I’m Too Stupid to Understand Literary Fiction

C’mon. Many of you are thinking the same thing. Even those of you who say you loved Moby Dick, I know you are saying it just because you think you were supposed to think that novel was amazing because it’s a classic, after all. I think Chad Harbach’s character, Guert Affenlight, from The Art of Fielding, may be the only one who was fascinated with that book (and its author) and he’s a fictional character.

Twitter fail whale
Moby Dick as Fail Whale, anyone?

We know the theme of Moby Dick (because our teachers eventually told us what it was) and because of this knowledge, we think the book is grand and that if we have this knowledge about any novel that is classified as literary fiction, then we must be quite scholarly (read: intelligent), indeed.

I never finished it because it was incredibly boring. Sometimes I think it’s because I wasn’t smart enough to understand it – to understand the author’s purpose. Unfortunately, I feel this way about a lot of literary fiction. More unfortunate still is that I believe we are conditioned to feel this sense of awe around books classified as such. I don’t like this. It reminds me of the teaching culture that values university/college professors above junior college instructors above high school teachers above middle school teachers above elementary school teachers. (Boy, I could have a whole ‘nother post about that issue right there.)

Before I go on, maybe I should more clearly define literary fiction in order to dispel preconceptions that may already be clouding the issue. In its most basic definition, literary fiction is a story that focuses more on character and theme instead of plot. This is not to say that plot doesn’t exist, it just means that you are less likely to run into high action, suspense, or the like while reading it. You might find that description, metaphor, and even poetic elements take the forefront. (Author Annie Neugebauer gives a much fuller description, and I really like how she sub-categorizes it. Check out her post, What Is Literary Fiction? from last May.)

They are usually not “page turners”.

Author Jessica Bell suggests that I can enjoy literary fiction if I approach it differently. (Why Literary Fiction Isn’t Boring)

“Allow yourself to not finish the book “this week” because you’ve signed up to the Goodreads Book Challenge and need to reach your self-inflicted magic number. Give yourself that extra week to read a literary novel and you’ll discover the abundant beauty and importance of unique phrasing, character development, theme and symbolism, and how all these elements can effortlessly blend together to create a masterpiece; to create an atmosphere rarely found in the commercial works that can be gobbled up in one sitting.”

It’s good advice. However, that’s just not how I like to read. I want to get lost and get lost quickly. I like page-turners. I like a book that I feel like I just can’t put down because it is too good, too interesting. That means I prefer genre fiction or commercial fiction. You know what? There is nothing wrong with this. I no longer deem myself “less than” if I have no immediate interest in the Pulitzer-winners. In fact, Lev Grossman validated this in his own way when he wrote his post, “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation” for Time Entertainment. Thank you, Mr. Grossman.

Not all literary fiction is created equal, of course, and if you are truly someone who enjoys the longer, meditative read, then that’s the way to go for you. I just don’t want to have to work so hard. I don’t want to feel like I’m back in my sophomore English course with the teacher who found symbolism on every other page of every book we read. (It wasn’t until years later, by the way, that I finally felt confident to realize that she wasn’t necessarily right. Who says teachers don’t have a lasting impact on youth? Well, not many people, really, but SOME do…) I don’t want to feel ignorant after putting down Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad or even J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye and think, “I don’t get it.” (On the other hand, I have talked before about the potential for amped up enjoyment of a novel after talking with others about it in my post, On Books and Brussel Sprouts… as long as no one makes me feel stupid for missing the point…)

I still read literary fiction, although I’m a bit more selective about it now. Recently I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell because I had seen such a wide variety of people praise it. For me it was borderline of full enjoyment. It reminded me of Egan’s Goon Squad, but I liked it better because the connections from story to story were much stronger and the stories were complete. I enjoy John Irving, but find Jonathan Franzen too didactic (how about THAT for an appropriate “literary” term?). I’m currently reading a Julian Barnes novel, and am enjoying it because it still moves along more quickly.

Ultimately, I want everyone to read what s/he wants to read and not what s/he “should” read. I won’t pretend that I don’t believe that some fiction out there is truly… not good… but few of us only read the – not good – stuff. We all “mix it up”. Bottom line is that we are reading and enjoying it. A good story is a good story. Heck, when I was much younger I wanted to write the next “Great American Novel” or better yet, I wanted to be published in The New Yorker magazine. I can say that I’m not smart enough to write something like that (which is not untrue – I don’t have the talent to weave words and ideas that way), but guess what? Maybe I can write something that others simply enjoy.

I’m totally good with that.

How do you feel about literary fiction? Do you secretly judge others based upon their value of it or other reading choices? Are you like me and sometimes feel like there are certain books that you not only should read, but should think are “great”?

 UPDATE: Did you know that today, 18 October is the Moby Dick book birthday? I didn’t either (obviously). Here is a link from The Guardian extolling it while I tackily junk it. Ha!

In honor of the soon-to-be-released theatrical version of Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, I offer the trailer. I viewed this trailer shortly after I finished the novel and it was one of the rare occasions where I thought the movie might do a better job of bringing the theme to the forefront than the book does. Blasphemy to say so? I don’t think so; I consider it like a teacher helping us to see what might not have been readily available to her students for any number of reasons.

9 thoughts on “I’m Too Stupid to Understand Literary Fiction

  1. Good topic. At this point in my life, I’m mostly reading for entertainment, so I suppose I am less likely to pick up purely literary fiction. I probably only read 2 or 3 literary novels a year (to put that in perspective, I’ve finished 2 novels since Saturday). I definitely remember reading certain novels in high school and thinking “the Emperor has no clothes”- then I would engage in fantasies about how fun it would be to be a high school teacher and make up a bunch of random symbolism for a book. I hated Moby Dick, but there were others I did love- some of Thomas Hardy’s stuff, The Illiad, etc. I’m rambling. I guess the most important thing is that people not try to make me feel stupid for not reading/not liking certain things. The snottiness that some people have about what other people are reading or failing to read irritates me. Let people read what the like (although if it’s Fifty Shades of Gray, I’m probably going to snicker).


    1. You would be excellent at making up symbolism crap and hidden themes. I have enjoyed analyzing literature and have written a pretty decent paper or two on literary fiction. I would probably enjoy reading more lit fic if I had a book club to share it with. However, I find there is plenty of really good commercial fiction that carries a lot of meaning, too, with plenty to analyze and discuss, while having engaged me fully while reading it.


  2. The problem with trying to make an overall judgement on literary fiction (I was going to start this comment with ‘I can’t stand literary fiction’, see) is that there are so many different subsets within it. What I can’t stand, I guess, is what I’ll call the Pretentious Love Story. I am a big fan of character development, but I also need plot. I think the perfect novel is a symbiosis of the two. In the same way that a lot of fantasy and science fiction books (much more my genres) are rubbish because they have too much plot, I find certain types of literary fiction to be the exact opposite – nothing ever happens in them.

    As you say, it’s very infuriating the way that to say ‘I read literary fiction’ makes you sound like an intellectual, whereas ‘I read fantasy’ makes you sound like someone who hasn’t grown up yet, and ‘I read science fiction’ a nerd. I think books need to be judged upon their own individual merit, not upon which genre they happen to fall into.

    Well done you for saying what a lot of us have been thinking for a while now!


    1. Hear hear for judging a book on it’s own and not necessarily upon it’s given category!

      I wonder, if there is that symbiosis, where does the novel fall? What is the factor that tips it one way or the other between literary and commercial? Someone out there must have an article or blog post about this…


  3. Somehow I missed this post the first time around and I am glad you posted a link in your Saturday Summation yesterday. I liken this to crossword puzzles and the fact that I use a dictionary to help me with the harder words. People often say “that’s cheating!” to which I say “why put rules on my enjoyment?” I mean come on! I am doing the puzzle because I like it and I should be able to do it the way I want to. Some people quilt by hand and some use a machine – not cheating! Some people do a puzzle starting at the center and some start by doing the edges – your choice! If I am going to read a book, I, too, want to get lost and enjoy it. And like you also say – mix it up now and then. No “shoulds” for reading. Moby Dick sucks. It is the most awful book in my opinion and let’s not be embarrassed to say so. That’s it. i am going to boldly read my Harlequin without a book cover – living with abandon and not fearing judgment! Does Harlequin still publish books? I am sure they must. I don’t really read those. Whoops. Still fearing judgment. Good article, Janet.


    1. If it makes you feel any better, the Harlequin has greatly diversified over the years – but even so, no judgment! Read what makes you happy. 🙂


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