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.