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. Continue reading

The Dickensian Canard

Here in Australia the nation’s most prestigious literary award has just gone to Peter Temple’s Truth: a crime novel. James Bradley at city of tongues offers an intelligent and articulate response to the subsequent controversy:

Truth is basically a crime novel, and therefore a piece of genre fiction. That’s not to say it’s not an extremely good crime novel, but it’s still a crime novel, and operates within the conventions and constraints of the genre. And that, in turn, makes it an unusual choice for an award like the Miles Franklin, which has traditionally been reserved for literary fiction.

Less articulate is the response on offer at Crikey‘s Culture Mulcher blog, and particularly the responses to that response in the comments section of the blog. For example, Lucy Sussex:

I have been saying for ages that the best crime novels are about the only novels that depict modern society well — they are Dickensian in a way so-called literary novels are not. In fact, if I have a novel for review by someone I have never heard of, it is most likely to be good if it is crime. The percentage of quality is just higher.

Of course! “Dickensian” — that’s how novels are supposed to be, isn’t it? “Depict modern society well” — that’s what novels are supposed to do, isn’t it? I mean: if you crave an accurate and multifaceted depiction of modern society in all its complexity and intricacy, what better place to find it than in a work of imaginative fiction? Continue reading