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“Fiction” vs. Literature

“What is the difference between fiction and literature?” I once asked a bookstore clerk.  They thought about this for a while and then couldn’t really give me an answer.  Really, if the books aren’t classified as non-fiction, aren’t they all just fiction?  I never understood the subtle differences between fiction and literature until I started my English Degree.

Before my degree, I read for fun and entertainment.  I found some books profound, like Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and A Prayer for Owen Meany By John Irving (just to mention a few off the top of my head).  However, most books I read were just for fun – they were easy to read, captivating, and entertaining: Agatha Christie novels, other murder mysteries, and even some of Dan Brown’s novels.

During my degree, I was reading a lot – and none of the books I read were ones that I chose.  There was the typical Shakespeare plays, but I took a Canadian Literature course where we read books by Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, Yann Martel, and others.  I took a 20th Century American Literature course where we read the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  There was also a Science Fiction course that included authors like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut.  There were others as well. I read a lot of books in those two years.

What I learned by reading those books is that there was a noticeable difference in the subject matter, ideas, character development, and plot/theme progression of the books that most people would consider “literature.”  Is that the difference, then?  Does “literature” have some kind of deep, profound, link or commonality with human nature, while “fiction” is more for enjoyment and entertainment?

Since finishing my English degree, I have done a lot more reading – mostly of books that would probably be considered “literature,” as well as some that would be “fiction.”  I find that I do feel like something is missing from from those more easy reading books – I feel like the characters are so superficially developed and the plots leave much to be desired – I feel like I’m left wanting more from the story (Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?).  Does this mean that I’ve become a literature snob?

I thought about this yesterday while I was browsing the books for sale int he hospital gift shop.  Since I finished reading my last book, I’ve been looking for something new to start.  I have a few ideas, but I was a little bored at work yesterday, and so I went looking.  However, every one of the books on the racks was one of those “fiction” easy reading/entertainment type books.  I saw one that caught my eye, Seeds of Yesterday by V.C. Andrews, because when I was a teenager, I started reading that series but never ended up finishing it.  For a moment, I thought about going back and reading the four books in that series.  I stopped myself though; I was worried that I wouldn’t feel satisfied with those books anymore and I would feel like I wasted my precious reading time on books that are only “okay.”

Is it possible (and acceptable) to go back to just reading for “fun?”  I mean, I love reading, even if it’s more serious and dense subject matter.  I’m just surprised taht I feel like my tastes and interests in books has changes so much.  I do feel kind of “snobby” saying that I don’t like “fiction” and I’ll only read “literature.”  These days, however, who makes the distinction between what is what?  Is it a distinction that I made for myself?  I’m just not sure.

What do you think?  What kind of books do you like, and why?  What is a good book that you’ve read recently?

14 thoughts on ““Fiction” vs. Literature

    1. I guess I do, don’t I!? I feel like it’s the difference between Cadbury chocolate and Lindt (or other specialty chocolate): Chocolate is good… really good, but why eat the cheap stuff when you could eat the really good stuff?

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  1. Oh, do I have opinions on this one.. “The Help” is fiction. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is literature. It’s hard to define, like pornography, but you know it when you hold it in your hand….that book which transcends regular old entertainment and helps you understand “things” so much better. That book which gives you the wonderful feeling of “Ooooh, I’m not alone. Somebody else has felt this too! I could never describe it but this is it! Oh, how marvelous!” Blathering on, sorry, and I don’t want to take up your entire comment space. Great blog post idea, I may just have to “adapt’ it for one of my own!!

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    1. Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about! That is exactly it!!! And, great book choices to help illustrate that! Interestingly, I did enjoy “The Help,” but no where near some of the other books I’ve read.

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        1. I’ll have to give that a read, thanks! Have you read “Sweetness in the Belly?” Very good book. In my opinion – it’s about a “white girl” raised as a Muslim in Egypt. Very interesting.

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        2. No, never heard of it. Isn’t it amazing just how much great stuff there is to read out there? Do you always read all the way through or if you discover it’s a dog, will you move on? I used to feel duty-bound to read the whole thing….now, I move right along.

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        3. Haha, funny you ask! I always feel compelled to finish them. Although. I never, ever got into “Eat, Pray, Love.” I tried and tried and then left her somewhere in Italy. I always wondered if I missed something at the end that made it so “profound.” I rarely come across a book I don’t like, half way through. I guess I stopped reading “Fault in our Stars” but only because I got busy, and I guess it wasn’t super captivating (but it’s a teen novel, too(.

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        4. I wanted to hunt her down and slap the you know what out of her. So there. How completely self-absorbed can one person be? It only got worse as she traveled through Indian and Bali. I would NEVER have finished it were it not for book club. Now, I quit the book club books too if they are too dreadful. “Fault in our Stars” is not one I’ve heard of and I will avoid like the plague.

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