In a recent post I talked about literature as being not so much a genre as a description of quality within a genre. I based that post on the Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of literature, but the term is also often used to refer to writing that has some sort of meaning, often a social, political or spiritual comment. Literature is thought to raise issues and that’s one of the reasons why people like to use the term literature as something separate to popular fiction which often does make no attempt to impart meaning. However, just because some popular fiction doesn’t impart meaning doesn’t mean that all popular fiction is devoid of meaning, or that lack of meaning is necessarily a mark of the category.
Take The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. You could consider it literary young adult dystopian because despite what you may think of it personally
- it is well written
- it has a powerful emotional effect on readers
- it makes a political statement
The political statement gives this fiction a deeper purpose than just entertainment. It speaks of the immorality of repression and the need it creates for revolution. It speaks of the abuse of power and the ability of one person to make a difference. All good stuff, and this is in popular fiction.
Once again, I maintain that the best popular fiction is that which has meaning, some underlying theme that speaks of the human condition in a way that inspires, educates, provokes or enlightens the reader in some way. This is not the domain of literature alone.
I don’t suggest that you set out to write a book with a message. If you start with that motivation, it could come over as preaching and that turns people off quicker than anything. You could set out to raise an issue or explore a theme though. Your own ideas and thoughts on the matter will naturally appear in the writing without you having to ‘tell’ the reader what you think or what you want them to think. Good writing doesn’t tell, it shows, so you show aspects of the issue that hopefully give readers some insight, and if you can you offer solutions, great, but you leave the reader to take whatever they want from your offering.
Initially, I planned Give me a Break as a series of short stories about two teenagers in which I used analogies to show ways to deal with emotions. The bullying theme only came in when I started writing the first draft, probably because I’m very aware that it’s one of the main issues of today. What I’ve ended up with is a book that offers a radical way to handle bullying, one based on building inner strength and using love and compassion to overcome difficulties, be you the bully, the bystander or the victim.
Is it literature? I wouldn’t presume to stick that label on it, but even with my limited writing skills, I believe that it is inspiring and empowering.
What popular fiction have you read that you would consider literary in this context?
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Joe Pineda says
I agree on the points you make about fiction with meaning. Whenever I mention that, most folks believe I am talking about a very preachy piece of fiction, something more bothered with a “lesson” than with engaging and entertaining a reader. It’s good to see people who know it for what it is.
By that same token, something feels off about naming that third point a “political statement”. That statement could likewise be moral, social or something else. Maybe we can agree that, whatever it is, it’s a message with weight behind it.
Tahlia Newland says
Yeah, words are tricky. Perhaps ‘theme’ would be a better word for it. I’m certainly not advocating preaching and the line is easy to overstep, depending on the reader.
Emilia Quill says
A fantasy novel helped me make a tough decision when I was younger, the book had the subtle theme that changing thing was tough. I still love that book.
Later I read another book by the same author and it had a horrible preachy, speech by a minor character, who I wanted to slap. It almost ruined the book for me.
Tahlia Newland says
Some characters are like that though. It’s when the book as a whole feels preachy that it’s a pain.
Interesting. I would not have thought of The Hunger Games as literary….I may have to rethink what I classify Literary to mean. 🙂
Tahlia Newland says
I think I said that ‘you could consider it literary’ not that it is literary. I just want to make that distinction because I’d hate to get into a debate on that one. As you’ve pointed out, it depends on what you coonsider literary to mean.