I keep encountering the term ‘literary fiction’. I felt it was finally time to shout that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, and that calling anything literary fiction is nonsensical. Before my opinion is dismissed as the sort of drivel to be expected by the unwashed masses whining about their favourite book being disrespected, I would point out that I hold a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature. When I reject the term ‘literary fiction’, it is not because I am too ignorant or uneducated to understand the finer points of this debate. It is precisely because I am in fact educated that I feel safe in my rejection. Allow me to share the reasons why.
First, I should quickly define the term as I have come to understand it, just so we are all on the same page. From what I have gathered, the Anglophone world divides fiction into two categories, literary and genre fiction. The latter is crime, speculative (fantasy and sci-fi), romance etc., all of which details what kind of plot or content to expect, while the former seems characterised by impressive writing style with no indication of actual content. But by rule of exclusion, since the abovementioned plots all belong to genre fiction, presumably literary fiction cannot contain crime mysteries, heroes and fairy-tale stories, futuristic settings, or romantic stories. I’m guessing literary fiction is mostly about mid-life crises and realising that buying a sports car and having an office affair does not bring fulfilment to your life – written in an impressive manner, of course.
As English is not my native language, I was already in my late twenties before I ever encountered the words ‘literary fiction’. I did not use English in my day to day communication; my primary exposure to it was through reading books in English, whether fiction or non-fiction. Most of my books on literary theory are in Danish, but a count of my bookshelves revealed 14 books on this topic in English. Add to that a good handful of more books borrowed from the university library and countless academic articles. Throughout all of that, I have no recollection of reading any academic text about literature ever employing the term ‘literary fiction’.
Imagine an Oxford professor of language and literature writing fantasy! Preposterous!
To any serious scholar of literature, all books are fiction, all books are part of literature (thus literary works), and all books can be classified in genres. Thus, the term ‘genre fiction’ is also nonsensical, because all works of fiction belong to one genre or another. It can definitely be debated what those genres are, but no book is an island; they all connect with other works of literature, and these shared connections and characteristics form our understanding of genres.
So why do these terms exist, and why do we use them? From what I can tell, it is primarily for marketing purposes. The publishing industry wants and needs commonly understood terms and categories in order to market books efficiently. So fiction became divided into two camps, ‘genre’ and ‘literary’, and each category had a clearly attached demographics. A stigma developed to the former, which in turn made the latter seem more sophisticated. Genre fiction is for children, nerds, and housewives, while literary fiction is for men smoking pipes and wearing monocles (see photo above; sadly, sans monocle).
It is easy to prove that this distinction is not only arbitrary, but self-contradictory and utter nonsense. Shakespeare has written numerous works full of fantastical elements, including Hamlet and Macbeth, while at the same time being celebrated as the foremost writer in the English language. Does someone writing about witches, ghosts, and faeries belong to genre or literary fiction?
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Source: John Taylor - Chandos portrait, National Portrait Gallery
I accept that since changes tend to happen glacially in any established industry, including publishing, we may never be rid of the term literary fiction; we will continue to see publishers market their books this way as long as they believe it works. But there is no need for us readers to fall into the same pit. I see the term employed almost exclusively with a hidden connotation of derision towards what is deemed lesser books and genres, and I must state emphatically how wrong this is. Every book should be judged solely by its own merit; no genre is inherently better than any other; there is no inherent distinction of value between genre fiction and literary fiction, especially as the latter is itself a genre designation, just a misleading one. All books belong to genres; all books are part of literature and thus literary.
In short, literary fiction is a term that is useless in any serious discussion of literature. It is devoid of meaning except to insidiously promote the fallacious argument that some books are inherently better than other books, regardless of actual content and writing. It is time we as readers stop perpetuating this myth.