WSIRN Ep 140: What IS literary fiction, anyway?

Today’s guest Cindy Wang Brandt has gone through a lot of shifts in her life – spiritual, political, familial… but my question to her today is, what do those shifts do to a person’s reading life? It’s a big question, and led to an examination of how our identities can be reflected in what books we choose, the lenses we bring to what we read, what “counts” as literary fiction, stories that help us understand the chaotic world around us, and so much more. I hope you love it as much as I do. 



What Should I Read Next #140: What IS literary fiction, anyway? with Cindy Wang Brandt

Connect with Cindy Wang Brandt: Blog | Facebook | Podcast | Mailing List


Books mentioned in this episode:
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• Turtles All The Way Down, by John Green (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 The Tennis Partner, by Abraham Verghese (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• author Amor Towles (try Rules of Civility: Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Anne Fadiman (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• That Kind of Mother, by Rumaan Alam (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Antigone, by Sophocles (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 Stay With Me, by Ayobami Adebayo (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)

Also mentioned:
Parenting Forward podcast

What do you think Cindy should read next? Have you gone through your own reading life shifts? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. Lindsay says:

    Hello to Cindy from Singapore!! Loved listening to this as I’m an expat raising international/third culture kids who will face many of the identity issues you discussed. Also, our reading tastes are almost identical (right down to the fact that I too cannot watch scary / sad stuff but can read it a bit more). I have many of the same fave books and reading lately too 🙂 Also: re: YA- I’ve had a similar feeling but have recently found that I only can enjoy YA that is based on “adult” teens (like in college).. somehow that feels more relatable and often the writing itself is more adult. SO, since our tastes are so similar, here’s a list of a few of my five star books from the past year + that inbet you would enjoy.
    Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

    Educated: a memoir

    Saints for All Occasions by j.
    Courtney Sullivan

    All Grown Up by Jami attenberg

    We are okay by Nina Lacouer (this is YA but so literary and gorgeous)

    Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

  2. Ellen W says:

    I read That Kind of Mother last month and enjoyed it. Also, I loved The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – it was suggested to me when I was doing an internship at a cancer hospital and families from all over the country and world came there for treatment. Speaking of multiple cultures and a sense of belonging I just finished Pachinko (multi-general family saga of Koreans living in Japan) and it is long (almost 500 pages) but got a rare five stars in Goodreads from me.

  3. Barbara S Atkins says:

    I also loved “Cutting for Stone” & “Americanah” and agree about the Maria Semple books. I recommend “Homecoming” by Yaa Gyasi. I did read it via Audible. Thanks, Ann, for a new to me Fadiman recommendation.

  4. Laura Miller says:

    Check out No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert. It’s a novel that addresses racial tensions in really relatable way. Also, lots of dialog happens in a hair salon. I read it for a summer book club and really enjoyed it. Give it a few chapters, I settled in about chapter 10….there’s several characters and it takes a moment to figure out who is who. I think Cindy would really like it!

  5. Lisa Jones says:

    I was so excited to listen to this episode, as I’ve been in Cindy’s Facebook group about parenting for some time and have been enjoying her new podcast. In addition, she seems to have exactly the same taste in books as I do, and I too have struggled with how to define my tastes and with how to define literary fiction. I even recognized the article about young adult lit that she brought up, and I had the same reaction! I have a recommendation for her: Southernmost by Silas House. He’s an Appalachian author, and in this novel he writes about a Pentecostal preacher whose life is changed when he splits with his congregation and his wife about whether to welcome a gay couple into his church. It’s beautifully written, and I think Cindy will love the themes, as a progressive Christian who has had her own change of mind regarding issues of faith.

  6. Cindy and Anne, Wow! So many of the things you talked about resonated with me. My first degree was in religious studies. I ended up leaving the church, but faith and spirituality are still very important to me.

    I was thinking, Cindy, that your reading personality type might be Explorer like me. But unlike you, I shy away from the new and shiny. I prefer books that have been around a long time. For example, I’m just now reading The Jewel in the Crown, the first book in The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. I saw the Masterpiece Theatre series in the mid 1980s, loved it and vowed to read the books. So, here I am nearly forty years later reading the series. These books take place during and after WW II and shows the transition from British Rule, to Indian independence. The characters on both sides of that political and racial divide are complex as are their relationships. I’m not necessarily recommending it. I just happen to be a book/movie nerd and love reading the books that movies are based on. All I’m saying is you might want to check out some classics. Sometimes it’s amazing how the issues in the book can speak to contemporary problems.

    Thanks Anne for recommending Home Fire. I’ve got theatre degrees and love Antigone, though I agree with you about Greek tragedies. However, they do have things to teach us.

    This was a fun episode. I’d love to visit Taiwan someday. My sister and her family lived there for two years but we didn’t get to visit them until they moved to Japan. It’s fun visiting other countries and learning about their cultures. I don’t want to be one of those asleep white liberals.

  7. Sarah says:

    Great episode, I shared some of the favorite books and I am excited to pick up the other picks! While Cindy was talking I kept thinking about the book, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. This is a YA book set mostly in Taiwan that came out this year. Our main character Leigh is struggling a lot with her identity and her understanding of the world right now. She’s born and raised in America and her father is White, while her mother is Taiwanese. When the book opens, her mother has committed suicide, and Leigh is sent to Taiwan to stay with her grandparents where she struggles with her racial and cultural identity as well as trying to understand her mother and family. Something you should know, the book is magical realism, it opens with the line, “My mother is a bird.” and this is literal. Also, the book is sad, I mean real sad. You are either going to love it or hate it. If that makes you excited, then definitely check this book out!

  8. Michelle Wilson says:

    Hello-great episode as always! I just wanted to take a minute and talk about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It was actually published in 1997 and was super important to me as well as health care providers in general. Fadiman’s book used a compelling story and lovely prose to illustrate what happens when modern medicine crashes into another culture. It was this book that started the movement around cultural competence in healthcare. We have a long way to go but this is the book that began the conversation in the mainstream.

  9. Gloria says:

    I loved this episode. The conversation about literary fiction sounded like a conversation I’ve had in my head with myself.

    Cindy, we have very similar taste. Without overselling anything (because sometimes high expectations can kill a perfectly enjoyable read) I recommend Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows and A Complicated Kindness, Alexander Fuller’s Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight and Leaving Before the Rains Come, The Boat People by Sharon Bala. Also do read Adiche’s Half a Yellow Sun and if you still want more I found Purple Hibiscus by her to be satisfying. Thanks for sharing openly about your reading life, it resonated with me and I have bumped Ta-Niehisi Coates to the top of my TBR, since your other 2 favourites were also my favourites. Happy reading!!

  10. Jamalyn Ackley says:

    I am no longer able to download the podcast episodes. It is much easier to listen to them that way, as my internet connection is spotty when I walk. Is there a new way to download? Thank you.

  11. Brittany says:

    I LOVED this episode! I loved the conversation regarding literary fiction and what that means. As someone who reads a vast array of genres, I try not to worry too much about what genre I am reading, as long as I am enjoying it. That being said, I do like to read books that challenge me and teach me new things. I could be reading a classic one week, and a thriller the next, and that is okay with me! I did gasp a little when Anne mentioned how someone thought that Nightingale should win the Pulitzer over All The Light We Cannot See. I loved both of these books, and I have read so many of Hannah’s books and I think the Nightingale was wonderful. I have to say though the writing in All the Light We Cannot See was on another level and I think it deserved the Pulitzer!
    I hope Cindy finds her reading identity- some of us just like ALL types of books, and that’s okay too!

  12. Susan Clark says:

    I learn so much about books and people and their reading life on every podcast!
    Cindy, I have two book recommendations for you – The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (I put that story right beside Cutting for Stone because they are 2 of my all time favorites). The 2nd one is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – especially with your faith based background. This was simply “a novel that I do not think I can ever forget”!!! I hope you enjoy them both!

  13. Bailey says:

    Hi, Cindy! I don’t know if this book has ever been recommended to you, but it’s pretty important where I’m from. Your situation reminds me of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and it is considered by some to be literary, so I thought you might enjoy it. Although I’ve never read this (or anything else by Pearl Buck), I’ve heard great things, and I’d be interested to see if you like it, too.

  14. Alice says:

    It was really nice to listen to this episode and I can very much relate to identity crises as a constant movement, an ongoing project. I too loved “Americanah”, and I was thinking of that book during your talk and were so happy when you mentioned the title. You also made me think of “A little life” by Hanya Yanagihara. Maybe you already read it, or maybe you are screaming right now because it is a big book – both by the page number and the number of awards. BUT – this is truly 600 pages of identity crises! Usually I don’t like to read this kind of books, (I think the author said her goal was to write a book about a suffering character who’s unable to have a happily ever after – I think that’s so evil and in some way funny, -she condemns both the character and the reader) but this book made me think and it feels like i’m still processing it, even though it’s a year since I read it. It’s a horrible story, but Yanagihara succeed to create a distance to the darkest parts. I was touched, but not devestated. It’s about how our history follow us through our lives and how we need to address our past to be able to move forward. It’s also about friendship and how often we are unable to see our own beauty.

  15. Megan says:

    Hi Anne- I have been a devoted listener since Day One and I have listened to all (yes, all!) of the episodes of What Should I Read Next and while all are wonderful, this one spoke to me like no other. First, so many books you and Cindy discussed would rank on my list of personal favorites (The Spirit Catches You, The Nightingale, etc.). More importantly, however, was your discussion of what is “literary” about literary fiction and why it is perceived as more highbrow. I am an Honors/AP English teacher and have had many, many conversations of this nature with parents, strangers, and yes, sadly, my colleagues, as we discuss books taught in English class. I understand that The Odyssey is important (and I personally adore it!), but I strongly feel that my job when it comes to reading is to help my students establish a reading identity – what genres/authors/subjects do they like? Which ones miss the mark? As they enter the world at large, what will speak to them through the rest of their lives? Homer is not going to help them establish that identity, but John Green or Jodi Picoult or Jason Reynolds (and the list goes on and on) might. And I strongly feel it is my job to expose them to these choices and hopefully help them decide on their reading identities. Thanks for confirming so many of my beliefs and always recommending wonderfully personalized choices.

  16. Andrea says:

    Hi Cindy, This is Andrea Vujan, from Wheaton days! What a nice surprise to hear you in my earbuds this morning! 🙂

  17. Becca says:

    This is probably the WSIRN episode I most identify with, and I am really looking forward to checking out some of the books mentioned! I would recommend Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, followed by The Sun Does Shine by Anothony Ray Hinton. Both of these deal with the issues of race and mass incarceration. They are tough reads, but leave you with hope. I also recommend the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for more along the lines of medical memoir with themes of race mixed in. Lastly, I really enjoyed Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella even more than Where’d You Go Bernadette. It is Kinsella’s first YA novel, but it actually deals with a heavier subject than most of her adult novels. The story follows a girl who went through a traumatic ordeal at school and as a result can’t leave her house. You watch as a friendship with her brother’s friend makes a difference for her. Charming, lighthearted, full of quirky characters, all to be enjoyed without making light of a tough situation. Happy reading! And thanks for sharing about your reading life.

  18. Laurel Koumarelas says:

    Hi Anne and Cindy, I loved this episode too! When you mentioned Cutting For Stone as a favourite, I immediately thought of a book by a Canadian author Vincent Lam. He is also a doctor in Toronto who writes wonderful books. He has a book of interwoven short stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. And a novel set in Vietnam both before and after the war about a Chinese headmaster at a school, The Headmaster’s Wager. I think you would enjoy these books as well!

  19. Jana Botkin says:

    Anne and Cindy, thank you for the discussion about the definition of literary fiction. I have wondered about this term and why it is that “everyone else” seems to know what it means. Can’t say that I truly know now, except that it might mean books written by academics for academia for the purpose of saying one is published, often with a slow plot line. Ick. Sounds too stuffy for me!

  20. Donna Ryan says:

    This was one of the best episodes you have done – I particularly appreciated the discussion re definition of literary fiction. As for Abraham Verghese, you must read the 2 non-fiction books. My Own Country is about his experiences in the early days of the AIDS epidemic and how it played out in East Tennessee. The Tennis Partner is about his friend and tennis partner, also a doctor, who suffered from addiction. These are both incredible books, and led to my reading (and loving) Cutting for Stone.

  21. Elysse says:

    I always thought the distinction between literary fiction and contemporary fiction were that literary fiction was more internal and character driven, versus contemporary fiction, which is more plot driven. I really enjoy introspection – LOL! I don’t find it boring, I find it fascinating. I enjoy the internal monologue and the battle of morality. Even books where the narrator isn’t likable – i.e., Lolita, I still genuinely enjoy seeing in the mind of someone else. I think I consider Picoult a hybrid – her research makes me think it’s more contemporary in that it’s factual and she adds to much to the plot, but her characters are so holistic and self-aware – especially in A Spark of Light. I love both genres, but I am partial to literary – I don’t think it’s anything without genre, I think it’s the brilliant narratives. The Eleanor Oliphants, the Lillian Boxfishs of the world!

  22. Sheryl Esau says:

    I have been listening to so many audiobooks that I got behind on my podcasts! I’m determined not to miss a WSIRN episode and this is where I left off. What a delightful surprise. Who would think a young mother in Taiwan and a 55-year-old single woman in Kansas would love the same books! Cutting for Stone is also my all-time favorite book (I also loved the Tennis Partner, which is both wonderful and heartbreaking, but I am also a tennis player). I own most of the recommended books and now I really can’t wait to read them. I almost felt like this was my episode with all the books that I should read! My recommendation for Cindy is A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza which I think she would also love.

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