And when she was good, she was very, very good …

by look i have opinions

I know I say this a lot but it upsets me how little literary fiction I actually like. No doubt part of it can be chalked up to my notoriously bad taste, my limited reading experience, and Sturgeon’s Law. But I think part of it is something fundamental about the expectations of the genre (or marketing niche, if you don’t consider it a genre).

Nathan Bransford puts it nicely here: “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” Which means that when commercial fiction is bad, it’s at least easy and entertaining, plus its badness is obvious. When literary fiction is bad, it’s a huge waste of time. Reading a bad literary piece, you either struggle to get to the end, hoping the characters will finally do/say/realize/experience something interesting, or you struggle to interpret the deeper significance of what you’re reading. That’s a lot of work to figure out if a thing is any good.

Even if the piece is good, you can still waste a lot of time and effort before you realize it’s not to your taste. E.g., I don’t automatically stop reading a literary story that opens with a lyrical description of weather or a bored suburban couple, even though I don’t care for those things, because I understand that the really important part of a literary story is something non-obvious, something that can’t easily be killed by superficial details. But most of the time, I keep reading and never find that non-obvious thing at all.

What really makes this feel like a rip-off is that commercial fiction occasionally does have the quality I’m looking for—a kind of aesthetic pleasure/excitement/satisfaction that goes deeper than entertainment. I wish more literary fiction, especially short fiction, were expected to live up to the standards of light entertainment. There are certain literary qualities that can’t be made easy and entertaining, but most, I think, can.

Or I may just be a philistine, I don’t know.

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