Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Literary fiction

I hate the term. “Literary fiction” is therapeutic. It is what is good for you, what you should read.

As currently used—that is, to distinguish fiction with high-culture pretensions from “popular” or “genre” fiction—the term can probably be traced to New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.

In January 1984, in an article entitled “Mysteries Join the Mainstream,” Kakutani struggles to explain what she means. Everybody knows that there are “suspense stories” and there is “ ‘serious’ fiction,” but “it is not quite as simple as many bookstores would have us believe to separate books into such categories as ‘Suspense,’ ‘Famous Authors’ [and] ‘General Fiction.’ ”

The occasion for her article seems to have been the popular success of Humberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Paraphrasing Eco’s views, Kakutani says that “serious” writers “have begun now to appropriate old-fashioned storytelling techniques from the popular genres. . . .”

Kakutani then delves into literary history:

During the 20th century . . . something curious happened. As the boundaries between popular and “literary” fiction became more pronounced, such traditional elements of storytelling as suspense and “poetic justice” were increasingly identified with genre writing.Although she may have intended to contribute to erasing the distinction between “literary” and “popular” fiction, Kakutani turned it to stone.

Before the 1980’s, the term literary fiction was used either to refer to an authorial pose (Wyatt’s claim to write songs for the lute, for example, was a “literary fiction”) or to distinguish the fictional (i.e., not literally true) from fiction that is written down and published in a book. That’s how the Marxist critic H. Bruce Franklin used it in The Wake of the Gods (1963), opening his study of Melville with the declaration that “since all myth is by definition fictional, no one should be surprised to find that literary fiction is mythic.”

Now the term is used by tedious self-promoters like John Banville, who insists that his 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea is a “real book,” that is, “literary fiction” as opposed to “more populist work.”

Balls. The only meaningful distinction is between writing that is good and writing that is not. The Sea may be “literary,” but it is lousy.


Nathan Shumate said...

"Literary fiction" has come to mean "fiction whose intended audience is the author's tenure committee."

Art Durkee said...

I've been saying for some time now that "literary fiction" is itself a genre. It defines itself as non-genre, and believes itself to be a higher art than "genre fiction," but in fact it is easy to see that it is the genre which defines itself by not being all the other genres of fiction.

Furthermore, I think that "mainstream literary fiction" (i.e. "realistic" style narrative about people in their daily lives), while having the pretense of being what fiction is all about, in fact was never all of what fiction was all about. "Magical realism" has always been around, if not always called that; "The Odyssey," for example, one of the great foundations of contemporary fiction, is about as fantastic as it gets.

I also agree that the quality of the writing is what really matters. There's at least as much good writing in mystery or SF fiction as there is in literary fiction these days; maybe more. But who or what determines what is "good" or "bad" writing remains far more subjective than most literary critics, those self-appointed arbiters of taste, would like us to believe.