One of the most mysterious genres out there is so-called literary fiction. Indie authors like myself are familiar with the publishing rigmarole of stuffing our hard work, favorite ideas, and excruciatingly-well-edited books into the boxlike list of genres provided when taking that final step toward publishing. I’m a bit shy, I suppose, since I tend to play it safe: what genre? Fiction. What kind of fiction? Erotica. That’s all you really need to know in order to read my work without feeling falsely advertised; it’s pretty clear what “erotica” means. But I’ve always been curious about the label of literary fiction. What is it, actually? How do you know you have just stumbled across a work of true literary fiction?
Well, folks, I found it. The book that opened my eyes to the difference between literary fiction and general fiction has arrived. Obasan, by Joy Kanagawa. It’s a wrenching novel, telling the story of a young Japanese-Canadian girl’s experience during WWII. I hadn’t know this, but Canada exiled its Japanese-Canadian citizens from the West Coast, similarly to what the United States did with its Japanese internment camps. The story comes through in many ways, but in particular through the careful imagery the author uses. Each scene has multiple layers of meaning. Even if a scene might be about a day at school, that’s only the surface; it’s also about betrayal, and death, and hopelessness. Somehow, the author brings together dozens of ideas in a single page, through word choice, achingly specific descriptions, and especially symbolism.
Reading Obasan made me realize how literal I am as an author, and how literal so many authors are. Despite those torturous days of high school English class when we had to interpret what the author might have meant that “the curtains in the room were blue,” (Because let me tell you, if I write that, it’s because the curtains are simply blue! That’s it!) the reality is that as a reader and an author, I have little experience looking at writing as something deeper than the story itself. Literary fiction, I’ve discovered, gets my brain working on many levels. I had to slow down, reread, think carefully, and make connections I hadn’t expected. In short, reading literary fiction is hard work. I’m still thinking about it now, rethinking and re-evaluating the experience of finishing that book.
Obasan. Worth it? For sure. But I definitely won’t be grabbing a work of literary fiction to relax before bed! That’s what erotica is for. 😉