“Literary” Fiction

Recently, an article in New Scientist cited a study that showed readers of “literary fiction” displayed more empathy than did readers of “popular” fiction.  After the wave of nausea, disgust, and anger passed, I couldn’t help but think how great a disservice the  English-speaking “literati” have done to both authors and the reading public by making an artificial distinction – that supposedly represents quality – between popular and/or genre fiction and so-called literary fiction. This disdain seems to be less pronounced in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but that’s my view as an outsider to British literary circles.  Unfortunately, this distinction is reinforced by a goodly number of the F&SF publishers, possibly because they really don’t want it known that the distinction is artificial and that there are “literary-quality” genre books.  Heaven forbid, people might not read any F&SF book if they thought they might have to think, or perhaps it just makes marketing that much simpler.

Personally, I think most readers know exactly what they want to read, and even what type of book suits their mood at a particular time.  Despite the labels and marketing hype and misleading cover blurbs, experienced readers find authors who appeal to them. 

I have no problem with observations about the quality of writing, provided those observations are accurate and based on the words of the author, but I have a huge objection to automatically categorizing fiction on the basis of either genre or popularity. It’s definitely true that a great amount of best-selling “mainstream” fiction, i.e., popular fiction, does not present great depth and sophistication, and the same holds true for much of genre fiction – but not all of either is without depth and great skill in writing.  Just look at the consternation when everyone discovered that J.K. Rowling had published an “adult” novel under a pseudonym… and that it was considered rather good.

 Margaret Atwood, whether she will ever admit it or not, writes science fiction in a literary style, but it’s still science fiction.  So does Gene Wolfe, but Gene’s work is considered F&SF, while Atwood’s is literary fiction. There are more than a few F&SF titles published every month that, in terms of style, sophistication, and depth, meet every so-called “literary” criterion.  Yet, particularly in the United States, it seems to me, the literary establishment cannot seem to bear the thought that a genre writer, or a popular writer, might actually exhibit some skill while actually telling an entertaining story with depth and an exploration of life and meaning beyond the tried and true tropes that still seem to shackle so much of so-called literary fiction.

Despite the disdain of genre fiction, particularly F&SF, by American “literati,” more and more ideas and approaches from F&SF are turning up in so-called mainstream fiction, and, likewise, more “literary” approaches to writing are appearing in F&SF.  Both are very good developments;  it’s just too bad that all too many members of the self-proclaimed [if quietly and in a falsely self-deprecating manner that ostensibly denies such membership] American literati don’t understand that.  They’d do far better to concentrate on celebrating good fiction, regardless of labels.

11 thoughts on ““Literary” Fiction”

  1. taosaur says:

    The disdain goes both ways, and I would argue there’s a heavier flow from the genre side toward anyone who has something positive to say about literary fiction. Quoting myself from another conversation,

    “These periodic kvetch-fests about the depredations genre suffers at the hands of cruel, pretentious literature do remind me of the “War on Christmas,” insofar as the narrative of conflict is maintained almost solely by the party claiming persecution. Also in both cases, the wounded-bird routine is performed on behalf of a group that holds an overwhelming majority, and an even larger share of resources.

    Let us weep for Goliath, that he must face a child with a sling.”

    Also, labeling a book as literary fiction has almost nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the author’s approach to writing. As a BFA workshop survivor I can tell you that plenty of execrable literary fiction gets written and a fair amount even published. It’s not good, but its aspirations, style, and influences are still literary. Now, some genre work might have exemplary prose or succeed with an experimental narrative, but it’s a relatively few works where there’s any real question of whether they fall on the literary or the genre side of the line. Those can be some great works, but they don’t negate all utility in the “literary” label.

  2. I think you’ve just made my point in attempting to dispute it.

  3. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

    What I find humorous is that Nineteen Eighty-Four – as an example – is a novel held up as a literary great. What’s also humorous is that it’s a science-fiction novel, as is the novel Orwell rather clearly took a lot of influence from (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s excellent We). I think it’s humorous for the reasons you go into, in that you have these people looking down on genre fiction whilst holding up a genre book as a literary great.

    But you are right, we do have a lot of literary genre fiction. I’m not entirely sure what defines a ‘literary’ book, but I am sure that novels like Flowers for Algernon, The Healer’s War and Christopher Priest’s stories all count as ‘literary’ works.

    That said, your final point is really the core of the situation. We should be focusing on good books. A book doesn’t need to be some magical feat of language to be a good book, it just needs to be… well, good?

  4. Wine Guy says:

    Social science experiments always leave me wondering what the hell kind of science was being practiced in the ‘soft sciences’ while I was in college. Things haven’t changed in 25 years, evidently.

    I read the New Scientist article after I heard about it on NPR.

    ” Literary fiction works were represented by excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction; popular fiction works were drawn from Amazon.com bestsellers or an anthology of recent popular fiction; and non-fiction works were selected from Smithsonian Magazine.” (newschool.edu) And it was excerpts, not the entire piece, that was to be read. And the effect was temporary.

    At least it had controls: a non-reading group and a non-fiction group. But there were no attempts at all to match ages, level of education, general background of ethnicity/socio-economic status, profession, etc… things that would undeniably have a greater impact on our underlying ability to empathize than a passage or two of Round House.

    And all of this presupposes that more empathy is a good thing. If I stipulate that, for this study, more empathy is a good thing… does this lead us down a primrose path to teaching people to BE better manipulators rather than being able to IDENTIFY when we’re being manipulated?

  5. Steve Newton says:

    Thinking back over the past two years, the only piece of literary fiction (if I even understand the definition correctly) that I have read is Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son.” It occurred to me as I read it that the structure of Johnson’s work, as well as many of the narrative elements owe a tremendous debt (consciously or unconsciously, I am not sure) to F&SF, as well as similar debts to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorges Luis Borges. It is, in fact, a close to perfect fusion of the two art forms for me, despite lacking a specifically SF trope. Before that, the last piece of consciously literary fiction I read also owed a great debt to F&SF (Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay).

    That said, I think Johnson’s book typifies for me (by being excellent) that which I disdain in most literary fiction and literary F&SF (which usually isn’t excellent). For literary fiction, it seems to me, the story itself is usually secondary to stylistic experiments within. That–at least to my simplistic mind–is a decided negative, especially when carried to such extreme that the author seems even to disdain the formal elements of story in favor of … something else. That’s why I couldn’t stomach more than a short-short from Barry Malberg or James Sallis back in the day, and why much of Samuel R. Delany’s longer and later work becomes tiresome (Dahlgren? Triton?) despite having moments of great possibility.

  6. Steve says:

    It was interesting to read about this literary snobbery that exists to a degree that I was unaware of. I was suprised however at the strong emotions that the NEW SCIENTIST article evoked in you. You described nausea, disgust and even anger. Why the hurt and jealousy? Are we children, and you a nerd, but secretly wanting to be an intellectual or prep?

    You have the acclaim of your many readers. Many of us are highly educated in our fields of endeavor and your good writing appeals to us. You will never receive what you want from the “literati” as by definition their works are usually only appreciated by their own inner circle, as opposed to appealing to the uncultured masses.

  7. No… my emotions were for a different reason, partly because “scientists” were also apparently buying into the same mindset [at least I didn’t see any disclaimers], and when followers of a discipline that is supposed to be based on facts seemingly accept a most non-scientific definition, that bothers me more than a little. I’ve been long aware that much of literary academia has no interest or understanding of the range of genre fiction, and, as a matter of fact, there are also cliques within the F&SF community with the same mindset. But mainly… the anger was because of the thoughtless stereotyping conveyed by the article.

    I expect the literary cliches from the so-called literati; I’d hoped members of the scientific community were willing to look beyond them. I would have even accepted an explanation that, for purposes of simplicity, they used “accepted” literary fiction. If such a disclaimer exists in the complete study, then… well, I got angry over nothing… or at least only over the presentation by New Scientist.

    1. Frank says:

      For whatever it may be worth, I think Kathryn has it right; i.e., that a book needs to be “good,” not accepted by any group, collection of groups, or community.

      I like LEM’s books because I think they are thought provoking and entertaining. I don’t think I’m saving the world by reading them, I don’t care if the literati, scientific community or the Rolling Stone agrees with my assessment…let them buy and read their own books. I don’t expect the way I determine “good” to be the same as others.

      Lastly, there is a saying in golf that “your worst putt is better than your average chip.” Applied to this issue, I think reading any book is better than reading no book. Once you get to that point, let “the people” vote with their dollars. I know I have.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    New Scientist, IMO, is more about its social agenda than it is about science.

  9. John Prigent says:

    I must admit that the literary ‘elite’ who claim to decide what is ‘literature’ have done me and many others a great disservice. By insisting that ‘literature’ is studied at school they permanently instil a hatred for anything described as ‘literature’. I suffered through various ‘classics’, and as a result I automatically regard as unreadable rubbish any book that wins a ‘literature’ prize or is praised by the literati. That’s probably unfair to some good books, but I simply won’t bother to read them and find out. You’ll have noted my use of quotation marks – that’s because I don’t regard those people and the books they claim to be great as being literature in the sense they mean. I have experimented with a few ’19th Century children’s classics’ and can quite see why no-one reads them nowadays: ‘Eric, or Little by Little’, ‘The Mighty Atom’ and ‘The Water Babies’. They are so terrible that not even the ‘literati’ want to inflict them on children. On the other hand, I regards as real literature anything that makes me think about the culture of a society and/or the motives of the characters – Mr Modesitt’s explorations of Candar, for instance, and the Imager Portfolio make me do that. And they’re rattling good yarns too!

    1. tim says:

      I agree totally with John Prigent. Though I was educated in the UK, and so the curriculum will have differed, I still have a distinct dislike for several books including ‘To Kill A mockingbird’ which I was forced to study in depth for 2 years. Shakespeare was a relief by comparison.

      I suppose it is similar to being forced to play a sport which then becomes something to be avoided in future life. Which is probably why I loathe cricket and rugby!

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