21 August 2008

Is Literary Fiction a Genre?

Via a comment which Steve Malley left on my blog, I discovered a vigorous — and very comment-rich — discussion by genre fiction writers on the perceived deficiencies of (some) literary fiction, a discussion carried on here after starting here. (Coincidentally, Polly Frost tackles the same topic from a different angle over at The Short Review.)

Apart from the debatable characterisation of Chaucer as some kind of early literary academic, I thought it was a very interesting discussion: and since I write both literary and genre fiction, and have even folded both in together in my short story collection Transported, I thought I would try to come up with a response.

At the core of Charles Gramlich's complaint is this question:

Can someone please explain why “literary” writers get to freely eviscerate the normal rules of writing but don’t get called on it, while you or I would be pilloried soundly if we tried the same thing?

My immediate reaction was to say that "the normal rules of writing" apply to genre fiction but not to literary fiction, but that did not seem adequate. I've read plenty of books which are classified as genre fiction (in particular those genres I'm most interested in, science fiction and fantasy) but which break the rules Charles lists.

What's more, literary fiction seems to have rules of its own. In a New Zealand context, these might be:

Write mimetic ("realistic") fiction ...
about middle-class and upper-middle class characters ...
with no significant political interests or concerns ...
who do not experience anything which could be labelled a "plot" ...
and whose close personal relationships ...
... and personal emotional development are of paramount interest in the fiction.

These "rules" have changed over time; formerly, working class characters were more common, and latterly, the stranglehold of realism has eased. But I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.

After the fashion of Carrie Bradshaw, doyenne of Manolo Blahniks and really large closets, I ask the readers of this blog this question: are the set of characteristics I've listed above a reasonable description of much New Zealand literary fiction, and if so, are they distinctive enough to act as a set of rules for literary fiction?

In other words (Carrie sits cross-legged on her bed, looking down at her laptop):

  • Is literary fiction a genre?


Johanna Knox said...

One more question to add into the mix ... Does 'literary fiction' encompass children's and YA literature?

Great works of *children's* literature tend still to place emphasis on plot - with a few exceptions, such as Ursula Dubosarsky's books ... but perhaps that adds weight to your ideas - because her books have 'literary merit' in spades!

Tim Jones said...

That's a very good question - thanks for adding it! I stayed up late last night finishing Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights", which has a gripping plot. Am I right in saying that this book is, or should be, included in the canon of great YA literature?

Johanna Knox said...

Yeah, I should think Northern Lights is part of the YA canon.

Since reading your post (thanks for being thought provoking!), I've been following your links and poking round on the net reading more arguments. Have you seen this one - that literary fiction has a plot, but it's under the surface, rather than above it?

And this response to it, about children's literary fiction:

I think maybe you can try to categorise children's novels in the same way as adult's novels, debating which are 'literary fiction' and which are not - but perhaps, in general, you just have to allow for a little more above-the-surface plot across the spectrum in YA/children's fiction?

Philip Pullman seems to do a good job of providing both kinds of plot!

Another random thought - I wonder if the greater emphasis on above-the-surface plot in children's literature contributes to it sometimes being seen as a lesser form of writing?

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for the great comment and the links, Johanna! I found the Bransford one especially interesting. I'm going to try to repost those links so they show up properly, because they are well worth reading:



Mike Crowl said...

Interesting to hear your comments on literary fiction...they seem to rather coincide with my own...!

Yes, Pullman's Northern Lights is a great read; it's only when he gets into theological stuff in this trilogy that he goes awry, I think.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for your comment, Mike - I have just finished reading "His Dark Materials" for the first time, and your comment sparks off an idea for yet another futuire blog post - I have added it to my list of "Coming Attractions", although this one will take more thought to write than some of the others!

Tania Hershman said...

This is such an interesting topic to discuss, Tim (and thanks for the link to TSR's blog). I was faced with this question of what is literary fiction yesterday. On the Short Review categories page I have deliberately not included Literary Fiction because I felt it is so hard to define - and if I included it then those who didn't get classified under LF might get upset. I can't imagine this happening with any of the other categories on the list!

Then yesterday I received a review of Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection for next month's issue and the reviewer, in the list of categories the book should be classified under, put Lit Fic. I said "Sorry, no Lit Fic category", and she said, "But this must be Lit Fic, it won a Pullitzer Prize! What else is it if not?"

I am stuck. No clue how to proceed. To Lit Fic or not to Lit Fic? I just read Nathan B's blog post, but I am not sure how to apply this to short stories, where the issue of plot is, I feel, slightly different.

To be frank, I hate genre distinctions, anything that sets something apart from something else and runs the risk that someome who loves to read will miss out on great writing because it's on another shelf in the book shop. No wisdom here from me, I am afraid. Just more questions!