When I need to fill that display, I usually look at the nearby carts of books waiting to be shelved and look at my options. Sometimes know what should go there: winners of literary awards, for instance. Or books I know to be highly regarded by publications such as the New York Times Book Review. At other times, I find myself staring at a book and wondering whether or not it is literary. At times like this I usually ask myself "Would Jenny read this?" If my coworker would read it, then it goes on the display. If not, I probably won't put it there. But obviously this method of categorization won't work for everyone.
|Automat by Edward Hopper came up on an image search for
"literary fiction" because even the internet doesn't know what it is.
On the podcast, one definition of literary fiction the hosts gave is that it contains carefully crafted sentences and a lot of character development. I can buy the part about carefully crafted sentences. But I feel conflicted about character development. On the one hand, there is definitely genre fiction (which is, by definition, apparently not literary) that is notable for not having a lot of character development. Science fiction, for instance. On the other hand, romance - which is definitely not considered literary - is highly dependent on the internal life of characters.
What most annoys me about the whole idea of something called "literary fiction" is that it implies superiority. The BOTN hosts claim to not feel that way, and they do apparently both read commercial fiction, so I guess I believe them. But I don't know why else there would be a distinction if it weren't to set apart these books as being somehow a higher form of art. Yet by definition (theirs, anyway) an engrossing page-turner is not literary, while a book that you need to slog through is. How is it possible that the more enjoyable book can be the one considered less good?
It all begs the question: what is the value of a book? The answer is completely dependent on the reader. For some it is to learn more about the world and ourselves, or to provide food for thought. For others it is to escape or entertain. For me, it is all of those things, but usually not at the same time. My tastes and moods vary widely and although I get very different things from books like War and Peace than I do from books like Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, to me they all have value.
How do you define literary fiction? Or do you? Do you think some books are inherently better than others, or do you agree with me that it's all subjective?