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The Emptiness of ‘Literary Fiction’ and the Stereotyping of Genre Literature

“The distinction […] between literary and genre fiction, though cherished by many critics and teachers, was never very useful and is by now worse than useless. The opposition — genre rushing hell-for-leather and plot bound to resolution, literature meandering sweetly like a brainless tot in a folktale forest — is absurd.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

“If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction. Literary fiction explores inherent conflicts of the human condition through stellar writing. Pacing, plot, and commercial appeal are secondary to the development of story through first-class prose.” – from Agentquery.com

“The stereotype is the word repeated without any magic, any enthusiasm, as though it were natural, as though by some miracle this recurring word were adequate on each occasion for different reasons, as though to imitate could no longer be sensed as an imitation: an unconstrained word that claims consistency and is unaware of its own insistence.” – Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

I’m really tired of literary fiction. No, not some of the works themselves, those great books given a lame label to somehow appropriate vestiges of their qualities and impart them onto a range of other works. There are plenty of books burdened with that designation that I love, and it is not the fault of the texts that they have been so unfairly labeled. I’m really tired of the idea of literary fiction, of the pretentious and patronizing aspects of it. It’s exhausting to try to have a conversation about “literary fiction” because for most purposes the term is, as Hal Duncan sagaciously pointed out, “on a literal level, almost a tautology– as redundant as if we were to say ‘textual texts.'” He then goes on, with great insight and depth, to take the idea apart and demonstrate how certain points of divergence from putative norms in reading protocols result in a politics of exclusion for works labeled as “genre,” a monstrously ludicrous (not in a good way) idea given that just about all works of literature fall into a genre at some level.


While in earliest years of this century there was a feeling that “literary fiction” was on the wane, the term is still used and debated today. Frequently. For example, a website with “literary fiction” right in its URL stated that: “Literary fiction is storytelling with strong, uniquely-crafted characters with complexities that change significantly and are the core of a character-based plot that has meaning-usually revealing what it means to be human.” In description after description after description, this is the general idea of what “literary fiction” is: Some observers disagree, but only to assert that more action-oriented plotting is needed. One blogger queried editors to get their insights. All of them consider “literary fiction” to be a rarified, if slippery, label of high quality for fiction.

What makes the idea of “literary fiction” so wearisome to me is that it is a stereotype, bereft of much substance and serving to not define something, but to set it apart. The term stereotype has a fascinating lineage, evolving from a printing term for a solid (thus unchangeable) plate of type to the modern usage of “an idea, trait, convention, etc, that has grown stale through fixed usage.” “Literary fiction” is not just that, but also a distorting generalization that is often defined by what it is not, or defined in terms that could be applied more broadly. What is unchanging is not its actual content, but its application as a sort of text to those that are merely “genre” or “commercial.” Like its usage for discussing categories of identity, the sort of stereotype that “literary fiction” exemplifies “serve[s] primarily to classify, separate, and stigmatize different types” of texts.

I am taking a more cultural-discursive approach here because I want to talk about usage rather than texts themselves, since this idea is frequently invoked with either no specific text in mind or with a host of them, often without much critical analysis taking place. Textual qualities are abstracted, simplified, and then correlated with vague characteristics to give the idea of “literary fiction” some rhetorical heft. And I’m not sure how much academic application this idea carries, since a search on Google for “studies of literary fiction” garnered two hits, and the impoverished nature of the Wikipedia page and its multiple issues hints at something contested about the term itself. What makes this idea so enervating is that it is a term in the discourse on literature that purports to describe the best, most resonant type of fiction, but that generally ends up being used to denigrate “genre fiction” and any work that the user does not like.

As a stereotype, “literary fiction” is deployed by many participants in the literary field of production to lend an interpretable veracity to whatever assertion they are making about the fashioning or reception of literary texts. First, the term is invoked to establish that the user is about to engage in a serious discussion about literature, and that they will be focusing on texts with a high amount of symbolic literary capital, at least in theory. They then immediately assert that this category is separate from all sorts of other fiction categories, not just a class unto itself, but one far above the rest because it combines a profound level of artistry with a sublime educational aspect that teaches us about such things as “the human condition.” This separation is supported by implying certain traits of this type of fiction, even if those traits are ones that can be found in many other works. Either during or after this process, the user of the term proceeds to disparage or castigate works that they feel do not belong in this category, striving to purify the designation of “literary fiction” by placing all other literary productions into specific genres whose better-defined characteristics remove their universality and potential for subtlety and beauty.

While the stereotype’s relative vacuousness is troubling, what is even more problematic is its effect on the wider discourse on literature, and what it demonstrates about the level of that discourse. When the most ‘artistic” category of fiction is one that is both barren and banal, and that category is used either as a weapon or a straw man, how other sorts of writing are considered and discussed is negatively effected. This is partly because, on some level, all genres are stereotypes, attempts to codify and homogenize bundles of literary productions, often in denigrating distinction to other ones. They are also used as marketing tools, as objects to coalesce subcultures and social relationships, and as artifacts of pleasure and/or edification. How we talk about fiction is a process influenced by the available language and conceptualizations being used to describe and make sense of it, by the values assigned to terms and the manner in which they are used both prosaically and ideally. The separation and stigmatization that are produced when the term “literary fiction” is deployed creates a hierarchy of value that impedes our ability to talk about the qualities and values of fiction that may create new relationships between texts and open up the conversation to new or rediscovered insights about how fiction works, how readers take the words in, and how we create all sorts of imaginative cultural effects from partaking of literature.

Again and again this dichotomous stereotyping comes up. Here is a particularly stark example:

“The genre writers depend on strong plot and lack the skills for character development to a literary level. Yet the literary writers seem inept at storytelling and engaging most readers by consistently focusing on character at the expense of a good story.”

These polarized essentializations are utilized to prefigure and curtail understanding, to frame the discussion of texts so that certain tendencies are kept in focus that, while often present in many sorts of works, are best displayed in the “literary” work. These sorts of distinctions are not only absurd, as Ursula K. Le Guin demonstrated, they can constrain our ability to connect with and explore texts, creating assumptions that try to turn the reader away from some works and color their views of others. The notion of “literary fiction” tries to co-opt our imaginations, tries to channel taste and aesthetic ideals towards books that are quite often, despite protestations, bourgeois. The stereotype is not just about elevating certain works of fiction, but overdetermining their value. The problem is, as alluded to in the Barthes quotation above, that this repetition drain the term of any actual power while insisting on its paramount value. This sometimes leads to those who love those belittled “genre” fictions to not only stridently defend the literature that they love, but to be hostile to “literary fiction” as a whole.

One example of this is a piece by Matthew Cheney several years ago that sought to convince “genre” partisans that some “literary” books were worth reading. As he put it:

“There is a stereotype of literary fiction shared by both science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers: that academically-sanctioned, “serious” contemporary fiction is all about dull middle-class people having affairs, and that the writers of this fiction do such things as use a couple hundred pages to describe events that could quite easily be described in a paragraph. This stereotype is not entirely inaccurate — such books do exist. But just as it is unfair to condemn all SF as clunkily-written space operas for people who are hiding from puberty, so it is unfair to dismiss all literary fiction as unimaginative hogwash for people who yearn to be seen as sensitive.”

He then went on to discuss several works that he felt refuted the stereotype that SF lovers had of “literary fiction.” While some of his selections were fabulous, reading this piece made me sad, because I didn’t feel that there was as much effort expended to refute the stereotypes as to try to evade them with exceptional examples. My contention is that “literary fiction” is not problematic because people do not understand it, but that we cannot understand it. It is an idea that is not designed to be understood. It is a term that tells us very little, and can be used to hide a lot. It is absurdly insistent on some idea of purity, of gravitas and transcendent refinement, to the exclusion of many other works that have as much, if not more value, to their readers. Its invocation removes the works it labels into a self-contained realm of appreciation where all other works fail to achieve what the authenticated “literary works” do simply because they are assumed to not be in the same category. It is hard to feel energized when we wrap so many conversations around such an idea.

13 Comments on The Emptiness of ‘Literary Fiction’ and the Stereotyping of Genre Literature

  1. Paul NYC // June 9, 2011 at 10:49 am //

    I will state uncategorically that I hate Literary Fiction for one reason — it often bores the crap out of me.

    At its heart, a fiction should tell some sort of coherent story, enough of one that it allows me to immerse myself in what the author is doing so much that I actually “get” what’s being said under the surface. A good story does this well as, for example, Ralph Ellison did with Invisible Man. The story kept me turning the pages long enough that I understood what the author was trying to convey. Bad literary fiction is that which steeps every single word in self-importance and gravity to the point that I’m so mired by the prose, I have no idea what’s being said. I usually give up by the halfway mark if not well before.

    Give me a story I want to read and I’ll read it. Don’t talk down to me by telling my I “have to” like something otherwise I’m not among the elite. That’s a bunch of bullshit.

  2.  

    Great post. I thoroughly agree that the label is misleading and, in the end, pretty useless. I have often struggled with these questions myself — as a SFF fan who studied English at a very ‘traditional’ university, I was worried that the books I loved would be looked down on by other students/my tutors for not being ‘literary’ enough. And I definitely did encounter that attitude — but by no means from everyone. I was recommended both Russell Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ and Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ series by one of my supervisors, and I ended up writing my dissertation on J.G. Ballard (an SF bigshot, I realise, so perhaps a more ‘accepted’ denizen of the genre, but still) which was very well received. So basically, it is good to know that even academics of ‘literature’ don’t always hold to these arbitrary labels and the prejudices that accompany them 🙂

     

  3. Actually, the term “literary fiction” is very useful. It’s a set that’s defined by its members, and if someone wants to include a work in that set it tells me that I’d pretty much be wasting my time to pick it up, unless there are qualifiers, like, say, “surprisingly readable in spite of it being literary fiction”.   Now that may not be the intended purpose of the classification, but there it is.   Although upon second reflection, it actually probably IS the purpose of the classification.

  4. Nick Mamatas // June 9, 2011 at 2:01 pm //

    It’s not really that difficult: literary fiction is a tradition—it emerges from 19th century psychological realism, and later modernism. (Neither movement was overconcerned with action-packed plot, which was seen as the province of the Romance.) Sure, there are a number of factors that lead to this genre being valorized over others, but it’s not all that difficult to understand literary fiction as a social phenomenon at all. It does require a bit more than the quick Googling you gave it, John, and is worthy of a little more than the cherrypicking of sources. I mean, really? A forum on a website? Wisegeek.com? These are the ideological opponents that need a thrashing?

    In the words of Peter Griffin, “Come ooooon.”

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion.

    I’d really like to see literary vs genre folk stop playing ego games about which is better. Not every book is to every reader’s taste, but as writers we can learn a great deal from one another, especially when we think about writing in different ways. When I’m feeling stale or just plain stuck in a novel project, I’ll often go to what movie directors say about their process. I have no interest in film production, but coming at the story-telling process from a different angle can be immensely helpful. I find that while I may not particuarly enjoy what they produce, “literary” writers have much to teach me about the inner landscape of creating fiction.

  6. This discussion, John, reminds me of the “Pre-Joycean Fellowship” meme (although it wasn’t called a meme at the time, I am attaching the term) to Brust, Shetterly and their comrades in arms. 

    James Joyce, as you might guess, is where Literary Fiction and Fantastika really split off.

     After all, Frankenstein can be considered both. Dracula is both.  But after Joyce, the two traditions started diverging, and in a big way.  Sure, there is cross pollination back and forth, but rarely do the twain really meet. Their values are different.

     

    Consider my recent Mind Meld question–the Nobel judges don’t look at Fantastika authors–but they should.

    Post Joyce Literary fiction bores the crap out of me. Pre-Joycean fiction does not.

  7. euphrosyne // June 9, 2011 at 6:30 pm //

    Your lament seems to be less that the “lit fic” label is useless than that genre fiction isn’t cool enough to share it. That’s too bad. It is a useful label, entirely aside from quasi-academic analyses, because it lets people who (mostly) want to read pretentious twaddle read pretentious twaddle. Likewise, the genre label is useful apart from any insider despair at ghettoization because its purpose is (mostly) to let people who want to read masturbatory what-ifs-in-space read just that.

    Now, it’s not all like that, but the fact that both schools contain exceptions which shine through and have broader appeal is tangential to a discussion of labels. Writers like M. John Harrison and John Crowley don’t get nearly enough love from the SF community at large, and who can argue that it’s not because they’re just a bit too…literary?

    Generally, those crossover exceptions aren’t the books which loyalists on either team most enjoy consuming. And it’s the loyalists, not the outsider, which the labels are for.

  8. I read to be entertained, and its a relatively rare thing for a work of “Literary fiction” to entertain me. 

    Frustrate me, Anger me, Bore the hell out of me, these generally it can handle.  “Naked and the Dead” being a perfect example of a book that was highly entertaining to read, but ultimately proved to be extremely frustrating due to the ending. As a result it made me feel as if I’d simply been wasting my time. I’ve never read another book by Norman Mailer, and am highly unlikely to do so. Even though several of his books seem as if they could be interesting, I’m just not willing to invest the time to see.  Speaking of investments, I’m not one to play the stock market either. My funds are too limited. I’d rather invest in safe, slow, FDIC insured CD’s even though the return is far less dramatic, simply becuase the loss potential is effectively mitigated.

    Literary Risk Aversion.

  9. Unfortunately, Literary Fiction has become just another genre, like romance and chick lit, but directed at a reader with higher education, and defined as what people with MFAs write. Indeed, some literary agencies consider an MFA to be a threshold qualification for anyone claiming to write literary fiction.

    I agree with you that it is often boring, but in my view, the “lesser genre” are even more at fault, in that respect, for being so predicable and formulaic. The whole point of writing to genre is to give readers what they want, not what the writer seeks to express. In the case of the lesser genre, that would be a familiar story. In the case of literary fiction, pretty prose, complex characters, and politically correct ideas. None of them taxes the mind very much.

    I agree with the previous commentator that Joyce initiated the split between the romanze and the literary novel. His work became the paradigm for much of twentieth century “literary” fiction and I believe a new one is needed.

    Having recently picked up Molloy, considered one of the greatest works of the literary fiction genre, I can tell you it was quite an undertaking, given that there are no breaks in the narrative for several hundred pages. It would have required setting aside a huge block of time to appreciate it, and I simply could not get interested enough. I feel much the same way about Thomas Pyncheon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and others, ad nauseum.

    What’s needed is an imaginative literature that is neither safe, nor necessarily pretty, nor formulaic in its construction; a literature of bold ideas that challenges the status quo both artistically and politically, but written as much to entertain as to inform. A literature written only for PhDs has no chance of influencing the masses and must, therefore, remain inconsequential.

  10. Hello everyone. Great discussion so far; I’m pleased to see folks talking about this subject.

    A few general points: I am not arguing that literary fiction is boring, I am arguing that it is a category that does not tell us much about the fiction it purportedly represents. I think great books and awful books get lumped into the category, and membership is highly subjective, as the actual textual characteristics of a book are not the primary criteria for inclusion. Many users of the term use it to enhance the status or symbolic capital of the book/s they are calling “literary fiction” (or their own identities through that) or reproduce it because others use it, often without any interrogation of what it means.

    It’s certainly true that “literary fiction” functions as a gloss for many things, including “books that are pretentious” and “books that are snoozers.” And I think that the idea of “Literary Risk Aversion” relates to this to, where books with that label get passed by because of their affiliation with other books called “literary fiction.” That it is a privileged gloss, and one promoted by some academic programs and professionals, adds a certain amount of weight to it, but can also fuel a negative response. Certainly it is also true that “genre literature” adherents sometimes contribute to the problem by defending books based on genre affiliation rather than other merits, and thumb their nose at literary fiction while sometimes promoting genre books for inclusion in the category. There are a number of self-reinforcing practices in the field of production that give “literary fiction” the appearance of deeper substance and status.

    To respond specifically to Nick: I disagree that it is a “tradition.” You can trace the influences of some of the novels in the category from previous movements/genres/categories, but I have yet to see, via Google, books, or other sources, a definitive outline of the tradition, especially given that the term itself finds little if any use before the 1960s. If you have sources that refute that, please share them with us, because it would be helpful to see them to understand the idea of literary fiction better.

    But, more to the point, I stated that I am discussing usage of the term, not trying to sketch out “the tradition.” Hal Duncan’s discussion of literary fiction at his website, abetted by several of his responses in the comments, talks more eruditely about literary interactions and reverberations than I could. And, there are two telling quotations in his discussion: “Literary fiction is, I think, the X defined by the abjection of ‘genre fiction’,” and “[a]s in many such acts of definition-by-exclusion, the purpose is to define the other as not-X (not-literary fiction, not-white people), to exclude those qualities from X (literary fiction, white people), with the aim of consolidating X (literary fiction, white people) as a stable system.” This exemplifies, I think, how the term is used, how it functions as a stereotyping idea and is itself a sort of stereotype deployed to exclude and, in some cases, protect hegemonic notions of taste and edification. I don’t see a lot of people talking about this, nor do I see a great upswell of critical discussion of the term.

    I looked through my own library of literary theory and criticism and did some brief research through Google Books. Did I perform an exhaustive examination? No, but to say that I “cherry-picked” ignores the fact that I denote eight different sources, one of which was a collection of opinions from a number of publishing professionals. I did go looking for the Cambridge Companion to Literary Fiction. . . but could not find it. In fact, I went looking for any companion or book on the topic of literary fiction, and came up empty-handed. I found some titles that use in term in fascinating ways (applying it to Icelandic and ancient Greek literature, for example), but the closest I came to a book about “literary fiction” was one about writing “literary stories“.  So, for such a supposedly self-evident and easy to understand idea, it is not easy to readily acquire hard information about it.

    This is part of the reason why I wanted to talk about how it is used, and this column is a tentative step towards understanding what the term is used for when we talk about literature. I don’t see much of a conversation about it; far more often I find discussions more concerned with reinforcing the concept, validating it, utilizing it to denigrate some books and valorize others. We could really use some better conversations about that.

     

     

  11. Nick Mamatas // June 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm //

    John, It took me about three seconds on Google Books to

     

    1. find a discussion of “literary fiction” from the 1860:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=KdJKAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA442&dq=%22literary+fiction%22&hl=en&ei=voDyTe2zFoH6swPc_MzICw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22literary%20fiction%22&f=false

    Not much of an essay, as it is from a college journal, and seeks to defend the study of literary fiction in colleges, but that shows that the term was in use for a long enough period of time that it had boiled down to the

    2. Here’s one using the term as an accolade to describe the work of that arch-realist (if occasional Utopian) William Dean Howells, from the 1880s:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=3pIKAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA264&dq=%22literary+fiction%22&hl=en&ei=voDyTe2zFoH6swPc_MzICw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEoQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=%22literary%20fiction%22&f=false

    Note that this source uses the term “genuinely literary fiction”, seeing the term “literary” as an accolade as the work is a “transcript of American life”—that is, it is genuinely literary because it succeeds as realism.

     

    3. Here’s an interesting one from 1897 that contrasts “popular writers” and their “commercial” interests with the interests of “more purely literary fiction” writers:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=zl9FAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA443&dq=%22literary+fiction%22&hl=en&ei=b4PyTfLsIYv2swOs5bzRCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC8Q6AEwADgU#v=onepage&q=%22literary%20fiction%22&f=false

    Finally, here’s one from way back in 1814:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=dYrfAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PT271&dq=%22literary+fiction%22&hl=en&ei=voDyTe2zFoH6swPc_MzICw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFUQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=%22literary%20fiction%22&f=false

    note that literary fiction is defined as a “mirror of the times” and further than the novelist should not create, not invent, but to focus on actually existing nature and manners that reflect popular feelings and ideas.

     

    This is hardly anything new, really. I recommend the last couple of chapters of How Fiction Works for a discussion of literary fiction and how it is bound up in the tradition of realism. The idea that the term literary fiction (set up in opposition from everything to mere lies to popular fiction to legends and folklore) is a new one, and that it isn’t historically tied to a) realism and b) a suspicion of the commercial (even while claiming to represent the times!) is just false.

     

  12. Nick Mamatas // June 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm //

    Got cut off up top—that should be “boiled down to the college level.”

    Anyway, as those links should make clear, “literary fiction” is a term that is at least two hundred years old, and came into common use alongside and to describe realism—which itself was in opposition to Romance and poetical material, as well as in opposition to legends, fantasy, etc. It appears in the early nineteenth century and makes it to college literary journals by the 1860s, when contemporary fiction of any sort was considered beneath the notice of academic departments and student training. Again, all I did was click “19th Century” on Google Books and I had pages and pages of sources to draw from. It’s not a term from the 1960s, period.

    Your eight sources, if not cherry-picked, may have well as been. You have “wisegeek”, some pompous MD with all of two short story credits and a giant blogged, another very minor writer, a former agent turned commercial fiction writer whose blog is well-known for championing the genre stuff he a) sold and then b) wrote, and even the essay interviewing all those “publishing professionals” really only interviewed the editors of bottom tier literary journals. When The New Welsh Review is one’s best source, one is is trouble.

    “Literary fiction” can be used as you say, sure. But that’s not how it is most often used or understood—really, most people who talk about literary fiction don’t even conceptualize genre fiction as anything to be concerned about for the most part. In this way, “literary fiction” is used much the same way “science fiction” is used. There’s no definitive outline of “science fiction” as a tradition, and it’s easy enough to find “science fiction” used as a brickbat against soft SF, SF that is well-written, SF by women, fantasy, etc. Check out the comments underneath virtually any contentious short story online and you’ll find the fiction being denounced as “not really SF” or “fantasy, not SF” etc.

     

  13. Thanks everyone for your comments. I’m glad that the piece is being read and chewed over.

    Nick: thanks for the history lesson. In hindsight, that comment I made about the 1960s was unnecessary; I should have slowed down and reconsidered that line, since it does not have much bearing on my argument.

    I’ve gotten a lot to consider out of our exchange. I appreciate the time you took to respond.

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