What's Wrong with Literary Fiction

It isn't that literary fiction is bad. I would never argue with the Great Minds who hand out Pulitzer Prizes and such. It's just that books that are termed "literary" aren't always what I'm in the mood for. Here's why.

Too often, nothing happens. The author is so busy telling the character's thoughts and describing the sunlight on the pines that he/she forgets to put in, um, what shall we call them?  Events that lead somewhere.  When I got to the end of Papertowns, for example, I thought..."So what?"

Sometimes something happens, but it's bad. And then it gets worse. I read The Gold Finch. I read All the Light We Cannot See. I even read Anna Karenina. Things happened. Things got worse. And then it was over.

The characters are so messed up that I can't find anyone to like. Holden Caulfield. Raskolnikov. Anything I've read by Elmore Leonard.

The author seems to have a feeling of god-like superiority to the characters: "Oh, look at these poor fools who don't understand life the way I do." I'm struggling through my second Isabel Allende book, and that's the sense I'm getting. Not "We're all in this together," but "Let me tell you about these sad people so we can all tsk-tsk about them."  

Of course there are literary novels that avoid these things. Hemingway never stood over his characters and judged them, and he certainly didn't spend paragraph after page describing their tortured thoughts. Steinbeck, too, managed to show his characters' despair without wallowing in it. Even wordy old folks like Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes, who wrote more description of setting and such than is fashionable today, included interesting plots that rose intriguingly and gave at least a modicum of hope at the end of the story.

I guess that's why I read mysteries with relish and some prize-winning novels with a sense of duty. I like a story with action and a clear, rising plot arc that ties up neatly at the end with some sort of justice.

Of course it isn't like real life. That's why I read: to escape the world as it really is.


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