Fat Books & Thin Women

Literary work: I know it when I see it

In 1964, Justice Stewart said of pornography, “I know it when I see it,” a definition that is at once about as accurate as you can get and lacking any concrete meaning or definition.

But that’s about where I land when I attempt to define “literary.” I know literature, and literary work, when I see it; but to attempt to define it seems impossible. When I first thought about how to answer the question of how I define literature, I thought, “Huh – literary fiction!” But that is about as far from the truth as I can get. I’ve recorded already some of my thoughts on literary fiction, but to sum it up here, literary fiction is not necessarily “literature,” which is the term I’m going to use to replace “literary” so as to avoid confusion with “literary fiction.”[1]

Mayowa at Pens with Cojones quoted Vladimir Nabokov’s definition of literary novels: “A literary novel is true poetry written in prose, and it does what poetry is supposed to do in verse.” This has about the same level of concrete detail that my definition has, though Nabokov being Nabokov, he says it better than I do.

Nabokov’s definition, though, does focus on the stylistic side of literature. To a large degree, I agree with Nabokov that it’s the style that makes a novel not just a novel but a work of literature. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which I just finished, plays with the structure and tradition of detective novels, and from the first page, based on style alone, I knew I was reading literature. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which I also just finished, is a great book, one that grabbed hold of me and sped me through its pages, but I wouldn’t define it as literature – rather, I’d call it “literary fiction,” which I view as a genre rather than a marker of quality.[2]

So at this point, I guess I’d define literature as a work that may or may not be grappling with big ideas (like my favorite, time), in a stylistically pleasing and accurate manner. By “accurate” I mean (I am going to phrase this in terms that are inarguably not accurate) that the prose captures the true feeling of the described moment, like in this description from Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight:

Lost Property which Sebastian had begun at that time appears as a kind of halt in his literary journey of discovery: a summing up, a counting of the things and souls lost on the way, a setting of bearings; the clinking sound of unsaddled horses browsing in the dark; the glow of a campfire; stars overhead. (109 – 110)

What gets me here is the description of the “clinking sound of unsaddled horses,” and how seamlessly Nabokov shifts, with the “setting of bearings,” from describing a sort of stopgap novel, in terms of literary development, to this very American, Western plains vision of a pause in a journey, a night spent under the stars. This is literature, or literary literature, or very good writing; and what’s it really matter how you define it, as long as you know what it is?[3]

[1] Though of course, “literature” itself is a pretty broad term. Yesterday I was sitting in the center of my mostly Muslim town, reading the paper and killing some time before meeting a friend for coffee, when a group of Jehovah’s witnesses from Albania approached me and gave me some literature about the end times. The pamphlets they handed me are literature, though hardly literary; and oh god, I am mixing these terms up again. Another failure of my use of the term “literature” as a kind of catch-all for “things I define as literary but I’m avoiding saying ‘literary’ because it is too close to ‘literary fiction’ for my comfort” is that certain books, like Moby Dick are capital-L Literature. I cannot avoid agreeing that Moby Dick is literature, but I also think it is also about the worst book I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of Twilight. Evidence suggests that my definition of “literature” has two groupings, one for books I, personally, consider valuable and to have literary merit, and one for books that the rest of the world (aka Western Europe and the USA) have declared part of the canon. Back to text

[2] That said, I see Water for Elephants as a good work of literary fiction, and others, like Jennifer Haugh’s The Condition, as pretty bad works of literary fiction. On my sliding scale of literariness, Gruen’s work comes far closer to my vaguely placed marker of “literature” than does Haigh’s. Back to text

[3] This was written in response to the Literary Blog Hop over at the Blue Bookcase. The first meme I have actually wanted to write a response to! Back to text

Literary Blog Hop



I agree with your differentiation of literature and literary fiction, and enjoyed reading your post. Water for Elephants was great literary fiction (the audio version was outstanding!), but I’ve never been able to finish Moby Dick…

Comment by JoAnn

This was another thoughtful post of many I’ve seen on this literary blog hop. Achieving an answer to the question is hardly the point–it’s the conversation, which is definitely worth having, that is the point. I do like your distinction between literature and literary fiction. That adds another level to the discussion, making this a sort of “metafictional” level….I like your example of Nabokov: he fits in so nicely with your introductory idea! Lolita is not pornography, but literature–right?

Comment by Lisa Almeda Sumner

I didn’t even think of how Lolita fits in with that first idea. It’s nice to see that I managed to unintentionally build that theme up. :)

You’re right, it is the discussion that’s important. The other answers I’ve read to this question have mostly leaned towards this being a question that can’t really be answered, or at best can be answered on an individual level. But it’s interesting to see the different ways that everyone’s getting to their conclusions, or non-conclusions.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

You guys are so right about the discussion being the point…I like it.

You’ve done a great job of exploring the distinctions between literature and literary fiction. And I like how you mention the impact of the “canon” on the definition of literature.

Well done.

Comment by Mayowa

Forgive my manners…forgot to say thank you for the mention…Thank you.

Comment by Mayowa

I have enjoyed visiting blogs and reading the commentary. Lots of thoughts about what is and what is not literary work. I like your definition. And I agree. I know what it looks like when I see it. And what it is not.

Here’s mine:

Comment by debnance at readerbuzz

Hi! Thanks for participating in the hop with us. Just wanted to remind you that one of the stipulations of putting your link on our page was to link back to our page with the button we provided. We’ll check back again to make sure that you’ve done this, or we’ll unfortunately have to remove you from our linky.

Hope you’ve had a great weekend!

Comment by Connie

sorry about that, completely forgot the button when i posted this. it’s up!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Not including all literature in the category I was also thinking that it does not always include the classics either.

Thoughts and questions all included in areas of gray… who definitively determines what is literary fiction and what is not?

Comment by Shellie

Well done! I found my way here through the blog hop, what a great blog, I just added you to my blog’s side bar so my readers can find their way to you, and I can find my way back for another visit!

Comment by Laura J. W. Ryan

thanks! i’m looking forward to reading your blog too – just checked it out & will be back when i have more time to read :)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Well done, well done! I didn’t even bother to define literary, or literature, I just reviewed my novel. As you said, Justice Potter Stewart pretty well got it right. It is in the eye of the beholder (reader). Cheers! Chris

Comment by christopher harris

haha, thanks. as you may have noticed, i didn’t get around to reviewing a novel.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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