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Is it still formula fiction if you’ve never read anything like it?

I’m still thinking about “literary fiction” and what it might mean in the context of books for young people. The National Book Awards named their shortlist of finalists yesterday, and I’m guessing those lucky ducks can serve as at least a pretty good approximation of what researchers Kidd and Castano were looking for when they were looking for books that “uniquely engage the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” (You can find their original article here, but it’s twenty bucks.)

For Kidd and Canto literary fiction requires readers to “draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters.” Books with holes. Holes! Literary fiction for young people? It won every prize in sight, but was also a mass-market pleaser and a ton of fun. (Kind of like Dickens, the Stephen King of his day but literary novelist of our own.) Kids don’t read Holes and think “this is hard,” the way I do when confronted with an author like Arthur Phillips. And I don’t think they would say that about any of the NBA finalists, either. Are young readers not conscious of “literary” reading the same way adults (or at least I) are?

When I was a kid reading tons of age-inappropriate books  I found The Scarlet Letter to be hard and frequently boring but I thought the same thing about Hawaii or any of the other 1960s non-literary bestsellers lying around the house. While I could tell you why I liked one book more than another (shades of things to come), I was innocent of literary discrimination until high school, when I started reading books that were Hard or Important on purpose, to test my skill and impress myself. But even there, I don’t think Dune or The Fountainhead are on anyone’s list of literary masterpieces. (Insert Rand Paul joke here.)

All I’m sayin’, all I’m sayin’, is that this business of what makes literary fiction seems not only subjective but extremely fluid, where one era’s potboiler becomes another’s classic, a book that resonates when you’re young might seem slight once you’re older, a deep book might feel like a puddle if it has the wrong reader, and that literary and formula fiction alike are appreciated by people who don’t know the difference.


Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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