So I’ve begun 2017 by trying to define what I mean when I think “literary fiction”.
Well actually, I’ve begun 2017 by railing on social media against the state of modern global politics and sobbing into my coffee every time I open up the news media of a morning, but that aside, for the purposes of this site, let’s just say I’ve begun by considering definitions of otherwise ill-defined genres.
As must be obvious with barely a cursory glance at this site, I’ve got an interest in genre, genre theory, and the intersections of genres that might otherwise not be considered natural bond-mates. I’m particularly interested in the hierarchies of genre and cultural assumptions that go along with that, you know, what’s supposedly good, bad or a likely to turn up on the Bad Sex award nomination list. Plus, why they’re considered such, who gets to make such judgements (the cultural assumptions, I mean, not the literary bad sex awards) and why broad-based attitudes towards certain genres prevail.
It’s probably a hangover of my undergrad uni days back in the 90s, when the idea of the Dead White Male canon was being constantly critiqued in literary theory circles and there was me, a bright and innocent new undergrad, going totally wide-eyed and gaping at this thing called Deconstruction. Wow. Or maybe it’s just because reading genre has always been my first passion and even when I pick up something undoubtedly literary, it’s for reasons usually more associated with genre reading – the plot sounds good, the story is interesting, a couple of the characters seem pretty badass. Not because it’s been critically acclaimed as a fine piece of high quality literary writing, because frankly nothing sounds more dull than a book that has fine prose but bugger all else to recommend it. You’ve got to do something with all that quality writing on the line. Make it count with some equally quality story, you know?
So. Anyway. All that said, where was my point again? I think I dropped it down the back of the couch, or perhaps lost it amid three billion angry-crying political retweets that currently suffices as my twitter feed.
Literary fiction: define. Sounds like a VCE English exam question, but I was starting to put together a slab of text about fiction that crosses the literary-horror divide and realised that as much as I like to rabbit on about this stuff, I really don’t have that firm a working definition of ‘literary fiction’ as I perhaps should. So I did what any modern chick with an education and an established career in systematic research and information management does when faced with a point of personal ignorance: I googled it.
Turns out there’s a lot out there in the writing-commentary-o’sphere that don’t have a decent working definition of literary fiction either. At least going by the blogs I cyber-meandered around, I didn’t exactly get to the academic journals yet. But in my initial googling, I did find myself reading the same thing over and over again:
“Lit-Fic: it’s kind of hard to define exactly, but I know it when I see it.”
Yeah, sure you do, champ. And ain’t that just the problem?
I’ve argued many a time that quality – a subjective measure at the best of times – cannot work as a legitimate defining characteristic of literary fiction because it is simply not unique to literary fiction. Quality writing exists across all genres, from erotica to hard SciFi (or should that be the other way around?), from body horror to psychological thriller, from historical romance to swords-and-sorcery grand epic fantasy. I know there’s a contingent out there in the literary commentary world that like to tut-tut about the restraining, confining nature of genre fiction when quality writers try their hand at it (I’m looking at you, certain regular New Yorker contributors), but sorry, that’s basic prejudice from those who don’t actually read the stuff. Genre fiction is filled with writing of all qualities, from the truly exquisite and superb, to the pedestrian and mediocre, to the schlocky train-wreck, I-need-to-stop-reading-this-awful-tripe-but-can’t-look-away dreadful stuff.
What I mean is, no genre can be defined by quality or lack thereof, because there’s quality writing in all genres. There’s awful writing in all genres too. And yes, I do include Literary Fiction in that, so stop swooning and admit some LitFic is pretty damn trite at times.
Hmmm. I supposed I should give some examples. Genre fiction that is high quality. China Mieville, for starters. There’s not a genre he hasn’t ventured into so far, I don’t think. David Mitchell. Yes he bloody does write genre fic, thanks, what you think Slade House somehow wasn’t a haunted house story? Richard Price, for you crime lovers out there. Ann Leckie for some modern SciFi that examines broader questions of gender and humanity while giving us some really rip-roaring space-ship action. Or lets go back a bit in the day. Jane Austen. You don’t get to modern romance without her. Mary Shelley. Kicked off modern horror and modern scifi and the gothic. Charles Dickens. Loved to tell a good scary story, did Dickens. Ursula LeGuin. Gender and politics in space, I’ll always love her for that. Toni Morrison. Beloved was absolutely a horror novel in every way, all the more horrifying because the real horror came from what human beings did to each other, not the ghosts haunting the place. Talking of ghosts, Henry James. MR James. Or let’s get new age. Samuel R. Delany. Want some modernism with your science fiction? Hell, want some gay porn with your science fiction (and who doesn’t?), go read Delaney. Now try Octavia Butler. James Tiptree Jnr. Joanna Russ. Yeah, I’m heading into my early feminist reading lists now, so lets switch back a few centuries again. Victor Hugo. Notre Dame is a monster story, isn’t it? Alexandre Dumas. Matthew Lewis, because The Monk has some of the most gruesome body horror my undergraduate mind had ever encountered and it’s considered the height of the literary gothic. Christos Tsiolkas even. Dead Europe was a horror story, wasn’t it? Kazuo Ishiguro. Cixin Liu. Cormac McCarthy. Margo Lanagan. Shakespeare. Don’t forget him, now.
I could keep going, of course. These are just the books and authors that popped up on my kindle when I browsed it for examples. Some of these writers are unequivocally literary. Tony Morrison, for starters, is almost never described as a genre writer, she is firmly in the LitFic camp, even if Beloved is so obviously a horror story to those of us who study the genre of horror. Cormac McCarthy wrote one of the most recognised (and devastating) post-apocalyptic fictions of the last half century – The Road – and yet he’s considered a literary writer, not a speculative fiction one. Others are commonly placed more firmly in the genre camp; I’ve only ever seen Ann Leckie described as a science fiction writer, perhaps a Lit SciFi writer, or a feminist SciFi writer, but still, she’s science fiction all over. But every writer I mention, and a million more that keep popping into my head, have all written books or stories that can very firmly be placed in well-defined genre categories. And they are all fine, fine writers.
Yet when it comes to some of the older ones, Hugo, Dumas, Lewis, even Austen or Dickens, I’m never actually sure whether they count as Literary Fiction. Literature, yes. One of the commonly accepted defining characteristics of capital-L Literature is that it has “stood the test of time”, and these guys are old, right? Hugo, Dumas, Austen, Dickens and their ilk, they’ve all been remembered, are studied, are considered classics by virtue of their age (but not only due to their age, I should hope). Hundreds of years after they were written we read and admire them still. Yet all of them were writing popular fiction in their day. All of them were writing commercial fiction in their day.
While we have no idea whether today’s LitFic will be remembered in a hundred, two hundred, four hundred years’ time. I rather suspect a good chunk of it won’t. What will be remembered might be… well, we don’t know. That’s the point. Though it does beg the question of just how much cultural production has been lost to time, fine achievements of great worth that simply didn’t hit the right cultural note at the right moment, that didn’t get seen by the right set of eyes to find its way onto a curriculum or into the review pages of a broadsheet, or onto some political banned list somewhere.
And sure, you could say that’s just what happens, not everything gets remembered. But that eclipses the arguments about who gets remembered and why, and whether marginalised voices get appropriate representation or instead it’s only the dominant hegemony which prevails and…
And that’s a whole other essay. One I probably wrote as a baby third year sometime around 1995. You know, Dead White Male canon and all that stuff.
Anyway, longevity only works as a defining characteristic when something’s already been around long enough to prove it’s going to be remembered. Like that Shakespeare fellow. It doesn’t help with defining Literary Fiction right now, or even if there is any connection between “Literature” and modern Literary Fiction. Because I’m conflating two separate categories there, aren’t I? Which is what happens when you start looking too closely at genre. On the one hand, genre is a marketing tool, basic general categories that help bookshops figure out how to arrange their shelving. That give us ways of searching for books online. On the other hand, genre is a way to interpret meaning within a morphing cultural-historical context, and that’s quite a different beast in comparison to deciding where to stick the latest David Mitchell when stocking the bookshelves.
Which means any attempt to define Literary Fiction in negatives – LitFic is not genre fic and that’s its primary definition – get complicated up by the fact that defining hard boundaries for any genre is problematic. So is Frankenstein science fiction, or horror, or gothic fiction, or literature? Is Jane Eyre romance, or gothic fiction, or women’s drama, or social commentary, or a pseudo-erotic fantasy that couldn’t get any sexier if it had actual nude scenes?
(Seriously, people. Go read Jane Eyre with your adult eyes on. Charlotte Bronte would be writing the best slash fic on AO3 if she were around today and I will always love her for it.)
I’m getting off point, so let’s just steer back a bit. Literary Fiction. Let’s recap: we can’t define it by measures of quality, because quality occurs across all genres. You could perhaps argue that quality writing is more consistent in LitFic, while other genres contain a greater percentage of works that are just, well, crap, and I might even buy that argument, but it’s still not enough. LitFic is mostly good, genre fic is good in patches. It just feels like you’re stretching there, if we’re talking definitions.
And it can’t be defined by longevity, except for those books that actually have been around for aeons, and even then we have to ask why they were remembered while others, perhaps written by more marginalised voices, were not. It can’t even be defined by what it’s not, because understanding genre and the meaning derived from genre is not as straight forward even in stories that are filled with spaceships and set in a galaxy far, far away.
So what else? Purpose? Genre fiction is written with a specifically commercial intent, to sell as much as possible, while Literary Fiction somehow has higher aims? Maybe… not.
I’m sure LitFic authors would love to be best sellers. Some of them are. David Foster Wallace, anyone? (Oh and Infinite Jest is a SpecFic novel too, in case you’d forgotten.) But we’re talking intent, so maybe LitFic authors don’t write with a commercial intent in mind, they write to create art or meaning or some such, and publishers publish them because they’re high quality works that deserve to be published, not necessarily because they’re going to sell lots.
Only as an emerging genre writer, the most common piece of advice out there is to write the story you want to tell, that has meaning for you, and not what you think will be popular, not what you think will sell. Stephen King – as successful a genre writer as they come, lets face it –in his very well received memoir/writing manual On Writing, describes in detail how the first draft is always between him and the page only. He writes it with only one audience in mind, himself, and no other. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen from many writers and one that applies very much to myself as well. Its only in the redrafting process that the first draft is turned into something readable by others, and then it’s all about craft, elaborating and emphasising story structure and character and theme and symbolism as needed.
What I’m saying is that genre writers don’t sit down to write with purely commercial intent any more than LitFic writers do.
Which brings me to one last point. The ‘E’ word: escapism.
One of the most common ways I’ve seen of distinguishing Genre fiction from Literary fiction is by the weight of its content. Literary fiction is somehow supposed to equal deep thinking, complex concerns, introspection, characters driven by internal concerns, journeys that are more metaphorical than actual. While genre fiction is all about great big space battles in the sky with laser beams and badass action.
To which I say only this:
First things first. There is nothing freakin’ wrong with reading for a bit of escapism. What with global politics as it is today, I’m tempted to go lose myself in fictional worlds on a daily basis and the only thing keeping me from doing so is because resistance is necessary.
Secondly, there might be some escapism in Genre Fic, I’ve also little doubt there is in the LitFic world too. And if you think Literary Fiction has the monopoly on writing with serious concern, you’ve clearly not read much genre fiction.
You cannot tell me the great science fiction and speculative works on our collective genre fiction bookshelves are somehow not concerned with the great questions of life and humanity. You cannot tell me that genres like cyberpunk and trans-humanism aren’t actively engaging with what it means to be human in a world where technology has come to dominate all aspects of life, when that is the very thing that defines them as genres in the first place. That the big epic fantasy novels of war and struggle between nations aren’t actively considering notions of power-politics, classism and the intersection between church and state. That horror novels aren’t bothered with examining our base fears as primal emotions driving humanity. That historical romance novels don’t give a damn about what it means to be in love at certain points in our history where gender roles and sexuality are strictly ascribed.
These stories examine all such concepts, they just do it set in the future, or the past, or other worlds, or with monsters, and use those settings and the tropes of the genres they are situated within to comment upon our current, real-life present.
Or, what, we’ll just write all that off as “high concept” and head straight into that other common LitFic definition: it’s all about character, the small introspections, while GenreFic is only interested in big externalities? Like McCarthy’s The Road was not concerned with the external world and how that impacted character? Or Morrison’s Beloved didn’t have characters situated within a very specific, very big-picture external environment, that of slavery and its lingering influence.
Plot versus character. False dichotomies don’t come any falser. Character drives all fiction. The protagonist makes choices or behaves in ways as determined by his or her character. Those choices and behaviours drive the plot. Sometime the plot is big, huge, we’re saving the world, the spaceships are blowing up, the war is global. Sometimes the plot is small and internal, the need to rekindle hope inside ourselves against the setting of a ruined world, the importance of love and friendship even in lives fated to be short. Such plots can be found across genre fiction and literary fiction both.
The characters always drive the plot. Yes, sometimes the writer gets lazy, or isn’t particularly good, and starts forcing the character into decisions or situations because they want the plot to go a certain way, but that brings us back to questions of writing quality, not distinctions of genre definition.
So where does this bring us? Two and a half thousand words of me going on about the ways literary fiction is defined in contrast to genre fiction and exactly what conclusion can I come to? I still don’t have a decent working definition of LitFic, except maybe that it’s more consistently better quality than genre fic, and even that’s questionable at best. I still can’t articulate in a couple of sentences exactly what LitFic is in the same way I can define Science Fiction or Horror or Fantasy or Crime or Romance, and I’m just as aware that those apparently easy definitions of genres can be just as problematic, the borders and boundaries between them just as murky, once you start examining in more detail, with a socio-cultural-historical eye.
In short, I have no definitive answer. LitFic is just kind of hard to define. Though I’m pretty sure I know it when I see it.