Literary fiction has often been set up as the norm of what we should be reading. Defined like novels with a concern for ‘ssocial commentary, political criticism or reflection on the human condition,‘ it is above all anchored in realism, with authentic characters, realistic sets and a writing technique that defies genres.
With more complex themes and a focus on life lessons and deep meanings, literary fiction is generally harder to digest. There is an aspect of participation, where you have to understand the implicit and dig deeper. To be fair, several studies have shown that reading literary fiction makes readers more able to understand the emotions of others, increase empathy and become better thinkers in terms of being able to cope with clutter and to think with more flexibility.
fulfilling the tropes and expectations of the genre makes it less serious
This results in a sort of hostility between literary fiction and genre fiction, as realizing the tropes and expectations of the genre makes it appear less serious. Is it better for a book to be universally but superficially loved as in genre fiction or well loved by the few who appreciate every nuance as in literary fiction? This dichotomy is even seen within the university with the optional module Guilty Pleasures: Reading the Historical Novel as opposed to the lofty obligatory first year prose choices including Crusoe, Austen and more from the English canon.
The English canon depends on literary fiction. Originally, the cannon came from the English Catholic Church; in the 18e century, there were “canonical” Roman and Greek texts to fight against counterfeits, and in the 19e century, he was referring to a book written on a certain subject. But who really defines canon or literary fiction? Publishing houses, artists, critics, students?
African writers Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Madubuike, in their book The decolonization of African literature, highlight how African literature must be universal – if not ‘what they do not consider to be universal, they denounce as atavistic anthropological, autobiographical, sociological, journalistic, current ephemeral, as non-literary.’ For literary fiction to be literary it must therefore be universal, but how universal are books written by a group of (mostly) elite white men, at a time when most books barely mentioned various characters, not to mention having a positive representation?
The enduring quality of these books certainly means that they have the ability to connect with diverse audiences, and while they have inspired generations, they must have endured for a reason. But did they just stay because we said they should? Did their definition of classics give them the ability to become classics or did they have a quality that genre writing just doesn’t have?
Genre fiction is intended for entertainment, to escape reality and life, while literary fiction is intended to explore the work, to better understand it and the people who make it up. Perhaps literary fiction is better at perceiving and dissecting the world, but we cannot overlook the value of enjoyable reading and enjoyment. If we are to broaden the readership base and dissolve feelings of English superiority and literary pretension, we must take a critical look at literary fiction and the merit of this categorization.
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