an exhilarating quality, an effervescent intensity of feeling that made me think of a German expression which I adore: “Champagner Wetter” or “Champagne weather”. Champagne weather is used to describe a very fresh but sunny spring morning on which the air is still cool, nature has returned to life, the first tentative, tiny leaves appear, the first blossoms can be seen. It’s already a bit warm in the sun but still chilly in the shade. It’s like drinking the first glass out of a freshly opened, nicely cooled Champagne bottle. It bubbles and goes to your head. Virginia Woolf’s novels are full of scenes conveying the mood of champagne weather.

Robin McKinley – Chalice

What I loved so much about this book is the atmosphere. Sweet and floating, like the scent of beeswax candles. The descriptions are beautiful and following Marisol’s journey has something enchanting and almost hypnotic. The world building is exquisite. I was there in Willowsland the whole time. And Marisol is such a great character, so real. She is very insecure and has to find her way in a hostile environment but her strength and her love for her home guide her. I liked how she lived, on her own, outside of the Great House or the village, only with her bees whom she treats like pets.

Antonio Tabucchi – The Edge of the Horizon

I liked it because it’s a very melancholic story and the descriptions are wonderful. Instead of taking a trip to Lisbon it was like taking a trip to one of those typical old Italian towns with the narrow and steep alleys. The book has many descriptions of quiet moments like this one towards the end:

“When the night began to fall, he turned on the radio without turning on the light. He was smoking in the dark while looking out of the window and observing the lights in the harbor. He let time slip away. He enjoyed listening to the radio in the dark, it gave him a feeling of distance.”

Helen Dunmore – Zennor in Darkness

Dunmore conveys the soft light of the Cornish coast, the beauty of the lovely landscape, the slow pace of life. This softness is mirrored in the way she changes the point of views, blurring the edges, softening the transitions, so that it feels as if one person’s consciousness and interior monologue, was flowing gently into that of another character. Reading it made me dreamy and I felt as if I was watching a water-color come to life. I read this book very slowly. I could have finished it in a few evenings but I put it aside frequently to make it last.

Amor Towles – The Rules of Civility

This is the reason why I always look forward to new releases because ever so often you discover a new book and simply enjoy it to the extent of wanting to start all over again after finishing it. This doesn’t always have to be a book that will enter the literary canon, it can just be a novel that makes you spend a few extremely entertaining hours. Like a well-made movie.

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Great Expectations offered everything I expected from Dickens and so much more. The only thing I could criticize is that it was predictable and that there were a lot of coincidences which didn’t seem all that realistic but who cares. There is so much in this novel to like that I can easily forget its flaws. The characters were, as was to be expected, quirky and over-the top, much more caricatures than portraits, but drawn which such a wonderful imagination that I loved each one of them.

Sylvia Toswnsend Warner – Lolly Willowes

I’m glad I discovered this wonderful novel. It has freshness and vivacity, is clever and witty and the descriptions are detailed and atmospheric, the portraits of the society and the people are true to life and Lolly is a very endearing character, an illustration of the importance of “a room of one’s own” and the right of women to live an independent life, even outside of society and without a man. It’s certainly one of the rare novels in which a being considered to be a useless burden on society shows that she doesn’t need society in order to live a truly happy and  fulfilled life.

Guy de Maupassant – Bel Ami

After having read Bel-Ami, I think that he might very well be one of the best writers in any genre. It’s one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t name one single flaw. As much as I like Balzac there is always this and that, minor things, sure, but still, some imperfections. Not with Maupassant. What also surprised me is that this book could have been written nowadays. The society has changed, the world has changed but the way he writes about love, sex, power, money, careers… It’s outspoken and modern.

Louise Penny – Still Life

If I could I would move to Three Pines, the small fictional village, located a few hours from Montreal, in rural Québec. It’s a small village that sounds as if it was a place where time stands still and reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Old cottages face a small village center and are surrounded by old trees and lush gardens. The place is very green and picturesque, the descriptions of it atmospheric and full of tiny details of the season. It’s the end of autumn, dead leaves are falling, it rains and the temperature is slowly dropping. A storm will come and soon it will be winter. Before the crime is solved, snow will begin to fall and a lot of the investigation will have taken place in front of a cozy fire.

Jetta Carleton – Clair de Lune

I absolutely loved this book. I tried to slow down while reading but it was pointless, I just rushed through the pages and when I turned the last one I was quite sad. It contains such a lot of intense scenes and the most uplifting ending since I’ve read Nada last year. Since the largest part of the book is set in spring, there are a lot of wonderful outdoor scenes in which the three friends walk in the streets, stand in the rain or just stroll through the fog. There is a breathlessness and joy of life in these pages that is exhilarating. It renders the enthusiasm of young people for whom everything is a discovery, be it literature, art, music, love or friendship. At the same time there is the anxiety about war and the knowledge that the freedom and carefreeness they experience is going to end.

Carrie Ryan – The Forest of Hands and Teeth

I never felt like reading a zombie novel before and if it hadn’t been for Sarah’s intriguing review I wouldn’t have tried this book but I’m glad I did. It has a very special and haunting atmosphere, very captivating and oddly enthralling. The word zombies, is never used, by the way, but it’s clear from the descriptions. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is part I of a trilogy. I won’t rush to read part II and III right now but I feel like reading them some day.

Edda Ziegler – Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned

Edda Ziegler’s fantastic book on German women writers under National Socialism Verboten – Verfemt – Vertrieben (Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned) was easily my favourite read this year. I hope that some English language editor will buy the rights to this book and have it translated. It’s an introduction to the most prominent German women writers under National Socialism, a detailed historical account of the times and an analysis of publishing history.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

I didn” get a chance to review this yet but if you are looking for a truly original genre blend – memoir + book on writing, this may be the book for you. Or if you are one of those who keep on saying “I would write if I only had the time” – this may be for you as well. An inspiring, motivating and really lovely book on writing and the life of a writer.