Writing is often about balancing parentheses, charge-and-discharge, and I thought it tasteful to discharge that one quickly. Is literary fiction bullshit? Charge. No. Discharge.
To be clear, I’m not even questioning the fiction itself. There’s a lot of excellent literary fiction. What about the concept, the distinction? Is that bullshit?
Again, no; but let’s be more subtle. It doesn’t think what most people think it means, and while the concept itself is not bullshit, there’s a lot of bullshit that emerges as various bullshitters (who increase in density, the closer one is to Manhattan) mis-define it.
Here are the snob’s definitions of literary fiction:
- written to educate, rather than entertain.
- set in the real world, as opposed to escapist romps through worlds that were just made up.
- will be remembered in 100 years.
- character-driven and one-of-a-kind, as opposed to formulaic plot-driven work.
- the author isn’t sent to a career gas chamber if the book doesn’t earn out.
Except for the last one, those snob definitions are bullshit. Why? Well, there’s a lot of high-minded science fiction and fantasy out there, and there’s plenty of so-called literary fiction that’s just as indulgent as the commercial dreck. Ever read American Psycho? Go on, and tell me that that’s more high-minded than my book because mine has a dragon in it. Furthermore, no one knows what will be read and what won’t, 100 years from now. I can guarantee you very little about 2117, but I will bet that the opinions of a few snobs in New York will matter no more than mine– that is, not at all. Some well-loved literary novels today will probably survive for hundreds of years, but on their merits, rather than their “literary” accolades right now.
For example, it is the case right now that a novel cannot involve supernatural elements and be called “literary”. That is a fad; it will not always be so.
Also, I’d argue that neorealism is itself a genre. It’s a fine one. I like it, in fact. Constraints breed creativity, and if one of those constraints is to put one’s work in the real world with ordinary characters, verisimilitude backed by heavy research, and a focus on interpersonal relationships (to which, I’ll note, great fantasy and sci-fi writers are also attentive) as opposed to magic systems or interstellar travel, then… great! Use the constraints that make you creative; solve the problems that bring out your best. If you shine best when your challenge is to write an engaging story about an ordinary day in the life of an Ohio bank teller, then go off and do that.
Is neorealism a superior genre to epic fantasy? No. Is there a lot of mediocre fantasy or science-fiction that still sells? Sure, but I refer you to Sturgeon’s Revelation, from which literary fiction isn’t exempt.
Now, here’s how a detractor who dislikes literary fiction might define it:
- overwrought, boring, and detrimentally high-brow.
- written to win awards, rather than tell an engaging story.
- formulaic, but according to a secret ingredient list only made available at MFA programs.
- part of a pyramid scheme whereby writers supplement their income teaching less-talented rich kids how to write books that won’t sell.
Of course, that’s bullshit too! Why? Well, I think John Updike said it best:
[I] just set out to write books.
If anything, I think imputing a motive (“commercial” or “literary”) based on genre without letting the writing’s quality speak for itself is, in fact, lowbrow. High minds discuss ideas; low minds discuss people; and writers just fucking write. Stephen King writes what he likes to write. John Updike wrote what he liked to write. I write what I like to write. My cats poop in a box. Writing should be fun, and to me the question of genre is, to be honest, an afterthought. I know when to use tropes, when to dodge tropes, and when to invert tropes. I don’t usually target them. Genre, like theme, often fleshes itself out after you’ve worked for a while.
Shakespeare may now be the paragon of English literary merit, but his plays were viewed as commercial dreck in his time. Even he probably expected to be remembered for his sonnets, not his best-selling screenplays. Some of those for the record, were truly mediocre. Titus Andronicus was hard-core pulp, and does not achieve the heights of Othello. “The bard” was most definitely a genre writer; he conformed to the three dominant genres of his time: comedy, tragedy, history. He used fantasy elements– faeries in Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic in The Tempest, and an “ear-poisoned-ghost ex machina” to kick the plot off in Hamlet. King Lear was a psychological horror.
Also, let’s be honest about the novel. It’s subversive. It’s right there in the word; novelty shakes things up. It’s a hundred-thousand-word lie that somehow ends up being more truthful than 99% of the things people say. It’s there to kick people in the balls (and ovaries). It lets you know what a character is actually thinking, with diction and emotional distance and subtext at the author’s discretion. It gets into minds, which aren’t always prim and proper places. When Farisa thinks of a minor antagonist as “an old queef”, I type out the word “queef” and force a reader to see it.
There are trashy novels and brilliant ones, but the form was not seen as “respectable” at its inception. If you were learnèd, you read in Latin and avoided prose altogether. Reputable stories were thousands of years old and featured characters (products of oral tradition) once believed by real humans to have actually existed. The characters in novels? Just made up by some hypergraphic loner, often no more than a few years ago.
So what’s literary fiction?
If I haven’t established all of the following, I certainly can. Just ask me, in a comment. I’ve got nothing better to do.
- There’s great literary fiction out there.
- There’s atrocious literary fiction out there.
- There’s great so-called genre fiction out there.
- There’s atrocious genre fiction out there.
- There’s probably a very low correlation between the quality of work and its degree of conformance to “literary” expectations, as defined by Manhattan taste-makers.
- The “literary vs. commercial” classification is silly and not worth another w….
Let’s step back, then and admit that neither the snobs nor the detractors understand what literary fiction is. Let’s ask a different question? What’s genre? No, really; what is it?
I’m (re-)writing a book, Farisa’s Crossing. It occurs in a world where magical elements exist. Ergo, it’s called fantasy. Works for me That’s the genre. The technology level is closer to 1895 than 1095, so it’s steampunk. It’s heavily character-driven, with interpersonal relationships (mostly non-romantic) as central concerns– what’s a world, if readers aren’t given people in it to care about?– and I’ve put a lot of work into the prose; does this make it literary? Ah, who knows. It’s got a strong female protagonist who fights against sexism and racism so you could call it feminist. It has contemporary and historic relevance, with the Pinkerton-inspired Global Company (who, in this dark timeline, have won and turned into Nazis); this is dystopian and vaguely historical. There’s some dark stuff going on– a chapter that takes place in an insane asylum, a terrifying species of undead I shan’t spoil– so there are horror elements, and there’s an unresolved death at the beginning of the story and its resolution pertains to the story’s climax, so it’s a mystery. Romantic couplings are made and broken (romance?) and there are some tense, fast-paced scenes that left me out of breath (thriller?) just writing them.
So did I write a feminist literary horror mystery epic fantasy dystopian historical steampunk romance thriller? No. I wrote a damn book. (Yes, I said wrote. I’m rewriting it, to make it ten times better, and beta readers are a part of that process and I still have a couple slots, if there’s interest.) Genre isn’t about what your book is. It’s about something else. So, then, what is that “something else”?
Every book needs to establish a core, a critical mass, in order not to be forgotten. Get a book read by three hundred people, and no more, and it’ll probably disappear without a trace, even if it deserved more attention in life. Get it to thirty thousand, and history will probably remember it for, at least, that. In the grand scheme of things, there’s not much difference between those two numbers. It’s hard to know, in advance, what that critical number is.
This is one reason why trade publishing has perhaps the deepest-ingrained and most bitter blame culture in the universe. Launch a book faster than its escape velocity, and it will do fine. Underpublish it, and you’ve wasted paper and a year of someone’s life… and you’ve made the poor author look bad, because trade publishers never take responsibility for anything, so the author will eat the blame for bad sales.
The line between breakout success and shitfuck flop territory is thin; it varies for each book, not always for reasons related to the quality of the book, and it’s hard to predict. The vast majority of books don’t get the support they need to reach escape velocity. And plenty of books aren’t very good and, one could argue, don’t deserve it.
So what is genre? Genre is a book’s strategy for achieving that critical mass, that first few thousand vocal readers who’ll write reviews and gift copies to their friends and keep the flame from dying in the wind.
Farisa’s Crossing would disappoint people looking for a romance, or a straightforward murder mystery, or even a thriller. It’s not a horror novel. It’s not a feminist novel (aside from having some excellent female characters, but so does real life). I do consider it literary (and I’ll get to that) but, mostly, it’s epic fantasy, the first in a series. Fantasy writers will love it; Steele readers will probably not.
Now, we’re equipped to describe literary fiction and what the distinction really means.
Most genres are written for clusters of readers: romance readers, science-fiction readers, mystery readers, fantasy readers. I have no desire to call any category superior to any other. There’s enough structure in the distribution of peoples’ tastes that clusters form. We tackle this unsupervised learning problem by eye and call these reader clusters genres. And that’s fine. My book is not a worse book because it will appeal to fantasy readers (and will not appeal to people seeking hard-boiled detective novels or boy-girl romances). Nor is it better.
So are there literary readers? There are but, to be honest, there aren’t that many of them. It’s true that literary fiction tends to undersell relative to its quality. It’s not written with a set of readers in mind. It’s written for writers. You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy literary fiction, and I certainly don’t intend to imply that writers aren’t also readers (I mean, most are). It’s art for artists.
Sometimes, art for artists is onanistic, self-referential, repetitive, and pointlessly self-referential, an ouroboros of repeated onanism. Sometimes, it’s exceptional for its contribution to dialogue, for its experimental courage, and the sheer quality of the craftsmanship. In literary fiction, you see both cases.
I consider Farisa’s Crossing to be literary insofar as I wrote it for appeal to writers as well as to fantasy readers. Of course, since Farisa’s Crossing takes place on a different planet, in a world with magic, it doesn’t conform to the neorealistic genre (again, a fine genre) that is often called “literary”. So I would not bill it as literary without disclosing what I mean by the term; I don’t want to disappoint readers who enjoy only neorealism.
Literary fiction is written for writers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even for genre writers, there’s a lot that a writer can learn about right from reading literary fiction– the good and the bad.
Okay; I should add that there’s a lot of atrocious literary fiction that’s written for agents, but I’d rather suck down a lahar of lutefisk, pure capsaicin, and horse smegma than delve into that topic.
Now that I’ve answered this question, for all and for good, we can all get back to real fucking work. I have to torment Farisa again, and it’s rough because I’m starting to really like her.