I think it might be worthwhile to talk a bit about what exactly it is we mean by “literary fiction.” Ed Champion asked me, in the podcast interview, if I considered myself a literary writer, and I said that I did. Completely. I certainly aspire to being a writer of literary fiction. That answer was easy for me, because I think all good writers, all really good writers, are literary writers. In David Milofsky’s otherwise generous piece on the Litblog Coop, titled “Bloggers nudge literary fiction to the presses,” he defines literary fiction as “those books that champion style above content.” Since I’ve heard so many good and complimentary things about David Milofsky, I’m going to guess that was just a hurried definition tossed off for a newspaper piece––because it’s just not right. Can you imagine saying that about any good writer? “She’s a really good writer. I love the way she emphasizes style over content!” I can’t. For me, that would always be a weakness in the writing. Great stylists––a James Joyce, a William Faulkner, a Gertrude Stein––make the language their signature. Their voice is so particular that you recognize it immediately. Hemingway was a great stylist. My old teacher, Ray Carver, was a stylist. None of these writers emphasized style over content. Rather, style and content merge, so that meaning arises out of how things are said as well as what is said. Purple writing emphasizes style over content. In good writing, in literary writing, style and content happen simultaneously.
I’m comfortable calling any fiction that struggles to honestly explore its subjects literary. It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that a book can be a huge commercial success and still be literary? All of J.D. Salinger’s writing comes immediately to mind. How many million copies of Catcher in the Rye have been sold by now? And the remainder bins are full of crassly commercial efforts that haven’t sold well at all. The opposite of literary fiction is not commercial fiction, but bad commercial fiction, books that are interested in exploiting their subjects rather than exploring them, exploiting them for sales or fame or self-aggrandizement or (and one current book seems like a good example of this) all three.
I think we need to guard against literary writing being defined as esoteric or effete. Literary writing, for me, is just another way of saying serious writing, of saying good writing.