Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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A great post on literary fiction as a genre. No, really.

I know, I know, kind of done-that-been-there. Everybody’s tired of talking about literary vs. genre and probably even tired of talking about literary AS a genre, but this post is really fun, even if you never read literary fiction.

Edan Lepucki writes this: “Literary Fiction is a genre: a list” — and then goes on to list some popular or even necessary tropes in literary fiction, and speaking as someone who (almost) never reads literary, it is funny. I must admit that it also reinforces my desire to avoid literary fiction, including this novella by the author:

“You’re Not Yet Like Me”

About which we find this comment at Amazon:

5.0 out of 5 stars A voice-driven story that gives Carver a run his money November 15, 2010
By Andres Jaramillo

Lepuki’s very short book is a captivating story driven by voice. The insufferable protagonist is a plain, self-loathing girl with an incisive power of observation and the unfiltered honesty and (unreliable) self-awareness of very intelligent but unmotivated people. The character takes us in the second person singular through a fleeting and unremarkable love affair (that none-the-less changes everything). It is a very American story in that it takes an everyday subject, plain characters, and the quotidian of events that are unremarkable to the flat eye of the untrained observer and turns them into well-lit, textured pages filled with wisdom and insight about life and emotions, by focusing a mature writer’s eye on the significance of these events, and taking them far by the sheer power of the voice and the writer’s turn-of-phrases and turn-of-images.

Which makes me feel some interest in the style (second person? really?) but also makes me feel like I would absolutely detestthe story. A self-loathing protagonist: run away! Run away!

Now, Edan Lepucki lists these tropes for the genre of literary fiction:

a) The long title, particularly the second person long title, such as No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

Or the long title with a complete name in it, like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

b) Adultery, with an optional side of abortion.

c) Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany

This whole section, about the standardized structure of literary novels, made me laugh.

d) A dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away

This section made me laugh again, more. Lepucki says: “In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog [to show time passing]; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum.”

e) related to the barking dog: the fifth identifiable trope is that nothing happens. Wow, sounds just like romance, only with even LESS happening. I’m so dashing right out to read literary novels.

Or not.

But it is a fun post, and actually it almost makes me sort of want to read some of the literary fiction Lepucki cites. Especially the second-person novels. Writing in the second person! Is that a gimmick, full stop, or could that actually work?

The problem is the trope Lepucki doesn’t mention: unlikable self-loathing protagonists. I can’t deliberately read a book with that kind of protagonist, even to watch somebody handle second person in the most creative way possible.

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2 Comments A great post on literary fiction as a genre. No, really.

  1. Annie Gass

    Don’t diss second person until you read (or re-read) Richard Preston’s (non-fiction) The Hot Zone! His use of second person is what made a scary tale TERRIFYING, not to mention unforgettable. Halloween be damned, that’s any day, every day peril, rendered more personal and more real than you’ll ever want!

    Jaramillo’s review is a turn-off. We always dislike most those qualities in others which we defiantly deny in ourselves; I’m sure I’ll find his character abhorrant.

    You and Lepucki convinced me to avoid the genre. And make me wonder: what kind of people read, much less BUY, that stuff?

  2. Rachel

    I never have read The Hot Zone. Maybe I should! I would like to try a book in second person — but not the kind of book Lepucki described! I, too, would like to know who actually enjoys reading that kind of thing?

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