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.