Can Children’s Literature Be ‘Literary Fiction’? (A guest post by Johanna Knox)

Johanna Knox is a freelance writer and editor, occasional children’s book reviewer, a home-schooling mother, and a committee member of the Wellington Children’s Book Association. Johanna made such interesting comments on a previous post on this blog, Is Literary Fiction a Genre?, that I invited her to do a guest post expanding on the issues she raised there. Here it is!

Can children’s literature be ‘literary fiction’?

When Tim asked last month, ‘Is literary fiction a genre?’ I was interested in this assertion: ‘ … I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.’

I wondered, where does that idea leave children’s literature, which generally places great emphasis on plot? Is there such a thing as children’s literary fiction, and if so, what does it look like?

US literary agent Nathan Bransford has come up with a slightly different definition of literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction, and blogged about it. He writes:

In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

There are only a very few children’s books that can nestle completely happily into his definition of literary fiction. (Some books by Australian children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky, who came to Wellington for Writers and Readers Week, fit the bill. I can’t think of too many others.)

Those who work in children’s literature regularly come up against the inference that children’s writing is a lesser form of authorship. It doesn’t help that the mainstream media devotes so little space to children’s book reviews or interviews with children’s authors, and that when they do, the ‘author’ is often a celebrity who has dashed off a children’s book as a little sideline to their serious work in sport or politics or music – to the great irritation of bona fide children’s authors who have slogged away at their craft for years.

Is it, I wonder, all the above-surface plot in children’s books that gives it its inferior status? The assumption is that below-surface plot is much harder to write, as well as to appreciate.

In fact though, many great pieces of children’s literature work on both levels – there is a clear above-surface plot, but at the same time plenty more happening beneath that.

Recently I read two books about death and grief. One was Ali Smith’s Hotel World, a stunning work of literary fiction. The other was All the dear little animals – a picture book by Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, translated from Swedish and published by the amazing Gecko Press.

Hotel World is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, with plenty of compelling under–the-surface plot. The author takes death in her hands, and turns it over and over, obsessively studying it from every possible angle, peering closely at its every irregularity, trying to get at its truth, trying to inhabit it. In this way the narrative mimics an aspect of real-life grief. There is some above-surface plot too, but you are not swept along by it. It’s more like you are in a sea, grabbing bits of it as they float by.

All the dear little animals on the other hand has a straightforward above-surface plot, chronicling a day in the life of three children as they set up their own funeral business for ‘all the poor dead animals on earth’.

But there is so much going on below the surface in these 36 pages of text and illustration. Each of the three children is on their own journey to understand a little about death. There is black-coated Esther, the undertaker, with her seemingly unemotional fascination with the physicalities of death. She is joined by her little brother Puttie, all empathy, the trio’s ‘professional mourner’. And then there is their friend, the unnamed narrator of the book, a frightened funeral poet who needs to examine death through a filter of words.

Don’t each of these children live inside everyone?

Nathan Bransford does acknowledge books that contain plots both above and below the surface:

There’s a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.

It makes me groan slightly that, seemingly, a whole new genre (‘commercial literary fiction’) needs to be invented every time a group of books don’t fit existing definitions, but that’s marketing for you I suppose. Or human nature. Or both.

I think, if we must categorise them, then All the dear little animals, and most other great works of children’s literature come close to Bransford’s idea of ‘commercial literary fiction’.

Just because there is a strong above-surface plot doesn’t mean there are not also all sorts of fascinating things going on down below. And if I was pushed to say which out of Hotel World or All the dear little animals I thought had more ‘literary merit’, well, shocking as it probably sounds to some, I’d have a hard job choosing one over the other.

Is Literary Fiction a Genre?

Via a comment which Steve Malley left on my blog, I discovered a vigorous — and very comment-rich — discussion by genre fiction writers on the perceived deficiencies of (some) literary fiction, a discussion carried on here after starting here. (Coincidentally, Polly Frost tackles the same topic from a different angle over at The Short Review.)

Apart from the debatable characterisation of Chaucer as some kind of early literary academic, I thought it was a very interesting discussion: and since I write both literary and genre fiction, and have even folded both in together in my short story collection Transported, I thought I would try to come up with a response.

At the core of Charles Gramlich’s complaint is this question:

Can someone please explain why “literary” writers get to freely eviscerate the normal rules of writing but don’t get called on it, while you or I would be pilloried soundly if we tried the same thing?

My immediate reaction was to say that “the normal rules of writing” apply to genre fiction but not to literary fiction, but that did not seem adequate. I’ve read plenty of books which are classified as genre fiction (in particular those genres I’m most interested in, science fiction and fantasy) but which break the rules Charles lists.

What’s more, literary fiction seems to have rules of its own. In a New Zealand context, these might be:

Write mimetic (“realistic”) fiction …
about middle-class and upper-middle class characters …
with no significant political interests or concerns …
who do not experience anything which could be labelled a “plot” …
and whose close personal relationships …
… and personal emotional development are of paramount interest in the fiction.

These “rules” have changed over time; formerly, working class characters were more common, and latterly, the stranglehold of realism has eased. But I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.

After the fashion of Carrie Bradshaw, doyenne of Manolo Blahniks and really large closets, I ask the readers of this blog this question: are the set of characteristics I’ve listed above a reasonable description of much New Zealand literary fiction, and if so, are they distinctive enough to act as a set of rules for literary fiction?

In other words (Carrie sits cross-legged on her bed, looking down at her laptop):

  • Is literary fiction a genre?