The Literary Fiction Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel from pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. How do you define literary fiction?

I’ve written about this here but I actually now prefer Emma Darwin’s definition. Here’s an excerpt from it: ‘all fiction works by integrating the familiar (the world that readers experience themselves) with the new (what they don’t know themselves), in varying proportions… [but] when it comes to the proportions of originality to familiarity, there’s more originality, in more aspects (plot, character, prose, ideas etc. etc.) than in commercial fiction. The more that’s original and the more original it is, the more challenging it will be to read.’

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study

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I’m actually not as fervent a fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as many others seem to be (I think her The Little Friend is a better novel, and that Tana French’s The Likeness takes on a number of the same themes more interestingly) but this was the first title that came to mind when I thought about characterisation. There are a number of vignettes that have stuck with me. Henry knowing everything about classical culture but only just finding out that man has landed on the moon, and struggling to believe it. The twins, Charles and Camilla, working out their alibi  – they’ve decided to say they were seeing a movie – and then starting to argue over the meaning of the movie that is their alibi for murder, because they’re twins and that’s what they do. The sweet stupidity of Bunny’s father as he dotes over the small children in his family, even as we know the harm his unthinking privilege can wreak.

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing

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Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil did not get the love it deserved (especially given the inexplicable praise of his far inferior debut, Beasts of No Nation). It follows a black, gay teenager trying to fit in at his exclusive DC private school, but is distinguished by its prose, adopting an experimental literary style that effortlessly blends dialogue and interior monologue in a way that can occasionally be jolting but is usually exhilarating. Despite this, it’s not difficult to read at all; this was one of my top ten novels of 2018.

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure

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Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, another massively under-appreciated novel that should have won all the prizes going in the year it was published, switches between first-person chapters narrated in past tense and set in the present which move forward in time, and first-person chapters narrated in present tense and set in the past which move backwards in time. This sounds confusing, but it isn’t; our brilliant protagonist, a woman called Jake, easily ties the two together. Half the novel is set on a remote sheep farm on an island off the coast of Britain; the other half is set in the Australian outback. It’s unusual to find a novel that’s both so intelligent and so moving, and this is why I’m waiting so impatiently for Evie Wyld’s new book.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes

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Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is the best feminist dystopia I’ve ever read (sorry, Margaret Atwood). Set in the near future in Penrith, it follows a youngish woman, Sister, who strikes out from her regimented life in the town to join a female collective, Carhullan, in the wilderness. This novel is feminist not because it glorifies women, but because it explores both the violence and the love that develops in this single-sex settlement, and what women might be like if they lived and ran their own space. Everything Hall’s written is worth reading, but this remains my favourite – and given that it was first published in 2007, it now feels extraordinarily prescient.

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition

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I have to second Rachel’s suggestion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll also add Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby, which I wrote about here as a guest post on At Home With Books. I’m not especially keen on most of Faulks’ novels, but this book, which starts with the disappearance of a Cambridge student in the 1970s, emerges from Faulks’ fascination with the human brain, and the ways in which it’s ill-adapted to a temporal existence. This picks up on the concerns expressed in his previous novel Human Traces and his subsequent novel A Possible Life, but I think Engleby is the best of the three. The narration is often weird but consistently fascinating, and Faulks writes so well about human consciousness, our sense of modernity, and what Siri Hustvedt might call ‘memories of the future’.

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel

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My FAVOURITE thing. There are so many I could name, but I’ll go for Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being, an exhilarating mix of literary and speculative fiction. This melts between reality and fantasy so effortlessly as it follows the stories of Ruth and Nao. I must re-read this.

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I love speculative literary fiction, as above, but it doesn’t always fall firmly enough into the realm of the speculative for me; so let’s say literary sci-fi. I know from bitter experience (writing my own!) that these two genres are not an easy combination, but when it’s pulled off, as it is in Nina Allen’s The Rift and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travelthe results can be extraordinary.

I don’t tend to tag anyone in posts, but if you haven’t done this tag already, I’d love to hear your answers!

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12 thoughts on “The Literary Fiction Book Tag

  1. I am so glad to find another reader appreciative of Engleby. We read it several years ago in one of my book groups and I was the only person who was really enthusiastic about it. I could say literary fiction at its best, but I think that would underplay it. It was fiction at its best.

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    • I loved it! What I really loved was that, after some quite ponderous prose in his earlier novels, Faulks seemed to totally reinvent himself as a writer. Such a clever book.

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  2. I think you are the first person that I have ever heard say The Little Friend is better than The Secret History – how intriguing. TSH is one of my top 5 favorite novels ever, but I don’t think it’s a flawless masterpiece like so many do, it just ticked so many of my personal boxes (like, it’s practically set in my backyard; the setting alone won me over in about two seconds). And the characters are hands down the best thing about it. I haven’t read Tartt’s other two novels yet, though I should really do that. Engleby sounds fascinating as well! I loved all of your answers.

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    • I like The Secret History a lot (I love campus novels!) and it’s certainly the more addictive read of the two, but there’s something that’s just too tidy about it. I found the latter half of the book especially disappointing, with the exception of the excellent set-piece with Bunny’s family. The Little Friend is the complete opposite – it’s a mess, but it’s so interesting. The Goldfinch is also excellent.

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  3. A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favourite books of the last decade+ and definitely overdue for a re-read. I’d given up on Faulks after a few really boring ones in a row, but Engleby sounds worth delving into the back catalogue for. I am also intrigued by the Sarah Hall, one of hers I’d never heard of. I’m not usually one for a dystopian, but I do love her writing.

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    • Most of Faulks’ books are pretty boring! Engelby is VERY different from his usual style; A Possible Life is the only one I’ve read that is anything like it, but Engelby is much better.

      The Hall isn’t heavily dystopian; there are parts of it that feel loosely inspired by historical feminist activism such as Greenham Common, rather than leaning too much on futuristic tropes.

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  4. This is a great definition. I’m leaning towards a similar one (tag coming soon!) I’ve only discovered Donna Tartt this year and can’t wait to get to The Secret History. I love A Tale for the Time Being!! Great audiobook and when I read it on paper after, it was like a whole different experience. Which literary fiction usually does well (new perspective every time you read it)

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    • Look forward to hearing your thoughts! A Tale for the Time Being is esp different on paper, IIRC, because of the way it’s laid out (and my proof copy had some of the author’s copyedit notes left in the margins, which made it even more surreal!)

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  5. Pingback: Literary Fiction Book Tag | Reading in Bed

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