Friday, December 3, 2010

Books Are Bumming Me Out

Literary fiction is just bumming me out. Can I say that? Can I admit that here among other writers, as a writer, as a writer of what some agents termed literary fiction?

I still don't know what constitutes literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction, or mainstream fiction, or commercial fiction. I've heard it joked (in that all-jokes-are-really-serious sort of way) that commercial fiction makes money and literary fiction doesn't. Some publishers say literary fiction emphasizes characters while commercial fiction emphasized plot. At some point Nathan Bransford argued that literary fiction was the kind of fiction in which plot happens beneath the surface and commercial fiction has more overt, in-your-face action. Or something like that.

I know some of you are thinking that literary fiction is the stuff that puts you to sleep and commercial fiction is the kind that keeps you up way past your bedtime.

Me? I've read enough lately to start thinking it's commercial if it ends happily and literary if it ends sadly. If you read something and it depresses the heck out of you, it's probably literary.

Just kidding. Sort of...

It's just that lately the books I've been reading are very much literary... and exceptionally well-written at the sentence level. They are the kind of books you could close your eye and point to a single random sentence and read it and say, "Wow! That's an amazing sentence!" The use of words, the vivid language, the seamless, delicate metaphors that are done so well you don't even notice them except that they completely enhance the story. They are beautifully written.

They are interesting, too. I do stay up too late reading. I took one to the gym yesterday to finish while I worked out, and I had to keep adding ten minutes to my workout so I could finish "just one more chapter." It was an awesome workout, by the way. And I finished the book.

They are well-crafted. They are interesting.

And they are depressing.

Not that I don't think every book needs to be joyful, or end happily. Heck, I used to make a point of writing stories that DIDN'T end happily. But after a string of .... a lot of books... I'm getting downright depressed.

When I brought up my new WIP on facebook some time ago, I asked my friends, "What do you want out of a book?"

And resoundingly, they said, "We want a happy ending."

Many of the books I've been reading have received high honors and accolades from critics, but from the general reviewing public, the resounding opinion is that the books end badly. They as readers are not satisfied by the end.

Which makes me wonder if literary fiction has the reputation of not being best-sellers because it's boring, or if the secret is really that people want happy endings, and they are just more likely to get that in a commercial fiction book?

What do you think? And how do you like your books to end?


  1. I do think there are some "powerfully moving" books (yes, depressing) that do end on an up note For example, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Reading it was gonizingly heart-wrenching, but I put it down feeling like there was some hope for a better future.

    I agree though... nothing worse than a bad ending. I hated the ending of The American (George Clooney flick) and it totally ruined the whole film for me.

  2. I totally agree that there are exceptions, which maybe are even the rule. I have a stack of books to read this coming semester that are all considered Literary Fiction, and I have a hunch most of them will end on a positive note. But this recent string of books I've read that clearly are literary that haven't also crossed into commercial (like, say, A Thousand Splendid Suns) are such a bummer I wonder if that's where they got the bad rep?

    Isn't it sad how a bad ending can ruin so much that was good? Maybe that's why so many writers get to the end of their books and have such a hard time with them. Trying to make something that's going to be satisfying (even if not happy) is difficult to do well.

  3. "I've read enough lately to start thinking it's commercial if it ends happily and literary if it ends sadly."

    I think there is some truth to that.

    I don't read anything that depresses me, to be honest. One reason is that I read before bed and don't need those types of dreams.

    The other reason is I read for entertainment, mostly, and I like my entertainment to make me think, yes, but to also well, entertain me.

  4. For me the book only needs to end hopeful, but not neccessarily happy. One of my favourite authors is Annie Proulx. Her sentences do awe me but her settings are very dark and sad. Yet beautful at the same time. The hope for me is the beauty in the sadness.

  5. I love literary fiction and can see your point. This is actually how I feel about YA. While there are many, many great YA books out there, often the angst exhausts me. I can only read this genre in small doses.

  6. I enjoy literary fiction for the language and the well-developed characters and plot lines. I'm constantly amazed at the stories people think up in this genre. At the same time, too much literary fiction is hard for me to take--even if the ending isn't necessarily bad. I usually come away melancholy.

    I have to alternate reading books like this with something commercial or something more uplifting. Something lighter that I know will have a happy ending and leave me satisfied in a different way.

  7. This is one of my problems with literary fiction as well-- it can be such a downer. There needs to be a genre that's a nice mix of literary and commercial.

  8. I hear enough tragedy from day to day. The ending has to have an amount of satisfaction.
    I think that literary fiction is where you want to read with a highlighter because the author says things so uniquely and beautifully. That's my definition.

    As for all the happy v. sad endings and tragic stories? I don't know. It seems to be that nothing will be acclaimed highly by critics that ends well so I keep taking advice of what to read from my fellow bloggers.

    Very thought provoking post, as you can see by my post long response.

  9. Commercial fiction is usually easier to read than literary, which tends to have more intricate prose. I truly don't care if a book ends on a happy or sad note, as long as it stays true to the story. There's nothing worse than a contrived ending!

  10. Oh Heidi, I want so much to write beautiful picture books like Cynthia Rylant or Patricia Pollack. They have wonderful stories and are written beautifully. I'm terrified I'll never get there...

  11. I want an engrossing story well told. It can end lots of different ways for me. I like it if it ends happily. I have been known to put off reading books that I know I will love because I'm not up for the depressing factor, but I will still read and love them eventually.

  12. I must admit, I do like a happy ending. Or at least one that isn't depressing and unsatisfying. (I actually did a blog post on this topic not too long ago!)

    And I've often noticed that it is precisely as you've described with renowned literary works. I joked about it with my daughter once she hit high school and started taking English and British Lit classes. "Yup, pretty much everything you're going to read from now on will have a depressing ending."