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Feb 08, 2006



Literary writing, for me, is just another way of saying serious writing, of saying good writing.

Well-said. It's distressing to think that style and content are, in the mind of that reviewer, divisible such that one could privilege one without the other. I mean, I'm sure there exists writing that's all style -- but I wouldn't call that "literary fiction," I'd call it "unfortunate." :-)

Dan Wickett

I have to say, that definition surprised me and I too assumed it had more to do with wordspace allotment than being his actual specific version of what literary fiction is.

I like your version as it doesn't eliminate writing that may also be considered genre writing, or even commercial fiction, and certainly would agree with your own belief that what you do should be lumped in with what you consider literary.

David Milofsky

This strikes me as hair-splitting, in the extreme. Speaking as a literary writer myself over four novels, what distinguishes literary fiction (including those writers you mentioned) is that unlike, say, popular fiction, what's important is not just what one's writing about but the way in which that's done. This seems obvious to me, thus style over content. Not that content doesn't matter, as Ed Falco seems to think I mean, but rather that execution matters more. If something is well written, it brings home the content in a more meaningful and satisfying way. On the other hand, popular fiction is concerned only with plot, subject, etc, at the expense of style. Thus my distinction, which didnt have to do with space or speed. But thanks for reading.

Ed Falco

Thanks for the explanation, David. We have a few mutual friends, so it’s odd to meet you for the first time out here in cyberspace. I reacted to the way you defined literary fiction because––though you clearly didn’t mean it the way I took it––to say that literary writing “champions style above content” can feed the perception of literary fiction as esoteric and effete, a notion that I find prevalent in the commercial publishing world, where to be labeled a writer of literary fiction is not a good thing. Not good at all.

Literary fiction is, also, not necessarily about style at all. Theodore Dreiser is a writer of great literary fiction—but I don’t think too many readers are all that crazy about his style of writing, which can be downright clunky. James Purdy, in The Color of Money, writes in a jarring style that it takes a while to get used to before you realize how brilliant it is. So, for me at least, literary fiction is more about the integrity of a writer’s exploration of his or her subject than it is about the style of the writing.

Scott? Ed C? Dan? Others? What do you think?

Ed Falco

Uh . . . That's The Color of Darkness, not The Color of Money. Must have been confusing James Purdy with Tom Cruise.

David Milofsky


I'm not sure most people would consider Dreiser a literary writer, though he's a favorite of mine. Actually, you read Dreiser in spite of the style rather than because of it. Like Sinclair and other Naturalists, the last thing Dreiser would have wanted was to appeal to a fringe or literary audience. But why not consider real literary writers, people like Gass, Barth, Barthelme, Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, etc. Would you really not agree that in their cases style counts more than content? In fact, in the case of Gass content is sometimes nearly non-existent. At the same time, I wouldn't say these writers are effete or without passion. Hemingway, too, was a stylist, and Faulkner. No one reads Hemingway to see what people were drinking in Paris in the 20s nor Faulkner to get at the truth about life in the South. At base, I think we're more in agreement than not about this and then, in my own defense (if a defense is really needed), when one writes for a mass audience, as I do at least once a month, definitions become necessary. That is, many people reading my column don't really know what a literary writer is, as opposed to Steven King or John Grisham, thus a kind of short-hand is in order, but a short-hand that happens to reflect what I think. Thanks again for reading.


Well, to weigh in briefly here, I'll confess that there are so many definitions of what "literary fiction" IS that, personally, I'm at a loss as to how to label it. As some of you folks know, I'm a bit leery about labels. There's just as much of a rush to praise or, among manuscript rejection letters, denigrate a book for being "literary." Which, in most cases, is a bit like saying its rectangular in some sense. And of course, we all know the latent problems with genre ghettoization, where certain books are passed over because they're classified elsewhere.

But if pressed for a definition, I'd say that "literary fiction" involved something in which the storytelling or the language was stylized or baroque in some sense, meaning something which engages a reader far beyond a "popular" novel. But even here, I don't think this is a fair label. Because if a book is written effectively yet simply for the layman and is not as complex as, say, "The Recognitions," then I don't think it should be discounted. (Is Donald Westlake "literary?" Well, I don't know. But I can tell you that he writes very witty and direct no-bullshit books, irrespective of the "mystery" label. And you'll never really find a lot of overt linguistic trickery in his work.)

I asked Ed F. the question because while, to me, there was a decided "literary" quality to his work, to another reader, "Wolf Point" could very well be a thriller or the stories in "Sabbath Night" could be "masculine stories." But none of these labels really do Ed F.'s work justice. Because as we established in the other thread, there's considerably much ambiguity going on -- an ambiguity that even Ed F. is unaware of at times.

I do, however, think it's misleading to state that within Faulkner, one doesn't get a sense of the South. Perhaps if you are a hardened poststructuralist looking at Faulkner exclusively on style. There may not be clear-cut answers in Faulkner, and reading Faulkner is akin to navigating a jungle in which one remains spellbound. But then Faulkner is only reflecting the world he knows, which is equally ambiguous. Yet there are enough ambiguities within, say, "Absalom Absalom" to hint at answers or associations which might lead a reader (or may have lead Faulkner) to develop an entirely discrete existential working method. Thomas Sutpen is not entirely evil, nor is Quentin Compson entirely good. Rosa is not entirely helpless. These characters are measured by the ambiguities that the reader bears witness to.

Perhaps this is the identifying factor of literary fiction. Regardless of its direct or baroque form, it's more about subtext and ambiguity.

And apologies for the rambling here. :)


I've got to take exception with David's comments about Hemingway and Faulkner. Certainly they were giving highly stylized renderings of their surroundings, but part of the power of their work is that they did--in their own mannered way--capture something essential about the parts of the world that they set their books in.

Regarding the style vs content debate, I would say that style really is inseparable from content. The way authors write reflects, somewhat, the way they process the world; their style, the way their voice comes across on the page, the way their books feel, is a form of expression that can't necessarily be put into a sentence or a paragraph. As such, it communicates something to the reader as much as any explanation would.

Still, I would agree with Ed F. that high style isn't a prerequisite for literary authors. Personally, in most circumstances I would prefer someone with an innovative style to someone writing in your typical newspaper-English, but I have read books where the author's skill in other areas has won me over despite the absence of high style. Haruki Murakami would be a good example of an author whom I regard highly and who is exploring thoughts and feelings that I find interesting and valuable, even though his style isn't particularly remarkable.

David Milofsky

Murakami is actually an excellent example of what I'm talking about, Scott. People often think Realism isn't a style but in fact the appearance of doing nothing from a stylistic standpoint is very difficult and Murakami is very accomplished at what he does. But how you can possibly say Hemingway and Faulker aren't stylists is beyond me. The imitators of Hem are legion, of course, but no one had written in that way before, the short, spare declarative sentences following one another off the page, the attention to ordinary details, etc. It would be like saying Matisse had no style. And while I would never say Faulkner isn't a Southern writer, he, like O'Connor, McCullers and Welty use the South the way Cezanne used fruit to achieve an effect. Faulkner's prose is baroque and anyone who's ever lived there would probably not recognize their neighborhood any more than the rest of us would among that crowd. You're right in saying that style and content are inseparable but I would still stay with my original comment regarding the hierarchy for literary writers.



I absolutely did not say Hem and Faulk were not stylists.

You're right that Faulkner did not caputre the literal South, but I think his writing still captures its essence in much the ame way that Picasso did not capture the literal way someone looked, but did capture the esssence of seeing.

As for Murakami--yes, sometimes Realism can be highly stylized (ex: Hemingway, Coetzee). However, I do not think Murakami is very much a stylist. When I read his prose, it comes across as transparent. Perhaps that is an achievement, but I would not call it high style.


The issue here isn't whether or not Hemingway or Faulkner AREN'T stylists, but, as near as I can tell, whether the content of their work has as much "literary" value as the style. It's that age-old form vs. function question which goes back to dinosaurs.

I think what Scott's saying (and I would agree with him) is that the manner in which an author articulates is important. You can call it style, you can call it literary. Hell, you can call it personality or even Shirley for all I care. But ultimately it's the work itself that matters, which can be viewed through limitless perspectives -- style, of course, being among them.

The point of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha is not to reproduce every known detail from the real world, but to create a world which reflects some reconfiguration, reworking or outright fabrication of the Mississippi background and human moments as Faulkner experienced or observed. The reader, in turn, will then see human and atmospheric elements recognizable through this ambiguity -- enough to keep grad students and academics occupied for decades to come.


Interesting. I sort of felt like you guys were talking past each other. For example, it seemed to me that David did not say that one does not get a sense of the South from Faulkner, but rather that that is not why Faulkner is read. I agree with this, and its implications, completely.

For my purposes, I find that on those occasions when I choose to read fiction because of its "content" I am more often disappointed than when I am attracted to something for what I perceive to be its style or form.

James Purdy was already mentioned above. I read his book The Nephew a couple years ago (as a result of a Dan Green post, perhaps fittingly, given the topic of this thread), and I found it quite good indeed. But I think a description of its so-called content would be unremarkable and uninteresting. Purdy makes it interesting, and yet his "style" in that book appears "plain". But somehow an apparently plain book about a relatively uninteresting (to me) topic was riveting--this is style.

What is meant by "content" anyway? Is it just the plot? That doesn't seem to be what people mean. The themes? Ideas? Characters? The "story"? All of this and more, no doubt. I'd say that not only is style inseparable from content, but that style IS content. And that style is not just how pretty or beautiful (or ugly) the writing appears to be, that it's every choice made. (I certainly struggle with identifying these things.)

David mentioned William H. Gass, that in his fiction "content is sometimes nearly non-existent". What does this mean, in light of my perhaps pedantic (or dense-seeming) questions/points above? (And I've read most of Gass' fiction, including The Tunnel, if it helps.)

Interesting discussion.

Ed Falco

Richard: Yes, I agree with you, style is inseparable from content (in good writing). That’s what I meant in my original post when I wrote that in good writing style and content happen simultaneously. When style is inappropriate to the content, you get bad writing, as is most commonly seen in the elevated diction of some beginning writers, or in the sometimes swooning prose that shows up in all levels of writing. David M and I seem to like many of the same writers, so I suspect our differences are mostly in the ways we’re talking about style. In that list of brilliant writers that David mentions––Gass, Coover, Barthelme, Hawkes––I wouldn’t say that style is more important than content; I would say that they were involved in ways of rethinking the nature of language and narrative. They were (and of course I’m generalizing) interested in foregrounding artifice and exploring writing that both recognized itself as an elaborate linguistic construction and asked the reader to recognize it as such––and that’s certainly as much about content as style. Those writers were not interested, for the most part, in using the conventions of traditional narrative to tell effective stories––which is what I’m almost always trying to do in my short stories. They were interesting in exploring different directions––which is what I do in my digital writing and in some of my very short fictions. But to move away from conventional narrative is not the same thing, to me at least, as emphasizing style over content.

As for your question about content, Richard . . . I think it’s mostly being used here in a straightforward way to refer to writing’s subject matter. Hemingway’s famous story “Hills Like White Elephants,” for example, is about behaving or not behaving in a morally responsible way. That’s its content. Or at least that’s the way the word content is commonly used. Of course, like just about everything in this life, it gets a lot more complicated the more you think about it.

David Milofsky

A very interesting thread, indeed. I especially appreciated the comments of Richard and Ed F. But to your question, Richard, when I say content virtually disappears in Gass, I mean as a vital concern of the writer. When I heard Gass speak about Omensetter's Luck, for instance, he was most excited about the lack of dialogue in the book and when Coover talks about his work, his primary concern is what he calls structure, not subject matter, story, or any of the other elements Ed mentions. Gass has also said that he considers words to be like clay for a sculptor. That is, he's less concerned with what the words mean than the way they're arranged or sound when spoken. Barth has said similar things. I have to say that I'm more a proponent of what others have called the plain style and think that good writing gets out of its own way rather than calling attention to itself in most cases. But when you're dealing with writers as brilliant as those mentioned above, exceptions should be made. Now, not all literary fiction has to follow that description, but I would continue to insist that what makes literary fiction distinct is its elegance and grace, whether that finds itself in a realistic form or some other. And, yes, Ed, I think we mostly agree about all this, as pleasant as it is to go on this way. I hope we meet in person some day.


I like and agree with your points, Ed F., about writers such as Gass, Coover, et al, "rethinking the nature of language and narrative".

I also agree that usually when people talk about "content" they are referring to what the book is "about". Which is in part why I asked the question. Often enough I have quite a difficult time telling someone what a book is about.

Thanks for your clarification, David. It helps.


> I'm not sure most people would consider Dreiser a literary writer

Good lord, if this is true, we're in worse trouble than I thought.

I remember the good old days, when one could avoid evidence of the collapse of civilization simply by turning the TV set off. Stupid Internet.

David Milofsky

I wonder if you actually read what I wrote above, to wit, that Dreiser is a wonderful writer with a lousy prose style. This is an opinion generally shared by those familiar with his work. I have read all his major works and taught several of them in American literature classes. Why this opinion (or voicing it) should signal the collapse of civilization I can't imagine.


David: I didn't think I was arguing with you, but I guess you're telling me that I am!

I took your phrase "literary writer" to mean a writer of literary works, in contrast to a writer of works that would be classified as popular, genre, "entertainment," etc. And if it were true that Dreiser was no longer considered by most people to be part of that tradition, I'd have to wonder if the term itself had become meaningless. To my mind, that *would* be a terrible loss to our civilization, to forgot that there is this tradition apart from popular culture which extends back for centuries and to which people have devoted their lives, labor, etc., not as a writing style (or styles) but as a way of understanding what it is to be alive. I realize this is old-fashioned, and I know other people don't feel as I do, but I don't think it's so hard to imagine that someone might.

And yes, people have been complaining about Dreiser's style for 100 years. It wasn't that I didn't know this, or didn't read you carefully. It's just that it's not relevant to the discussion unless one defines "literary" in purely terms of style.

By the way, is it really true that "the last thing Dreiser would have wanted was to appeal to a fringe or literary audience"? See "True Art Speaks Plainly": he certainly wasn't shy about describing his works as "literature" or even as "art." He didn't reject those categories -- he simply felt they were too narrowly defined. I hear that still happens. ;-)

David Milofsky


Okay, not to belabor the point but when I said Dreiser would not have wanted to appeal to a fringe audience, I meant he wasn't an aesthetic writer in the way, say, Wilde or others might have been. Dreiser, like Norris and Crane, was a Naturalist and as such wanted to move a mass audience to action. An American Tragedy, for instance, based on an actual case was meant to inspire outrage on behalf of the working class. The Naturalists imagined their books working in an almost scientific way to undermine the power elite. Often, these things don't have their affect and today Tragedy is read more in universities than in labor halls, if it's read at all. My point was that Dreiser is an oddity, a writer of real literary significance who nevertheless had stylistic shortcomings. Okay?


Fair enough.

Bellow, writing about Dreiser, urged us to go further: "It is very odd that no one has thought to ask just what the 'bad writing' of a powerful novelist signifies." But you'll notice he didn't provide any answers. ;-)

David Niall Wilson

This is one of those arguments that always makes me shake my head in wonder. In fact, you can transpose this discussion onto almost any other situation in life - the "gothic" life style, "Rock 'n Roll" "preppy," etc. and make almost the same arguments if you want to turn it into an us-and-them issue.

To say one thing is literary fiction, and one thing is not, is first to set one's self up as a qualified judge. The preferred method of doing this usually seems to be through attacks on altnernate opinions and by stating things as obvious that may, or may not BE obvious.

Literary fiction seems to have a variety of schools within it. Stylistic fiction, fiction with social dialogue, culturually "hip fiction, deep-thinking fiction, but I have always simplified it in my mind. Fiction one needs to write, the work that speaks for the author, and as the author, is literary, and it doesn't matter if they are writing about sentient toads in a pond somewhere off Alpha Centauri, or angsty-ridden street poets in Prague. If you set out to write literary fiction, you have made it into a genre, and the genre, to me, is a construct of popular fiction used to classify literary and commercial fiction for the consumer. If you set out to write what eats at you from within and do so with honesty and integrity, whatever you write is literary. You may have trouble convincing an academic audience of it's merit, but in the end do such distinctions really matter?

In short, if being literary is an exclusive club, hasn't it defeated itself?


Ed Falco


When you say “If you set out to write what eats at you from within and do so with honesty and integrity, whatever you write is literary” we’re in agreement. (If it’s good literary fiction or bad literary fiction is another issue.) Such distinctions don’t matter at all as far as the appreciatiion and enjoyment of fiction is concerned, but they’re useful when talking about writing. Otherwise, when someone says something, anything at all, about literary fiction, how are we to have any idea what’s meant?


David Niall Wilson

But that's exactly the problem, isn't it Ed? If we are to describe literary fiction as a genre, then we have to define literary fiction as one type of fiction, or another. To me, it seems more of a class distinction, and not a very well-defined one at that. People say a thing is literary, others say it is not, and who is correct? In other genres, like SF or horror, for instnace, you have a set readership and a fairly realisitc boundary to work within. They tend to be more inclusive than exclusive, in that you can write what is generally considered to be literary and still fall within those commercial genre walls because genre, in most cases, defines subject matter, not style. You can have a slipstream style piece in the SF genre, but is slipstream a genre, or a style?

I tend to look at literary as a more of a style, and yet, even that distinction falls short, because if what you do when your writing is true to your own voice and your own vision is to write hisorical fiction, but you force yourself to write a commercial SF piece that is good, but not something you are vested in in any way, then I would tend to classify the latter work as more commercial and less literary, regardless of its quality.

I'm not sure I'm making sense -- or at least, I'm not sure I'm getting across the gist of how I see the problem with literary fiction as a genre. I can honestly say that my own writing has made it quite a conundrum because I'm sure that people vested in "literary fiction" would be unlikely to pick up one of my novels due to the genre associations I've created over the years, and yet I have a small stack of rejections from genre publications and publishers claiming the work to be too "literary". I'm not even sure how that's possible, but it's a fact of my life that I've been trying to sort out for many years. I tend to write whatever makes the words flow...often its dark, and often it fits one, or another genre mold in some way, but I would be offended and a bit angry if someone were to suggest my writing wasn't literary...and I'm not even sure why.


David Niall Wilson

Don't mean to take up so much of your space, Ed, but you inspired me. I took a whack at this in my own journal, just to see if it sparks debate. Thanks for an intriguing post, and I think we're essentially in agreement.



A well written boring story is still a boring story as far as I'm concerned. Sister Carrie is worth any number of stunning, but plotless yawns. I guess that places me in the content-over-style camp.

Interesting discussion at any rate.

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