Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Definition of Literary by Martha Engber

(Answer to questions posed 10/6)

I couldn't resist answering tonight about the definition of literary. Here's the best analogy I can think of:

Norman Rockwell vs. Jackson Pollock.

I love Norman Rockwell. I grew up on his illustrations. I've been to his museum. I think he was a terrific artist, and extremely hard-working. His draws readers to think of the situations in which his characters are placed: the girl who worries she'll never grow up beautiful like the actress in the picture on her lap; the African-American girl walking to school in her white dress while surrounded by four guards. Great, great stuff.


He didn't really break any new ground. I can look at his work and then forget it. I like the warm feeling it gives me. But it doesn't make me think all that hard. That's why he's such an icon in our society. People can look at his work, understand it immediately and sympathize with the sentiment. Is that bad? No!

Looking at Jackson Pollock's work — or that of any other modern artist, for that matter — is not so easy. After all, haven't we all at one time or another looked at something that's relatively simple — the proverbial red dot on a white canvas — and thought, "My cat could have done that."

We feel confused, as in why would this piece, instead of some other piece, get the privilege of being placed in a museum? We feel angry because we think the artist is trying to pull one over on us or is trying to be better, loftier, more condescending. We actually have to work to figure out what the artist wanted to say or achieve and in the end, are not given any confirmation of whether we're right.



When all is said and done, what do we remember in the long haul? That lovely portrait of the satin-dressed Lady So-and-So, or that darn dot?

That's the difference between mainstream and literary literature. Both are great. Both fit worthwhile needs in our lives. But each has a different goal.

Mainstream literature deals with the journey of characters through a particular situation.  When the characters reach the end of the journey, the situation resolve and we're left with a feeling of satisfaction and so allow ourselves to forget the story. Is that bad? No!

Literary work, on the other hand, strives to dig deeper, which means we readers might not get that satisfying conclusion. We might end with questions. If the author does a poor job, we're left feeling annoyed and forget the story.

But if the author does a great job, the story continues to haunt us because it deals with such a basic and profound concept that's treated in a way that's so close to real life — where situations rarely resolve themselves quickly or neatly, if at all — we're left in a state of agitation. We have to think about what we think. Is that bad? No! It's just a different goal.

Now let's talk about the actual wording. To me, literary work does not mean throw in as many $50 words as you can. It does not mean confuse people as much as possible because that'll give the impression I'm smarter.

Many literary books are very simply worded. Hemingway is famous for his simple sentences, which so something like, ""The man asked for a coffee," and  "We went out together."

Pretty simple stuff. The same is true of "The Stranger" by Albert Camus. Rather than coming up with complex and difficult to read sentences, then, the emphasis of literary work is on the placement of words; the intolerance of extra word; and the order in which they're placed to gain the most effect.

Mainstream literature in quite often wonderfully written. The primary goal, however, is to convey meaning rather than a sense of art. "He knew he couldn't do the job any longer, so he quit." That does the job, so why bother with something more subtle? "He laid down the white apron he'd worn for thirty-two years. He let his fingers sink into the cotton and rest against the metal counter beneath."

The first sentence leaves the situation clear. The second doesn't. Which one is better? We don't know, because we don't know the goal of the author and who she's writing the story for. Does she want to create a story that will give people a few hours of enjoyment and leave them feeling satisfied? Or does she want her readers to think harder about the underlying human condition?

And yes, genre fiction can cross over into the literary. "Day of the Jackal" is a classic, not because it's a quick spy read, but because it's the haunting tale of a man facing his worst fear, that when it matter most, he'll fail.

And yes, Stephen King has actually written quite a bit of literary fiction, some under his own name and some under a pseudonym (or two).

And yes, the literary market is much, much smaller than the genre markets, of which romance rules, probably because literary does take more time and thought to register.

I think the biggest mistake people make is in assuming literary is better than mainstream, when I think the two have such different goals the argument becomes one of apples and oranges.

My suggestion is to read across the board — poetry, essays, genre short stories, literary fiction, etc. — because there's something to be gained from each and the stretch for the mind is stimulating, and for writers in particular, necessary.


  1. Thanks for explaining this, Martha. It's valuable information that makes sense out of a complicated issue. You've clarified the difference nicely.

  2. This explains a lot. Thanks, Martha. Best of luck with your new book. It sounds good, and I've put it on my list.

  3. excellent article. very excellent. and as with most literary pieces, you left it open at the end for the reader to decide for herself.
    thank you
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors

  4. Thanks for your comment, Jo Ann. It's responses like yours that make all this blogging worthwhile.

  5. Good article, Martha. I have a question: How was your experience with your editor? Smooth? Awkward? Painful? How did you bargain?

  6. (Just so everyone knows: I answered the previous questions under the template post.)

    Hey Dennis.

    I figure the process of working with the editor of the independent press that published my book earned me a Ph.D. in diplomacy. No joke! I used every tool in my bag of tricks to address the changes in a way I felt would be organic to the story: I joked, I soothed, I bargained — "well if we do this here, maybe we could do something else over there..." — and most importantly, if I got really upset about some suggested change, I waited until I was no longer upset.

    What I figure is this: my editor is doing the best he can. I'm doing the best I can. If we're both doing the best we can, that means we're on the same side. If we remember that (instead of seeing each other as the enemy), while remaining flexible — always ready to suggest/consider a variety of options — the differences in opinion will eventually get worked out.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Martha. That's sure generous, becuz this template is going to make it easier for a lot of writers. That's what inspires me these days: the generousity of all kinds of writers to help others find the success they did. That's a honorable thing to do, and encouraging the likes of me to do the same.


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