I’m not known for much, but one thing I’m known for is my dislike of the term literary fiction. The term could be helpful in distinguishing, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather from Mario Puzo’s. The one is cinematic fiction; the other, literary fiction. But that’s not how the term is used anymore. Literary fiction, as I’ve said before on this blog in trying to define it, is therapeutic fiction. It is fiction that is good for you. It’s like tofu, as I later tweeted. No one really likes it, although many people think they should eat it. But how do you know it when it’s on the shelf in front of you? Only by the via negativa, as I wrote elsewhere:
An Arnoldian term, serious has its own shortcomings. But I was wrong four years ago when I said that it has no natural opposite. My students at the Ohio State University this semester have taught me that the opposite of serious is whatever the opposite of boring is. Assigned a critical dictionary as a course-ending project, more than a dozen of them defined literary fiction, a term I had introduced in class for the sake of quarreling with it, as “boring fiction.” Here is perhaps the most representative student entry:
When did boredom go from being an admission about the self (“I’m bored”) to an accusation against a going-on (“It’s boring”)? For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people complain that baseball games are boring, but I paid no attention, because the complaints were so obviously an expression of unfamiliarity and ignorance. Coronary artery bypass surgery is boring too—it can take up to eight hours—but if your parent or spouse needs it, you don’t care about the boredom overmuch; certainly not enough to complain about it. If a book bores my students, though (and many, many other people in the culture, I would wager), the fault is the book’s, not theirs.
“One can . . . tell a great deal about a person by what bores him,” Joseph Epstein wrote in his essay on boredom. But that may be in the process of becoming untrue. To call something boring any more is to give a damning and faithful evaluation of it. More and more, one can tell a great deal about a thing from who is bored by it. I’ve started asking my students whether great literature might not be bored by them.
Update: Scott G.F. Bailey has a reply and further reflections here.