Escapist or Literary Fiction?

I thought of this while in class today and decided to blog about it – what makes a book literary as opposed to just escape fiction?

When I was in high school we read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and had a discussion about whether or not it was literature or escape fiction. If I remember correctly, I took the side that it was literary.

That brings about this important question…what about A Thousand Splendid Suns? It has many of the same plot elements and themes although it is a different book entirely. I was sort of reflecting on this last night as I was writing my post about rereading it, because I found it really hard to describe the plot. I simply wanted to discuss the themes, but forced myself to lay out the events of the story. Does that make TSS more literary than escapist? I’m not sure.

On the one hand, it reads like escape fiction. The book draws you in and forces you to keep turning pages. You’re engaged the entire time you’re reading it. Now, those aren’t qualities that can’t be in literary fiction…but I think the book also had some qualities that can’t be found in escape fiction only. TSS tackled some huge themes and issues and basically gave a history of Afghanistan from the 1960’s to present-ish (it was published in 2007). It discussed the chaotic political structure (if that’s the right word to use) that the country experienced, brought up issues relating to domestic violence, caputred the destruction and devastation of war, and emphasized the power of friendship. These are all things that really make you think and reflect as you read, which are aspects not found in most escape fiction.

So I guess the argument can be made either way. I think I lean more toward the fact that TSS is literary fiction, although it has qualities of both.

What do you think? What makes a book an escape as opposed to a literary experience? Is it easy to draw a defining line between the two? Are there qualities of one or the other that can’t be found in the opposing type of book? Interesting things to consider as you read.

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2 thoughts on “Escapist or Literary Fiction?

  1. I think there are two major differentiation, though there are also infinite ways to mix the two, and thankfully we are seeing more and more of that in publishing these days. First, it’s about language. Does the language merely serve the plot, advancing the action in the most efficient or suspenseful way possible, or is it crafted in and of itself, musicality, variations of syntax or structure. Has the author thought about how to word it beyond just telling a story? Second, its about character. Are they stock characters, given jobs and back-stories purely – again – to advance the plot? Or are they people we meet, in all their complexity. Is the book focused more on that complexity, or the action of what is happening? Those are the two benchmarks for me.

    1. I agree, there are many ways to mix them. I like how you described the demands of language in making something literary. I agree that there has to be craft that sets the prose above other books. I also think that the universality of themes is important, if the topics are something to be discussed and related to well into the future.

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