‘Literary Fiction’ as a Genre…

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was bored of hearing people slating Hilary Mantel for winning lots of awards of late. This last week or so I have been feeling the same about the wave of back biting about the term ‘literary fiction’ which seems to have suddenly reared its ugly head again. Why is it that the term ‘literary fiction’ seems to divide people so much? And why does there seem to be a new phase of almost snobbery about book snobbery? Let me explain…

Ever since the year that the Man Booker was hauled over the coals for daring to say that its judges were looking for ‘readability’, and indeed so incensed were people they started a new ‘Literary’ prize, there seems to have been an ongoing debate about ‘literary fiction’. The latest debate I have been directly involved in was with Gavin of GavReads this week on The Readers. Now Gav knows me and my reading tastes quite well and yet a Twitter conversation and comment he through my way had rather, admittedly in a wry way, annoyed me – in fact I may have even raised an eyebrow, which takes some doing.

Gavin had been watching a conversation with Lloyd Shepherd and Joanne Harris after Lloyd had retweeted a piece from Salon.com and quoted “Let’s face it: Literary fiction is f**king boring. It really is. It’s a genre as replete with clichés as any.” To this Joanne Harris had said “Or we could just stop using the term “literary” altogether and start actually *enjoying* books instead of obsessing over genre” and “Too many folk are using the term “literary” to mean “wholly unencumbered by plot”. Gavin had then said that this is what he had been saying to me and that literary books are really books ‘of just 30 pages of popping to the shops’. Now I disagree with quite a few things here.

Firstly I don’t think literary fiction is f**king boring… overall. Some of it can be, in fact I can think of several books I have read over the years that were dull as dish water or were duller because an editor hadn’t stepped in as the author was super famous and so should be allowed to do whatever they liked, apparently. Some of it can go completely over my head and I think ‘oo-er what’s going on here, this is a bit too clever for me’. Isn’t that the same with every genre though, some crime novels might be a little bit too easy to solve or too gory for all readers, some sci-fi novels might just seem one step too farfetched, that’s just taste and the great tapestry of literature. No? Like all genres, it’s a mixed bag.

This of course begs the question; is ‘literary fiction’ now a genre? Something Matt Haig has discussed recently, though possibly more controversially I think. Personally I think it has become a genre but I don’t think that is through any fault of its own. With genres being invented (partly to sell books but also to signpost them for new readers, who we shouldn’t forget just because we might think we are well read) like New Adult etc on top of commercial fiction, crime fiction, science fiction, translated fiction (yes this has become a genre too, I think), young adult fiction etc I don’t think it has had much choice.

I will admit that I don’t like the fact some reviewers/publishers/press/authors use the term to smash it over the heads of many that they have written/read/reviewed ‘an epic masterpiece about the human condition that spans many generations’, some crime does this superbly after all what can test the human condition more than a murder or being involved in one. I digress, you know the drill though – using the term to preen themselves and make themselves feel clever not realising they are alienating readers by the bucket load. It is a tightrope to walk though. Joanne Harris mentions the idea of literary fiction meaning ‘books being unencumbered by plot’, now I like Joanne but I disagree that this should be a bad thing – I completely agree about enjoyment – not all books have to be encumbered by plot.

Just because, as Gav might put it, a book is in the head of one character walking to the shops yet thinking about their impending divorce and what lead to it doesn’t make it boring or lesser because the characters aren’t all singing and dancing of the page and instead an insular, possibly sparse, novel on human nature evolves without any obvious twists and turns and plot. Both have their merits to me personally, I like reading about people of all walks of life and from all backgrounds and places be their stories small or on some mammoth scale.

I have to say though that for me my idea of the perfect ‘literary fiction’ has all of these things, beautiful prose, brooding atmospheres, cracking characters and a good story be it on an epic or more insular scale – the most important thing to me is, cliché alert ‘the voice’ and just getting lost in it regardless of the genre/label/pigeon hole people try and pop it in or it naturally falls in. I don’t like ‘literary fiction’ being used as a weapon to make people feel stupid if they don’t get it or for making people sound like snobs if they do. Am I alone in this?

So what are your thoughts on the whole idea of ‘literary fiction’ as a genre? Also, as a little favour and a gauntlet that Gav has thrown down for next weeks podcast, can you think of some titles considered ‘literary fiction’ that have corking characters and a stonking plot and any books unencumbered in plot that were complete page turners? I would love some lists of both of those, pretty please.


Filed under Random Savidgeness

22 responses to “‘Literary Fiction’ as a Genre…

  1. Laura Caldwell

    Now I am fairly new to reading book blogs (just a couple of years) and am not “in the know” about the book industry, but I had never heard the term “literary fiction” until heard it on one of The Readers podcasts. Or, if I had seen it before, it was on a blog (probably from Great Britain.) Is that term used in the US? I thought (perhaps wrongly, PROBABLY wrongly) that here in America the listing “literature” had to do with it being a classic book, therefore anything written recently would be termed “fiction” or “new fiction.” Am I crazy?

    • Laura Caldwell

      Maybe it’s because I frequent the library more than the bookstore?

      • I work in a library, in the US, and I’m familiar with the term “literary fiction” but I think it’s because I read a lot of high-falutin’ reviews. I think it’s a rather high-brow term used more by industry insiders, reviewers, and award committees than regular people. I think “literature” means pretty much the same thing, but I can’t tell you how it differs from “regular” fiction. It’s in the eye of the beholder. When I hear the term “literary fiction” I *do* think “boring” because a lot of books that get that label applied to them don’t interest me (though I’ve enjoyed books that probably are in that category as well) I really don’t find it a useful label at all.

  2. I love literary fiction! Yes, you can get some duds, but you can in any genre of classification. I like many genres but sometimes you want something that’s really well written and isn’t that what literary fiction aspires to? I can’t think much as I’ve got a cold/flu and my brain is a bit dopey, but surely something like Atonement by Ian McEwan is literary fiction and yet has an excellent plot? Would you classify Kate Atkinson as literary fiction? I probably would, and her Jackson Brodie novels definitely have good plots. I bet there are loads more, probably on my shelves but can’t think of them right now. Oh, Sarah Waters, surely? Fingersmith had me totally gripped!

  3. What about The Country Life by Rachel Cusk? It was wild to read. I found it in a used book store, read it in day and through the night, intrigued by the mad experiences of the au pair and it encouraged me to research the author. (As a Canadian, she wasn’t familiar to me.)

  4. Literary fiction as a genre is fine with me…whatever…does Anne Tyler fit your list? All I know is that she is wonderful to read…so wise and gentle, writes about very ordinary, usually damaged and confused people facing life with subtle humour and understanding. After reading her books you have to just sit on your own for awhile and deal with the experience of being part of her story. Reflection is the result.

  5. I think that when people use this term “literary fiction”, they are referring to a type of writing that can, most definitely, be categorised in a structuralist way as a clearly defined genre, complete with its own set of tropes and stylistic idiosyncrasies. For example: often in “lit fic” there’s a high degree of psychological realism (or an attempt at such), the stories are usually very loosely plotted, and are often concerned with such individualist themes as love, depression, family, finding one’s place in a society, the past, memory etc. and etc. The prose is often lyrical (or, again, attempts to be), but in a non-in-your-face way, and there’s almost never any attempt at the kinds of experimental form or narratology that you might find in, for example, high modernism, or avant-garde writing.

    So, in that way, yup, I think that “lit fic” is definitely a genre. But I also think that where some people (me included) get annoyed, is when bloggers (or critics, or journalists or whoever) describe or write about Lit Fic as if it’s somehow better, or more valuable or de facto more “literary” than other genres of writing. A lot of people seem to see Lit Fic as the norm, and all other genres (SF, crime, horror, romance etc.) as sub-categories or deviations from this – trivial or pulpy or less serious (which is demonstrably not the case). Lit fic is just one genre among many; neither more or less valuable, neither more or less well written.

    I don’t want to get negative in any way. Of course good writing comes from all kinds of places (as I know you’ll agree! 🙂 ), and there are loads of “lit fic” writers whose work I love (you mentioned Hilary Mantel – who is immensely talented – and I like some stuff by Ian McEwan, Jennifer Egan, Helen Dunmore, Seb Faulks etc. etc.).

    But I think the real bug-bear that people have is with the use of the word “Literary”. The word “literary” is notoriously hard to define and pin-down,; until recently it was always used as an *adjective*: a descriptor of quality. In order to be described as “literary” a piece of writing would (usually) have to be widely-read, be very well regarded and long-lasting, even studied etc. Obviously there are loads of amazingly brilliant books that don’t fit any of these categories, but when a brand new novelist comes along with a brand new book (that happens to be uber-realistic, lyrical and psychologically realistic or whatever) and suddenly publishers start describing it as literature or whatever, then I can see where people get very annoyed.

    Literariness isn’t a genre, and the term “literary fiction” suggests that a book is literature because it conforms to this aforementioned established set of narrative conventions. The difference with other genre names is that “crime” or “Romance” or “Horror” aren’t qualities, they’re just nouns used to indicate a set of stylistic or narrative procedures; but “literary fiction” ascribes to itself this term “literary” when, as we all know, “literary fiction” (as a genre) contains as much atrocious dross as any other category of writing. So… yeah… for a set of writers or for a genre to call itself “literary” (as if everything outside of that genre, then, *isn’t* literary) can be seen as a pretty self-aggrandising and cocky thing to do.

    Sorry… been ranting on for quite a while now, so I’ll sign off. But that’s my two cents, anyway. It’s a very interesting question you’ve raised, Simon. Great post, as always!

  6. I have no problem with the term Literary fiction – but as you say Simon it shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat other people with. After all we all like what we like, and the world would be a dull old place if we all liked the same thing. Equally though, I do rather tire – of people sneering at Lit fic – and those that read it – as if it, and therefore we, are all a bit odd. I do read literary fiction – rarely reading any crime and with probably less than 20% of my reading non-fiction – that’s just what I like. Of course I don’t belive that great plots/stories and good literature are mutually exclusive – they are not at all. I like beautiful prose, I like good use of language and depth of character – I like emotion but I appreciate a good old story too. I often find you can have all the above. However I personally don’t much care for plot driven narratives. The whole, this happened and then that happend and that happened and then that happened … goodness I find it all a bit breathless and exhausting – I like a quieter read – that is my taste.

  7. Possibly due to having one of those pesky humanities/Arts degree backgrounds, I’ve always thought that “literary fiction” was a legit “thing” – possibly a genre, definitely an elite kind of shelf if you will – that books/authors either aspired to or humbly avoided. I may have just assumed that this was a given! What’s interesting is that, the older and more experienced I get, the more I realise how much that is all crap, yet another construct of human making that only holds its ground so long as we believe in it.

    But I still catch myself second-guessing myself: when I read a book I figured was literary fiction and find myself hugely enjoying it, I start to wonder whether that makes it not literary fiction – again, this idea that literary fiction is boring, possibly uncomprehensible, wordy and not easily read lingers on. How would one even define “literary fiction”, really? It’s definitely an elitist label. These days I stick with “fiction” as the genre-that-isn’t-a-genre, and leave it at that, because unlike “real” genres, this one is just too subjective for my closet-librarian need to organise and categorise.

  8. I never really know what’s literary or not these days. I tend to call most things that don’t land in an obvious genre “general fiction”.

  9. This is, with “Is translated fiction worth reading?”, is a typical Anglo-Saxon problem. Why? Because in French, for example, the expression “literary fiction” doesn’t exist. We have Fiction, Littérature and Essais (which covers “non fiction”) Recently, a new category has appeared Littérature de divertissement (literature of entertainment) which covers chick lit, romance and romantic vampire stuff.

    I love my immersion in the English-speaking literary world just for witnessing that kind of debates. (And discussing with foreigners, discovering new writers…)

  10. gaskella

    Several decades ago, when I was a teenager – books were often classed as Popular Fiction or Literary Fiction, and yes, it was easier to fit books into one or the other category. It was snobbish then, and it is snobbish now; however, the boundaries are blurring. Popular fiction back then pulled all the genres into one basket – thrillers, historicals, romances etc etc.(with SF on the side!), so literary fiction was effectively everything that wasn’t genre.

    Now, to me, Lit Fic means something different, and relates more to a prose style that is slightly more descriptive and slightly less plot-driven, however I hesitate to use it because I don’t know where the boundaries are any longer. If I am asked what types of books I prefer to read, I tend to say ‘contemporary literature’ as a catch-all to indicate books published in my lifetime, and I use genre only to reflect a subject category.

    So, having listened to your podcast, I think you and Gav are both right, and both wrong! 😉

  11. Marianne Wheelaghan

    I’m with Joanne Harris on this “ .. could we just stop using the term “literary” altogether and start actually *enjoying* books instead of obsessing over genre”.. The individual reading experience is what counts. 🙂

  12. I agree with nearly everything Tomcat said. For me the danger of the term ‘literary fiction’ is its claim to a higher order of merit. We’ve seen it pitted against genre fiction in debates about which is better, with vigorous and passionate arguments made on both sides as though there can be a winner. It’s this oppositional tone to the debate – which is sort of embodied in you and Gavin! – that makes it seem like there are two separate categories of fiction we can define.

    In reality all fiction is on a spectrum that stretches from epic second world fantasy to present day psychological realism. The quality of the fiction has almost nothing to do with where it sits on this spectrum. There are good and bad books, books with plot and books without, books with experimental prose and books with run of the mill writing at both ends and at all points in between.

  13. simonsylvester

    Literary fiction is a legitimate self-contained genre, but that doesn’t give it bragging rights over other genres: I’d sooner read Terry Pratchett than Hubert Selby Jnr, and that’s where Joanne Harris is spot on – enjoyment of a book comes first. All genres have good novels and bad novels.

    For great reads unencumbered by plot, 2666 and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano are obscure, disjointed, surreal and sprawling, but equally breathtaking reads. Denis Johnson seldom offers closure, and his books are brilliant. A lot of Haruki Murakami’s work probably fits the bill, too.

    As for cracking reads generally classified as literary fiction: how about everything by David Mitchell, Sarah Waters and Iain Banks….?

  14. Joris M

    From a Dutch perspective literary fiction seems to be a natural genre. We have used literature to label the ‘proper good books’ for as long as I can remember. It is such a label of established indication of quality we now have genres like ‘literary thrillers’ or ‘literary romance’.

  15. 1. “Boring” is subjective. Any description of a book is subjective, even if the majority of readers feel the same way about a book. For instance, because you brought her up, the majority of readers I know just GUSH over Mantel’s books. I thought Wolf Hall stunk, and it was one of only two books I’ve ever put down without finishing.

    Literary Fiction has been used as a genre for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think any genre title should be used to make people think those books are better than others. Do I tend to gravitate to what’s being described as Literary Fiction? Yes. Those seem to be the books I enjoy most. Does that make me feel smarter or better than others? Nope. Do I judge people for only enjoying Genre Fiction (which seems to be used as the opposite of literary Fiction)? Not at all.

    I wholeheartedly disagree that Literary Fiction is f*cking boring. It’s not to me.

  16. Louise Trolle

    I love literary fiction 🙂 I see it partly as a genre, that occupies itself with the literary univers – as well as telling a good story/examining what it means to be human. Thus there can be references to other books, that you might not get, if you don’t read a lot – in the latest Salman Rushdie book I read there were references to Calvino’s Cosmicomic Tales, and Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby tales, I’ve read those, so I got it – but I’ve read other books like the first and last(!) J.M. Coetzee book I’ll ever read, that I thoroughly disliked, partly because it was F…. depressing, and partly because I could tell there were heaps of references I didn’t get (so what if he got the Nobel Prize for literature!! ;-))

    Scandinavian authors like Per Petterson and Karl Ove Knausgård have written hugely popular books, that might not have much of a tradtional plot, but there very interesting and readable.

  17. rosemarykaye

    I haven’t read it yet but my very well-read mother-in-law didn’t think much of Wolf Hall either (so she’s passed it on to me and now it’s sitting on the shelf reproaching me for avoiding it….)

  18. Much as I hate labels, the majority of what I read would be classed as literary fiction. Examples strong in storyline include anything by David Mitchell or Jeff Noon, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Examples of books low on plot but high on page-turning prose include anything by Milan Kundera or Orhan Pamuk, The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

    But of course it’s all about personal taste. One person’s boring is someone else’s exquisite prose. One person’s gripping is another’s overdone.

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