A Clarification: Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

In last night’s post, I cited a comment by dirt armature on the Culture Mulcher blog. “The dichotomy between genre and literary fiction,” he or she wrote, “relies on concepts of literary value that few people share.” The inference here is that the dichotomy between genre fiction and literary fiction is a false one. I disagree with that, so I dismissed the comment out of hand. But I didn’t elaborate on my reasons for that dismissal because I simply didn’t have the time. Those reasons, I wrote, “ha[ve] been outlined elsewhere, and in greater detail than I am able to equal at present.” But I have a few spare moments this morning, so I’ll take a shot at it.

Literary fiction, as I conceive of it, is manifestly not what bookstores or the book review pages of the broadsheet newspapers mean when they use the term. For them, “literary fiction” is essentially a genre of fiction defined against all other recognisable genres. When a work of fiction does not recognisably belong to the mystery genre or to the fantasy genre or to the romance genre or to any other genre, it is identified as “literary fiction.” Of course, unlike mystery fiction, fantasy fiction, romance fiction, and so on, the success or failure of a work of literary fiction typically does not rest on the extent to which it either satisfies or frustrates the norms and conventions of the genre to which it belongs. As James Bradley wrote of Peter Temple’s Truth, it is “a piece of genre fiction” because it recognisably “operates within the conventions and constraints of [a] genre,” and, as such, it is judged a success or a failure not on its own terms, but on the terms set by the conventions and constraints of the genre.

In the popular sense of the term, then, “literary fiction” possesses a certain set of freedoms that genre fiction, by definition, does not possess: the freedom to indulge in overtly poetic prose; the freedom to dismiss or downplay the importance of plot; the freedom to employ stream-of-consciousness techniques for their own sake; the freedom to concentrate on character development at the expense of all else; and the list goes on. Not that those who actually write so-called “literary fiction” always or even usually make the most of these freedoms. On the contrary, although most of what is popularly called “literary fiction” may not be encumbered by recognisable generic conventions and constraints, it nevertheless declines to chart out recognisably new literary territory. In the popular estimation, for instance, the “literary” author par excellence is Ian McEwan, but whenever he releases a new novel we always know what we’re going to get from it — close studies of character in lyrical prose, nothing more and nothing less — because, after a certain point in their careers, such “literary” authors tend to reinforce rather than redefine their own particular notion of what “literary fiction” is. So literary fiction stagnates and makes itself definable, recognisable, and generic.

For myself, however, “literary fiction” is exactly what the adjective “literary” suggests: not a work of fiction that possesses a certain set of “literary” freedoms, but a work of fiction that makes an issue of its own nature as literature, its very literariness. It is irreducibly literary, and therefore utterly unable to be translated into any alternative artform. It knows that it consists of an agglomeration of words set down on the page and then picked up and brought to life by a reader, and it exploits all the particularities and nuances of what it is. This is not to say that it must be playfully postmodern, or metafictional to the extent that the only story it has to tell is the story of its own being. This is to say that it generates a purposeful interaction between its story, its style, and its structure in a way that results in damage done to all three when any one of them — such as the story — is appropriated by artists at work in a non-literary medium.

In short, literary fiction, by definition, is innovative. Whatever its chosen subject may be, it uses that subject to extend the boundaries of what fiction in general is and is capable of. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is, by definition, wholly derivative. Whatever its chosen subject may be, it places its own treatment of that subject in relation to other treatments of that subject in other works of fiction and it asks that its own worth be measured only in relation theirs.

Literary fiction is always a statement. Often it is a statement of such singularity that we have no extant frames of reference with which to understand it, and so we must look to the statement itself in search of advice as to how best to interpret it. Genre fiction, by contrast, is not and cannot be any such statement. It can only ever affirm another or else reply to it.

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8 thoughts on “A Clarification: Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

  1. I agree. The problem is that the term ‘literary fiction’ is so widely (almost universally) used in the ‘weak’ sense (McEwan et al) that any other meaning is almost impossible to (re-)establish. And I promise that that is my last parenthesis in this reply.

    Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBook added a qualifier to describe the McEwanish stuff: ‘Establishment Literary Fiction’. Or maybe a new term is needed to describe what you think of as ‘literary fiction’. Might I suggest – drum roll please – literature?

    • I’ve seen Mark’s qualification here and there and I like it. Generally, though, I tend to think of “Establishment Literary Fiction” as “Presumptive Literary Fiction.” A minor difference, perhaps, but I feel that using “Establishment” as the pejorative qualification implicitly chides readers, reviewers, and critics for not reading widely enough to recognise real literary fiction when they see it, whereas using “Presumptive” as the pejorative qualification places the blame for literary mediocrity where it properly belongs: on the shoulders of the writers who just don’t aim high enough and yet seem to believe that they do and would have the rest of us believe the same.

      As for using plain “literature” to refer to what I have called “literary fiction” — for the most part, I do. Not in everyday conversation, of course, because the term so easily encompasses fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama, but most people just aren’t comfortable with a concept whose reach is that broad. In my own head, however, I make no such distinction between, say, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “Self-Reliance,” and Leaves of Grass. One is a novella, one is an essay, and one is a collection of poetry, but each one is equally “literature” in the sense that I conceive of “literary fiction” because each one, in its own way, accounts for what it is as a work of art and why it is the way it is as a work of art composed of words.

  2. Nice piece. I think part of the problem here is the lack of a historical dimension. I don’t want to bang on about this because I’ve repeated a similar argument one too many times over on my own blog recently, but maybe the explanations that Sartre (What is Lit?) and Barthes (Writing Degree Zero) give of French literary history might help. Your definition of ‘literariness’ is essentially a post-Flaubertian one which is coeval with the demise of rhetoric as a mode of communication underpinned by homogeneous class identity, into a host of individual private styles. Sartre and Barthes would date this demise to the 1848 revolutions, in which the bourgeoisie for the first time was pitched against the proletariat, though in English literature for various historical reasons it would come much later. Rhetoric is a normative system of fine speaking (or writing) to which a single group of people aspire; style, however, is coextensive with the bourgeois monad for whom communal rules of beau parler no longer exist.

    Part of what happened post-1848 was that literature became a problem. For the first time writers had to justify their activity. Each individual work of literature became a reinvention of everything literature was and was supposed to be. So when you write ‘literary fiction, by definition, is innovative. Whatever its chosen subject may be, it uses that subject to extend the boundaries of what fiction in general is and is capable of’ – it’s true. But it’s not true for all time; it’s true from roughly 1850 onwards in France, and then hits home all over Europe with WW1 and the various modernisms.

    Another approach is that of the public – or lack thereof – for whom the book is written. Genre is always, at bottom, a convention. It’s a communally accepted way of treating a particular literary object. Partly, this can be influenced by the most banal of all circumstances: the section of the bookshop you find it in. If you pick up a book in the ‘crime’ section, you’ll treat it like a crime book. If you pick it up in the ‘fantasy’ section you’ll treat it like a fantasy book. If, on the other hand, you pick it up in the ‘fiction’ section, then it’s likely that your horizons of expectation for that literary artefact will be those of ‘literariness’.

    My comments were confused, but maybe you get the basic gist.

    • I do. Of all your comments, though, I was particularly struck by the following paragraph and I want to say something about it:

      Part of what happened post-1848 was that literature became a problem. For the first time writers had to justify their activity. Each individual work of literature became a reinvention of everything literature was and was supposed to be. So when you write ‘literary fiction, by definition, is innovative. Whatever its chosen subject may be, it uses that subject to extend the boundaries of what fiction in general is and is capable of’ – it’s true. But it’s not true for all time; it’s true from roughly 1850 onwards in France, and then hits home all over Europe with WW1 and the various modernisms.

      I think that’s right, but I don’t think it takes in the full picture: namely, the ways in which the demand on writers to justify their activity has intensified in the years since World War I, not strictly due to political pressures but due to artistic pressures as well…

      It’s true that there is a sort of “reckoning” circa 1850 in Europe and also in America (think Herman Melville) which involves writers of literature accounting for what they propose to do each time they sit down to write. In the early twentieth century, however, writers begin to face not only the demand to account for what they propose to do but also the demand to account for why they propose to do this and not that: why they propose to write in the artform of the novel or the short story rather than for television or the cinema. In other words, as other competing artforms begin to devour the territory that once belonged solely to fiction in the written word, those who remain faithful practitioners of such fiction began to face the dual demands of accounting for their chosen practice and of accounting for their decision not to pursue an alternative practice, even when it might indeed be better suited to their purposes.

      For example, there was once a time when a writer could stand on the Dickensian Peninsula in order to obtain a panoramic view of an entire society in all its machinations: A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the Dickensian Peninsula is now well and truly occupied by the armies of HBO, so that what once was solely the province of the written word — particularly the novel — has now become the province of a medium far better suited to telling a serial narrative which accumulates layer upon layer of complexity in such a way as to make the social panorama compelling and convincing. Why, then, do novelists continue to write fiction that attempts to achieve these aims? They must in some way answer that question as well as the question of why they have chosen to write fiction at all.

      What I’m getting at here, I suppose, is that although literary fiction — as I said — “uses [its chosen] subject to extend the boundaries of what fiction in general is and is capable of,” the boundaries of such fiction have both shifted as a result of political objections to the fictional nature of literary fiction and shrunk as a result of the emergence of artistic alternatives to literary fiction itself. So to the extent that literary fiction extends the boundaries of its artform, it does so not by looking outwards to the territory it once held and measuring itself against the world at large (so to speak) but by turning inwards and probing its own essential characteristics. It undertakes a process of distillation, if you like, so that as alternative artforms are currently in the process of becoming what literary fiction historically was, literary fiction itself draws closer and closer to articulating what literature is at its core and thus what it must be in order to be literature at all: hence the irreducible literariness of literary fiction.

      Which is really just the long way of saying that the political pressures of which you write were historically what demanded that writers justify their activity, but that the pressures have been artistic in nature since the advent of new media post-World War I and have led to justifications that no longer seek to define the essential nature of literature so much as they attempt to demonstrate it.

      Hmmmm. And you thought your comments were confused!

  3. Daniel, I more or less follow you!

    I agree with almost all of what you say, but I still find it a little idealist. Here’s the main point of yours that I’m in accord with (though I hadn’t considered it myself):

    ‘as other competing artforms begin to devour the territory that once belonged solely to fiction in the written word, those who remain faithful practitioners of such fiction began to face the dual demands of accounting for their chosen practice and of accounting for their decision not to pursue an alternative practice, even when it might indeed be better suited to their purposes.’

    But here’s the part where I begin to disagree:

    ‘For example, there was once a time when a writer could stand on the Dickensian Peninsula in order to obtain a panoramic view of an entire society in all its machinations: A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the Dickensian Peninsula is now well and truly occupied by the armies of HBO, so that what once was solely the province of the written word — particularly the novel — has now become the province of a medium far better suited to telling a serial narrative which accumulates layer upon layer of complexity in such a way as to make the social panorama compelling and convincing. ‘

    The nub of the problem lies precisely in the Dickensian Peninsula. How did Dickens obtain that panoramic view? How one answers that question is, I think, partly where a Marxist would want to differ with a competent idealist. The latter might say: ‘Dickens’s skill as a writer, his hunger for mixing forms and voices etc., his sheer will power made him able to rise above his age and capture his world in words.’ But a Marxist would say: ‘Yes, he had all of these gifts, but all of them would have been worthless if it wasn’t for his unique social position as both a petit bourgeois and someone who had known poverty at first hand: this enabled him to mix with the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. His social class was an entryway into almost every aspect of his society; the metaphor of the panorama is false, since it implies that the observer is exterior to the observed, but Dickens was at its heart, embroiled in all its machinations.’ Part of the problem now is that with a transnational capitalism which is practically without centre, no one person, irrespective of their social position is capable of experiencing or representing the totality. (Hence Jameson on sublime in postmodernity).

    There are, however, exceptions. HBO you mentioned, and The Wire is the greatest example. But here, again, you seem to opt for the idealist line that it constitutes a ‘medium far better suited to telling a serial narrative which accumulates layer upon layer of complexity in such a way as to make the social panorama compelling and convincing.’ Whereas what I think you should really be asking is: given what we know about the social totality being currently unreachable, how is it that The Wire seems to do so? The answer, as far as I see it, is twofold. Firstly, it uses the city as a microcosm – the city is a manageable, representable social space in comparison to an entire multinational network. Secondly, its creator – importantly – was an ex-police reporter. Now, let’s recall what Jameson wrote many a moon ago about Raymond Chandler’s detective: ‘Marlowe visits either those places you don’t look at or you can’t look at: the anonymous or the wealthy and secretive.’ Could it not be said that the reason David Simon was able to begin to piece together his Tolstoyan vision was because of his time spent with the police force – those very ambiguous agents of power who have access (like Dickens before them) to every part of a given society, rich and poor alike, and are therefore in a privileged position to make connections between the various elements?

    It’s not a particularly nuanced argument, but I think it’s basic presuppositions hold water.

  4. Francis Broome says:

    My Lord, once the PhD marked the holder as a first-rate intellect. I cannot believe that MU will in 2012 be awarding one to a mind so pedestrian, so confused, so utterly unintellectual. Good luck, Daniel.

    • You don’t care to elaborate on that, with specific reference to the post? Pedestrian, how? Confused, how? Unintellectual, how? The post itself is not and should not be the last word on the subject. It’s a stab at articulating my own personal definition of a series of terms that we all know are widely contested. It is very much subject to change, but only after I have been persuaded to change it when its weaknesses are made clear.

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