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.
Filed under: The Bellowing Ogre
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