Literary or not?

Why is it that some successful writers want to be considered as literary?  What is a book of literary fiction anyway?  Literary, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is: Of, constituting, occupied with, literature, polite learning, or books and written composition (especially the kind valued for form).  So, there you have it.  But where has the idea come from that some books can be categorized as literature and others not? Who do we consider to be the authors of literature?  Is there a list?  Why do we consider the books of Tolstoy and George Elliot  to be literature and not, say Ian McEwan or Graham Greene?  Or maybe I have it wrong.  Maybe the net of literary writing is much wider, maybe it includes the aforementioned and even Brenda Bainbridge and Margaret Attwood.  And, more to the point, why do we all want it so badly?

The publishers of one of my favourite authors, William Boyd, who has made a good living I imagine over the years with his excellent books, many of which have won prizes and been made into films, have taken to adding the word ‘literary’ to the blurb on their covers.   “A combination of suspense and literature” is attributed to one, while another sports the legend: “the art of the literary page-turner.”  Mr Boyd does not need this.  His work stands on its own merit.  His stories are readable, entertaining and well-written.  What more can we want?  Maybe, in a world where so many below-standard books are published, his publishers feel the need to point out that his work is written composition, especially the kind valued for form


Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.

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