“Genre fiction” is a nasty expression – when did genre become an adjective? But I oppose the term for a different reason. It is a weasel formulation, in the sense that it confuses literary fiction with literature. It was smart marketing on the part of the editors to set aside certain contemporary fictions and declare them Literature – and therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writings.
The term weaves its way into the past in a strangely anachronistic way, so that, for example, the works of Jane Austen qualify as literary fiction. It does not make sense. Can anyone think for a moment that if she wrote today she would be published as literary fiction? No, and not because she would end up under romance or chicklit, but because she writes comedy, and literary fiction, with a few rare exceptions, does not include comedy in her remit.
Austen never imagined for a moment that she was writing literature. Posterity has decided that – not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, for entertainment and to earn money.
This is what we novelists have been doing ever since. Or should have done. Perhaps, in our serious and solemn way, we ask fiction to carry a burden it was never intended to carry. Look at some of the claims made for literary literature. For example:
And, joy of joys:
“Literary fiction is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a better understanding of the universe and of ourselves.” (Huffington Post)
Someone should go to the science department and tell these physicists to stop worrying about dark matter; all they have to do is read a little fiction.
Of course, just because the types of enlightened reviewers make absurd claims for literary fiction doesn’t mean that writers in this category don’t write good books. Or bad books, as in all other types of fiction. And categorization is what it’s all about. Describing books as literary can determine whether a book is rated or not. It also determines where it goes on the shelf in bookstores, although with ebooks and online booksellers we are moving towards smoother ways of labeling books, so that books that don’t fit perfectly in. the sites find a place and a readership.
John Gardner, in his creative writing manual The Art of Fiction, spoke of the fictional dream of the writer. For me, in good fiction of any kind, the imagination of the writer speaks directly to the imagination of the reader. I want and expect to be entertained, enchanted, transported to the world of the writer, lost in a good book. I don’t want to be lectured, to have trouble in my throat or, dare I say it, to be called upon to admire the beauty of the tongue. If a writer writes well besides being a great storyteller, I am grateful and delighted. If they write well but there is no story, I don’t want to read it. For deep thoughts expressed in poetic language, I turn to poetry. For intellectual arguments and ideas that appeal to reason, I’ll read non-fiction.
It may make me seem, to some people, that sad creature: the reader who cannot take on an intellectual challenge, who thinks intrigue matters, who dislikes books that drift towards aimless ends.
Which brings me to the delicate subject of literary snobbery. Maybe I should call it LitSnob. Reads fic: good. Popular, commercial, trash and pulp fiction: bad.
Remember that depth has a dark twin called pretension. Good fiction is good fiction, good writing is good writing and the old, old scholar’s desire to throw readers of different tastes into pits labeled “middle brow” and “low brow” is critical and arrogant. It plays on the reader’s fear that we may not be judged smart enough.
We’re proud to be seen reading the latest major “literary” headline – but how many people never get past page 50 on their Kindle…?
The fiction is a wide church, but let it be a Lollard church with wide aisles, not a Counter-Reformation church where the literary writers are in the sanctuary with the priesthood of scholars and acolytes present, while the types inferior “genders” are banished to dark side chapels as if they belonged to some sort of minor cult.
All books can be grouped into one genre, and literary fiction is just one of many. As a tag, it doesn’t tell us anything about the intrinsic value of an individual title. There are good books and bad books, and both can be found across the fictional horizon.
Elizabeth Edmondson is the author of 30 novels. They include (like Elizabeth Edmondson) Devil’s Sonata: Evil never dies and (like Elizabeth Aston) the Mountjoys series. This is an edited version of a speech delivered during a Oxford Literary Festival debate in favor of the motion “Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction”.