Sesquipedalian Ruler

Sesquipedalian Ruler

My word of the day:

SESQUIPEDALIAN — given to, or characterized by using long words. From the Latin for “a foot and a half.”

Sorry to mislead you, but this blog is really about literary v. genre fiction. Here’s my thinking: if you hate the topic, either because you want to remove the “v.,” or because you are wildly for one or the other—well, at least you might have learned a new word.

Some friends and I have had interesting discussions lately about what constitutes a “literary” novel.

“Aren’t they all?” asked one.

If we go with the meaning of literary: “pertaining to the nature of books and writing, the answer is yes, but apparently it’s not that simple.

We all know what “genre” books are — romance, western, scifi, mystery, e.g.,—but what’s a literary book? Something that’s not genre? Something that’s SESQUIPEDALIAN?

Is a literary novel simply NOT genre, something like porn — you’ll know it when you see it?

If you listen to the polar positions, you’ll hear:

“It’s a literary novel—impressive language, but there’s no story.”


“It’s genre—great story and characters, but eighth-grade language.”

Can a book be both? Can you name one?

My work here is done.



7 Responses

  1. I think the extreme positions are rigid and boring and uninformed.

    But if you’re asking are there people who write literary genre? Plenty! Laurie King’s The Game is a literary thriller. It is genre but there is great delight in the play of language. (I hope you enjoyed the pun). Then there’s P.D. James’s lyrical An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 is another. I’m doing this without consulting my shelves. Alan Furst writes literary genre. Loren D. Estleman Literary P.I.

    BTW, Sesquipedalian and phantasmagorical were two words I was criticized for using in junior high writings because they were apparently “above my grade level.” The teacher actually said this to my parents. The nimrod didn’t know I’d learned them much earlier but hadn’t figured out a place to use them.

  2. PS–none of those writers I mentioned are guilty of sesquipedalianism.

    • I should have known I’d be lagging behind you, Lev! In my neighborhood, the junior high word was fuhgeddaboudit, 6 ways. (I came late to literacy in English.)

  3. I love this word, Camille–haven’t heard(read) it for years, and now plan to use it when relevant. Of course there is no right answer for this matter of literary vs genre–except maybe fine language and depth of character? Lev offers excellent examples of literary crime novels. I think we each have to judge a book for ourselves. I’m secretly calling my latest non-mystery historical, Queens Never Make Bargains (barely and soundlessly out) a literary novel because I like to think it is. In which case “literary” is a moot term, largely a thing of the writer’s imagination/perception. It’s really so bloody elitist!

    • I really did come late to literacy (in English!), Nancy, and probably that’s why I’m so conscious of the use of language in beautiful ways (not “just” to get a message across), and envious of those who learned that early in life.

  4. “It’s a literary novel—impressive language, but there’s no story.”


    “It’s genre—great story and characters, but eighth-grade language.”

    Can a book be both? Can you name one?

    Hemingway wasn’t given to sesquipedalianism, and the last I heard, he’s considered a “literary” writer.

    Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald are regarded as writers who elevated crime fiction to the level of “serious” literature–you know, Literature with a capital L. Nobody doubts that Chandler and Macdonald’s use of language was impressive, *and* that they told great stories. Hammett’s style was less colorful, but no less expressive or effective.

    William Faulkner, who did occasionally use ten-dollar words, wrote in addition to brilliant “literary” novels and short stories, a collection of short mystery stories titled KNIGHT’S GAMBIT.

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