2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Literary Fiction and Non-fiction

2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Literary Fiction and Non-fiction

What is literary fiction? Is it a genre? Is it a style? No, it’s supernovel! Seriously though, some libraries and booksellers ignore the issue altogether and simply shelve all their fiction alphabetically, while others attempt to classify it with varying success. For the Australian Women Writers challenge, the definition has been pretty much left up to the individual reviewers. They entered their reviews, they decided how to categorise them. Overall, there has been a lot of consistency suggesting, perhaps, that we know it when we see it.

Most of the fiction “tagged” as “literary” falls into what I would call “general” fiction. It tends not to be easily categorised and is rarely part of a series. However, this does not mean that books that clearly fit into genre categories can’t also be “literary”. You’ll certainly find some here.

I am, I know, side-stepping actually defining “literary” fiction – but if others can’t do it and many have tried (just do a Google search and you’ll see what I mean) – I don’t intend to either.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

all that I am-198-300As the stats for this area are necessarily rubbery given that there is some subjectivity to the classification, I’m going to (mostly) provide approximate figures rather than exact ones.

There were about 280 reviews tagged as “literary” representing about 90 writers, and around 95 different reviewers.

Not surprisingly the two individual books which received the most reviews were also this year’s two most awarded books in the 2012 literary award circuit. That’s the “two most awarded books” not “the two most awarded books written by women”. It was, in other words, a stellar year for women in the literary awards stakes. The two books are:

  • Anna Funder’s All That I Am (11 reviews): Kevin describes the book’s subject as: “It compels us to confront many of the dark threads of the twentieth century: the horror of war and failure of the peace; the popularity of fascism and anti-Semitism; the complicity of many in the British ruling class and elsewhere; the brutal, calculated march by the Nazis to the final solution.”
  • Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread (11 reviews): Christina named this her best novel of 2011, writing that its gift is “the shock of the new when you enter a world that is different than the one you live in, and meet characters who are recognisable yet different, ordinary yet strange, lost, failed, broken, yet magnificent in their passion and their singularity”.

The most reviewed author was Margo Lanagan, with 16 reviews across 5 different novels. Other well-reviewed authors, all with 10 reviews, were Helen Garner (3 novels), Kate Grenville (4 novels), Gail Jones (4 novels), Kirsten Tranter (2 novels) and Charlotte Wood (2 novels and an anthology).

New kids on the block

dog-boy-hardcoverAs you would expect, the reviews were dominated by recently published books, with around 55% of the reviews being for books published from 2010 on. In addition to the abovementioned Funder and Mears, a lovely variety of recently published books, by debut and established authors, was reviewed.  Notable among them were:

  • Favel Parrett’s debut novel, Past the Shadows, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award. Bernadette, who claims not to be a fan of literary fiction, loved this book. She wrote that it’s “like reading a poem. A beautiful poem that you want to re-read, savour and quote bits of forever more”.
  • Eva Hornung’s 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award novel, Dog Boy. Elizabeth Lhuede (instigator of the AWW Challenge) wrote a highly personal, moving  review in which she described it as, for her, one of those books that “become part of your soul”. Jessica said that “It is one of the cleverest pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time, making one question what it means to be human, and if the human condition […] is necessarily better than that of being an animal”.
  • Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, a fantasy novel published in 2012, was reviewed nine times (nearly equalling Funder and Mears). Angela Meyer wrote that she was “instantly drawn into its strange, contained world”. Krissy Kneen claimed to not read fantasy but was also captivated:  “In Margo’s skillful hands we are woven a tale that resonates with so much in our real lives, that feeling that we often have that we do not belong in this world, a longing for something that is missing from our hearts, a certain melancholy that we all experience at one time or another, the idea that love is temporary and that no matter how strong a relationship can be there is always a longing for something more.” I’m also no fantasy reader, but with Krissy likening the novel to the film, The Secret of Roan Inish, and to novelists like Michael Ondaatje and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I can feel the pull of the selkie!

Other multiply reviewed books include My Hundred Secret Lovers by Susan Johnson, A Fine Colour of Rust by PA O’Reilly, and Sweet Old World by Deborah Robertson.

Oldies but goodies

newspaper-clarmont-streetOne of the greatest advantages of book blogs is that they cover new and old books by authors past and present. We book bloggers are not confined to current releases but can, upon whim, read what we want, when we want.  Consequently, a lot of older books were also covered by AWW reviewers in 2012, including some of my favourite books like Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus (reviewed by Deborah Biancotti), Elizabeth Jolley’s 1981 rather black novella, The Newspaper of Claremont Street (reviewed by Buried in Print), Helen Garner’s 1985 novella, The Children’s Bach (reviewed by four reviewers), and Carrie Tiffany’s quirky little book from 2006, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (reviewed by Tony).

AWW, in other words, is the place to be for reviews of older works!

Vive la différence

bite-your-tongue-thumbLiterary fiction, this undefinable beast, is a pretty broad church. It encompasses works by writers of all backgrounds, such as indigenous writer Alexis Wright, whose wild Miles Franklin award-winning novel Carpentaria was reviewed by four readers, and Philippine-Australian writer-performance artist Merlinda Bobis with her inventive novel Fish-hair Woman which I described as “part war story, murder mystery, political thriller, romance, and historical epic”.

It can also include works that play with form such as Francesca Rendle-Short’s fictional memoir, Bite Your Tongue, which explores different ways of truth-telling, and Drusilla Modjeska’s book, The Orchard, which pretty much defies definition. Ask Samuel.

But wait there’s more …

If you think “literary fiction” is hard to define, try “literary non-fiction”. And yet, it is now generally agreed that there is such a thing. Without getting too specific, it is generally described as non-fiction writing that uses some of the techniques of fiction, particularly, but not only, in terms of narrative style.

Australian women are well-represented in the field. Some of our best regarded writers in this category were reviewed, including Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (reviewed by American participant, Marilyn), Anna Funder’s Stasiland (reviewed by three readers), Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (reviewed in French by Le Koala Lit), and Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain (reviewed by Stephanie).

… and even more

Literary Awards and Classics, which are closely related to this category, will be covered in an upcoming post. Watch for it …

Meanwhile, thanks to all those who took the time to read and review books this year for the challenge. I wish I could mention every one of you who wrote a review for this category. However, if you’d like to see all reviews tagged “Literary” in the 2012 Challenge, please click here.


About me

Like most here, I fell in love with books and reading way back before I can remember. Christmases and birthdays were judged by how many books I received. I fell in love with big-L Literature at high school. I loved thinking about how authors did what they did. I loved rolling their words around in my mouth. I loved finding the connections between writers, between works, between eras. And so my reading preferences shifted – from Enid Blyton to Jane Austen! My love of Aussie literature started with Banjo Paterson’s ballads and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians in my childhood. But, I didn’t really discover Australian women’s writing until the 1980s when I “met” and fell in love with Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley, Olga Masters, Helen Garner and Kate Grenville.

And now you know why I am here, and in my blog Whispering Gums, reading, reviewing and blogging about (mostly) literary fiction .


  1. I’m adding two of the books you mentioned in my to-buy list. I just read Bernadette’s review of Past the Shallows and I think it’ll be okay. I’m still working up to trying Margo Lanagan’s work. I’m told I’ll need to read somewhere I can cry bucket loads. :D

    • Oh good Kat … I have some spare handkerchiefs if you need them! (But I’d better keep a couple for myself!)

  2. A great roundup essay. And I especially liked your words about yourself and how became such a perceptive reader.

    • Thanks Marilyn … I guess a lot of people found studying books at school spoiled reading for them but I wanted to say that for some of us it really enhanced it.

      • Having taught myself, I am glad to hear that not everyone gets turned off by education.

        • LOL … No not everyone … Not my best friend and me!

  3. This is a great wrap-up Sue! Thanks for mentioning my review too :) You’ve prompted me to go back to The Orchard, and to pick up The Transit of Venus and Bite Your Tongue.

    • Thanks Jessica … I need to go back to The Orchard too! Venus is magnificent I think.

  4. the more I think about it the less I like squeezing books into various genre categorisations – in my head there are just…books

    I wish I would be able to read Margo Lanagan as everyone says such wonderful things about her writing, but I am a dolt when it comes to fantasy…it’s not that I don’t like it it’s that I don’t get it…like I was away from girl guides the day they handed out the ‘this is how to read and appreciate fantasy’ badges…comparisons with Gabriel Garcia Marquez don’t help as I’m still recovering from the family feud which followed my new sister-in-law giving me Love in the time of Cholera to read and me not being able to fake having any clue what it was about despite a very genuine attempt to read it – it’s been 20 something years since then but it still grates with her I think that magical realism and I are just not destined to be friends :)

    But there are some other books highlighted here that I will seek out for this year’s reading…thanks for the wonderful wrap up

  5. Oh, that’s a bit sad Bernadette … A family feud over not liking or getting a book! I don’t read fantasy in general. Have never read Lord of the Rings and don’t intend to, but I love magical realism and I have read and enjoyed the odd fantasy. Fortunately, literary fiction is a broad church so I hope you can find other books to enjoy.



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