Ok. It’s time for a rant. I haven’t had one in a while.
The genre “literary fiction” is complete and utter bullshit.
Ah—now that that is out of my system, I will tell you why I believe it so: quite simply, “literary fiction” isn’t a genre at all. It is merely a name given to works that are consciously using tricks and tropes of modern fiction to try to fit themselves into the Canon. “Literary fiction” is nothing more than realistic fiction that imitates the structure of earlier modernist writers (who are now part of the Canon) in order to win prestigious awards in hopes that the work will worm its way into the Literary Canon by riding the coattails of progressive authors of this century—“literary fiction” is merely pretentious realistic fiction.
Why do I feel so strongly about this distinction? While some “literary fiction” may have merit and be progressive in its own right, just think of the title of this so-called genre; particularly, literary. Literary—“of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature” (OED). I highly doubt all texts touted as “literary fiction” are concerned with literature beyond its preoccupation with being considered Great Literature—and if it does happen to be particularly concerned with what literature can do, and draws attention to itself as a form of literature, then it is part of a MOVEMENT such as modernism or postmodernism, not a GENRE.
Furthermore, the distinction and veneration of this pretentious realistic fiction as its own “literary” genre (which is a ridiculous distinction anyway, written fiction is literature; this terminology is repetitive) devalues other, perfectly valid genres that contain progressive, relevant, and groundbreaking works—yes, even science fiction and fantasy. To hold one particular type of literature above the others and tout it as “literary” is to short-change the others of deserved prestige, and to train the minds of the populace to appreciate something as a Great Artistic Work only if it follows certain patterns. This is a danger to the authorial community, critical community, and perhaps most of all to the reading community, given cookie-cutter work believing it can always be regarded as finery.
“The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained.”
The Millions has gathered a great list of some literary fiction signifiers (the above is Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany), including The Long Title and Adultery.
Tell us: what else would you add to the list?
I love literary fiction. ^And this.
^A very interesting take on this post from about literary fiction earlier today. Definitely made me think about the purported genre in a different light.