Literary Fiction for Dummies
By Magdalena Styś, Press & Written Media Team
I wouldn’t consider myself a nosy person, but if there’s something I enjoy finding out about others for no particular reason, it’s how they organize their bookshelves. I enjoy looking at bookshelves organized by color and swoon over the Instagram-worthy rainbow of spines and I find any kind of alphabetical order remarkable; an organized bookshelf is one of the things I associate with having your life together, so any sort of a system seems like pure magic to me.
The system I find the most impressive, though, is organizing books by their genre. As somebody who categorizes books by putting them in mental boxes like “books that make me cry” and “books that make me think about my favorite album from 7th grade”, I find using actual genres for personal convenience astonishing. It’s particularly surprising since genres are such a hard thing to define — books are very often a mix of different genres and styles, and a simple collection of coming-of-age-magical-realism short stories can ruin a person’s bookshelf organization system in a moment.
I feel this way especially when people have a shelf labeled “literary fiction”, since nobody can really agree on what literary fiction actually is. Even though there is a definition of literary fiction, it’s hard to decide which books actually qualify to be called that. It’s especially confusing if you try to learn about literary fiction by looking at the shelves in a bookstore: very often, books get categorized as literary fiction when there’s no better place to put them. That’s why literary fiction can be such a confusing genre to an average person; it seems like there are no particular ways to distinguish it, in comparison to romance or science fiction.
So, what actually is literary fiction? According to the definition, literary fiction “tends to follow non-conventional plot structures while containing embedded symbolism and allegory”. Usually, the narrative of a literary fiction piece is more focused on the character rather than the plot, and the piece explores larger themes and trends regarding culture, history, society and the human condition. Literary fiction pieces are usually filled with symbolism and metaphors, the vocabulary is usually quite advanced and the plot points are quite ambiguous. Strangely enough, if you’re not much of a reader, literary fiction is the kind of literature you probably have quite a bit of experience with, as high school students usually read literary fiction in their Literature classes.
Outside of school, literary fiction can seem pretty unapproachable. Even the definition sounds scary — what if I get confused by the “non-conventional plot points” and I won’t get the symbolism, which is apparently so important? If you wanted to get into some more literary fiction just for pleasure and you’re looking for recommendations, don’t you worry: you’re in the right place. Outside of going to school and writing my silly articles, I spend most of my time consuming literary fiction and finally, my expertise has come in handy: I have curated a collection of five literary fiction books that can get you started with the genre.
TW: slavery, racism, sexual violence
The Underground Railroad is a story of Cora and Caesar, two young slaves trying to escape from their plantation and find a place for themselves in America. As their journey goes on in many different states, the reader gets multiple perspectives on what it was like to be black in the pre-Civil war era in the US. Whitehead’s take on the historical underground railroad is quite literal: our two protagonists move from city to city with the help of conductors and trains. The book has won multiple literary prizes, such as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and while the themes in the book are pretty dark, the language the book’s written in is accessible enough for a casual reader.
TW: self harm, child abuse, rape, suicide
A Little Life follows the life of four friends trying to make it as young adults, dealing with relationships, past traumas, their dreams and fears. The reader goes along as Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm meet new people, face their past, find odd jobs, fight each other and then reconcile. The book is not only very long, but also incredibly sad: I cannot think of a single person that didn’t weep at least once while reading it. I do think, though, that if you have the mental strength for it, A Little Life is a read worth your time: it’s beautifully written and it forces the reader to reflect on friendship and familial bonds.
TW: death, racial slurs
If there’s a book on this list that you’ve read in school, it’s probably this one. Even though you most likely have a notebook hidden somewhere full of notes about the themes and characters in The Great Gatsby, I still think it’s worth a read when you’re not going to take a test on it; the language the book’s written in is very accessible for a classic and it will leave you reflecting on the ways in which the American Dream fails ones who try to pursue it.
TW: slavery, child death, sexual violence
Beloved is yet another book of this list dealing with the topic of slavery and more importantly, on how it leaves marks on people forced to live through it. The protagonist, Sethe, was born enslaved and even though she manages to escape, she’s having trouble with living a normal life and dealing with her haunting past. Beloved is definitely not an easy read and it forces you to pay attention to every part of the book, but the effort you’ll put in reading it is definitely justified by its magnificence.
TW: drug abuse, death, homophobia
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s, who was previously known for writing poetry, debut novel. It’s a letter the protagonist writes to his mother, even though he knows she will never read it because she’s illiterate. It’s a story starting from the protagonist’s early childhood, through teenage years and university, all while simultaneously unraveling the story of his family. When I first read it, it was obvious to me that Ocean Vuong is a poet — the book is written beautifully, every sentence feels carefully crafted and like every single word is right where it belongs.
TW: mention of homophobia
Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country is a collection of short stories portraying people from different corners of America. It’s a mix of different identities, situations and stories — from a coming-of-age tale of two teenage girls sneaking out of the house one night, to a magical realism story about a man who gets a part of the world on his head. All stories are written in a humorous, yet insightful way and since the book is a short story collection, it’s the perfect choice for someone whose attention span isn’t long enough for an entire novel.
Have a great read!
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