Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Defining Literary Fiction

I am simultaneously obsessed with categories and reluctant to categorize. In grad school, I studied several structuralist theorists and took great pleasure in their grand schemes of classification, even though I didn’t buy into any of them. When I moved on to post-structuralist theorists, I tried to understand their work by constructing the very sorts of typologies that they resisted in every line. Yes, I see the irony in that. Yes, my supervisor made fun of me. But I still think that my Foucault chart was a thing of beauty.

In the literary realm, this fascination most often manifests in my musings on genre, some of which you will find in the archives of this blog: What distinguishes a linked short story collection from a novel? What are the essential differences in form between short stories and novels? Is Christian Bök’s Eunoia a work of poetry or prose?

When it comes to genres defined not just by form but also by content (crime fiction, romance, chick-lit and so on) and their relationship to literary fiction things get very muddy for me. I’ve always resisted the idea that literary fiction is just another genre. If literary fiction is a genre in its own right, what are the formal conventions that unite the works that fall within it? It seems to me to be altogether too broad and amorphous a category to constitute a coherent genre. And, of course, if it’s just another genre, then questions arise about the boundaries between it and other genres. What makes a book fall into the literary fiction category rather than another genre? How can a book be both if we’re dealing with two different genres with distinct formal conventions associated with each?

Yet I continue to use the term “literary fiction,” usually just as a matter of convenience, but sometimes in ways that get me into trouble. For example, I recently praised Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories as a bona fide crossover hit, succeeding brilliantly as both literary fiction and as a mystery novel. A commenter asked me why I classed the book as “literary fiction.” Did I simply mean that it was a well-written mystery novel? Well, no, that’s not what I intended to say. You’ll note that I said nothing about “transcending the genre” as I’m well aware that there’s plenty of excellent writing within the genre and I don’t believe that transcendence is required. But then what did I mean? I found myself scrambling to describe which characteristics of the novel marked it as literary fiction. There I was, stuck in the very quagmire I describe above, trying to define “literary fiction” as if it’s a distinct genre when I don’t actually believe that it is one.

At the Litblog Co-op today, Ed Falco defines “literary fiction” in a way that gets around many of my concerns about the term. I’ve strung together a few excerpts from his post below:

I certainly aspire to being a writer of literary fiction. That answer was easy for me, because I think all good writers, all really good writers, are literary writers. In David Milofsky’s otherwise generous piece on the Litblog Coop, titled “Bloggers nudge literary fiction to the presses,” he defines literary fiction as “those books that champion style above content.” Since I’ve heard so many good and complimentary things about David Milofsky, I’m going to guess that was just a hurried definition tossed off for a newspaper piece––because it’s just not right. […] Purple writing emphasizes style over content. In good writing, in literary writing, style and content happen simultaneously. I’m comfortable calling any fiction that struggles to honestly explore its subjects literary. It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that a book can be a huge commercial success and still be literary? […] The opposite of literary fiction is not commercial fiction, but bad commercial fiction… […] I think we need to guard against literary writing being defined as esoteric or effete. Literary writing, for me, is just another way of saying serious writing, of saying good writing.

Click here to read the whole post.

I like it. I appreciate the way Falco dispenses with the idea that literary and commercial fiction are mutually exclusive categories. And I appreciate the way his definition steers clear of elitist distinctions between literary fiction and various categories of genre fiction. At the same time, I’m not entirely convinced. I can’t help but think that it’s a bit more complicated than this, that even if there isn’t a clear set of formal conventions associated with literary fiction, there are nevertheless certain expectations that readers bring to it that have to do with something other than the quality of the writing. I’d love to hear other views on this as I continue to mull it over.


steve said...

Kate, I think you and Falco are getting close. But the one thing that defines 'literary' fiction is that it includes itself in its struggle to explore its subjects.

So much that passes for literary is really just fancily written genre fiction; this causes a lot of confusion. Most of the highly praised literary fiction I've read lately studiously ignores its own status as literature. And there is an elitism involved in such elisions.

I don't mean that each book should be a postmodern plaything about an author struggling to write the book we're reading. Each new honest struggle *is* literature. Each example offers hope to us all. Alternatively, give up and read genre.

David Niall Wilson said...

I don't want to clog up your blog with my entire post, but I was discussing this over on Falco's journal, and ended up getting caught up in it and posting about it in my own....if you're interested...