Literary Fiction Does Not Exist (or, Please Shut Up About Literary Fiction)


Last month, Storyville posted a definition of literary fiction.  As with all definitions of a genre, it is functionally useless, in no small part because it offers utterly subjective criteria, most of which apply to such a wide range of literary forms that the attempt to define collapses under the weight of its own uselessness.  For example:

Often, literary fiction will be introspective, examining the thoughts and feelings of its main characters. There will be a deep study of a person or persons, showing us layers of experience, emotion, thought, and behavior.

OK, but what exactly does “deep study” mean?  Are James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels not “deep studies” of Alex Cross?  If not, then how do you show or define a “deep study” in any useful way?  They don’t say, so I have no idea.  Based on this vague definition, anything James Patterson has written (or put his name on) would technically qualify, but I suspect that’s not what they meant when they came up with this definition.

All of the criteria are as poorly explained as the example above, which presents a very real problem:

What is literary fiction?  If we can’t define it, then why are we talking about it?

It makes sense to me why we define the popular genres (science fiction, fantasy, romance, western, crime, etc.), even if we cannot approach a viable definition.  At the very least, science fiction is noticeably different from, say, an Alex Cross novel, most notably because of its settings, etc.  Though such “differences” are not absolute (hence the existence of cross-genre work), we can at least acknowledge the literary traditions of genres like science fiction.  Ultimately, the genres are useful only for the market:  to help readers find something like that other thing they liked.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any true separation.  “Literary merit” doesn’t actually mean anything, as what receives “literary merit” can exist in any genre (see the Western Canon — there’s all kinds of fantasy and SF in there).  And, of course, a science fiction novel can avoid what the folks at Storyville define as a “plot,” too.  What makes it “not a science fiction novel” if it is, in fact, a science fiction novel?  The literarinessessess?

Over the years, definitions have become more and more meaningless to me.  This might explain why I prefer to think about science fiction in Delany-an terms:  as practice, not “thing.”  His second collection of essays, Starboard Wine, for example, suggests that the best way to understand what science fiction is requires us to look at how science fiction works.  We can sit around arguing definitions until we’re blue in the face, but if we look at how the narrative of SF functions, how the worlds are imagined and share common operations (in narrative terms), and so on, we might get just a little closer to understanding what science fiction is, even if we can never define it.

If there is a Starboard Wine or Jewel-Hinged Jaw for literary fiction, I haven’t read it yet.  All of these definitions of literary fiction, however, haven’t helped the “cause.”  I don’t think literary fiction exists.  It’s an artificial category; it is abstract; it is meaningless.  When we define something as “literary fiction,” we say nothing.  It is an unsolicited subjective opinion about the quality of a work, but not a definitive classification of that work.  And the more we keep talking about this divide between genre and literary fiction, and the definitions therein, the more I’m convinced that the latter never existed at all.

There is no such thing as literary fiction.  And once we all acknowledge that, we can shut up and move on with our lives…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

10 thoughts on “Literary Fiction Does Not Exist (or, Please Shut Up About Literary Fiction)

  1. "Literary Fiction" is basically a term used to mean "non-genre". In that sense, it literally isn't a genre, but it can still be used in the way the term "agnostic" is used to define "non-religious" and "atheist" is used to again include "non-spiritual".

    All these terms are basically negations of other categories rather than a category that can exist in its own right, without the contextual basis of what it's separating itself from. "Horror" can exist as a genre in an otherwise (mostly) category vacuum (you'd need at least one more category for any category to be meaningful, but still). "Literary Fiction" however cannot. It only exists due to the presence of all other genres. However I'd have to argue that it DOES "exist" just like agnostics exist. It's simply impossible to define as a THING, like sci-fi or horror or fantasy (Delaney basically suggests to define sci-fi based on what it IS and what it DOES). But it can be defined as a category that is separate from the others, simply because it does not fall into any of the others.

    Before genres really came about, all writing was simply "fiction" (or "non-fiction"). Once fiction genres emerged, "literary fiction" became the catch all for everything that didn't fall into the genres. And it remains that to this day – whenever we can't call it something else, or, hey, it's "literary". This is why arguments of "merit" or "seriousness" go up in smoke, the same way trying to define atheists as "serious people" or "intellectual people" would forever fail.

    • I don't think the term is actually used to refer to non-genre, unless by "non-genre" you mean "could still be genre, but we're not calling it genre because it's written literary-ily." A great number of works called "literary fiction" are fantasies, mysteries, science fiction though experiments, and so on.

      I don't see how you can put literary fiction outside of genres. The work falls into SF/F/H, crime, mimetic/mundane fiction, etc. It can't fall outside of those groupings without creating something new, and that something new must come with its own conventions, etc. Even though science fiction cannot be defined in hard terms, it is impossible to argue that it doesn't have a history of change over time. The same is true of all the other genres, and we can trace their lineages back centuries, when the genre didn't exist, but people were still playing with its conventions in diluted form. But literary fiction doesn't have that. There's no objective measure of its conventions (those conventions are typically associated with other genres, too) and the people who seem hell bent on curating the literary fiction canon frequently include works which fall into SF or mystery, etc. It's functionally a useless category, except perhaps as a marketing one (and I'm not even convinced that's true, since the literary fiction section in the bookstores I've been to is confused as hell).

  2. Let me clarify this because I think I wasn't clear: my previous comment was about how the term "Literary Fiction" has in fact been used, not how the "literary"/"intellectual"/"anti-genre" crowd has tried to claim it's been used or should be used. (From this point forward I'm going to call those who believe that "Literary Fiction" is or should be a merit-based term the "Literary Crowd").

    The entire argument that you're positing is that the Literary Crowd's attempt to define "Literary Fiction" as merit-based is doomed by its purely subjective nature which renders it meaningless and useless, because all literature contains the elements that they attempt to use to separate LF from other genres, and the "merit" of these elements from one book to the next, whatever the genre, is largely subjective. There are (somewhat objectively) good books and bad books in all genres, including LF, so how can merit create its own genre? Answer: it can't.

    Furthermore, the argument that there's an amount or volume of any given element that crates a genre – example: the argument that LF is MOSTLY about the internal, less about plot, more about character or truths, etc. – hits the same subjective wall in where such lines is drawn. What constitutes "mostly about character"? More to the point, which sections of any given novel can be defined as being, in fact, about the novel's characters? Again, we hit pure subjectivity (and preference, and bias) which renders any such definition useless.

    On all of this, I think we agree, but here's where I think your own love for genre is blinding you:

    The Literary Crowd would like to argue that Literary Fiction is an echelon above all other genres in terms of literary merit. The genre crowd has unfortunately bought into this by fighting to INCLUDE their works into the LF category. Sadly, by doing this, the genre crowd is acknowledging that LF is all that the Literary Crowd is claiming it is, a definition which you also say is meaningless and useless. But if its meaningless or useless, and/or "doesn't exist", then how can you argue that certain genre works should be included? (continued…)

  3. My argument is that, in practice, LF was been used to simply be "non-genre", or rather "uncategorized, again just like their term agnostic or atheist are used to define a negative category, a non-category. Such categories are absolutely still categories, from a language/communication standpoint, but it has to be understood that it's a negative definition – saying what something is NOT, rather than what something is. This does not create something new that must come with its own conventions, non-categories never do, though often human nature often tries to force this (atheists try to organize and create a community, LF tries to brand itself as merit-based, etc.). These attempts do create communities, but it only confuses the understanding of the non-category, because it's not an active category, and cannot be defined by what it does or is.

    To your point that genres can be traced back centuries – yes, but it wasn't until genres began to solidify and emerge as actual categories which we communicated with each other socially, partly due to the amount of actual output which became great enough to demand separation for easier understanding of what a reader's options were, only then did LF become a category itself. The point being that LF has no history that isn't the history of all books, because it's not an active category. If it were, you could define it as you define other genres, and trace its evolution the way you could trace other genres.

    But you can't say LF doesn't exist, or is meaningless, and then try to continue to cherry pick books to say belong under its banner, that's a cognitive dissonance on your part that I think stems from the life long struggle to champion the "merit" of genre books as compared to LF. But LF has only ever been used, as an actual and effective linguistic tool, to distinguish itself from all other actually defined genres. LF is only what doesn't belong anywhere else. That's all it's ever been, in actual practice, though not in belief.

    Both the genre crowd and the literary crowd have both pushed genre works into the LF banner, but this is always based on this subjective merit-based stuff where it "stood the test of time" or something else. But this is a symptom of the misuse of an ill-defined term. Either LF is a non-category, or it's meaningless. If it's meaningless, then nothing belongs under its banner. You can't have it both ways.

    • So you wrote a lot of stuff. I'm going to respond in a somewhat fragmented manner to address your various points (some, not all). Hopefully it'll make sense.

      I recognize that "literary fiction" is a marketing category, as well as something used as a sort of differentiator between types of fiction. I'm not convinced my genre glasses have actually blinded me on this, though. Five years ago? Absolutely. These days? I don't see the distinction as relevant. Genres exist, but literary fiction isn't one of them. As you've eloquently stated, my position rejects the idea of objective measurements that separate literary fiction (read: good literature that isn't genre-ish) and genre (pop lit), based simply on the fact that the literary crowd's own criteria is hypocritical. Salman Rushdie would be considered "a literary fiction writer" (read: he doesn't write genre), but by any objective measure, he *is* a genre fiction writer. The fight isn't so much about inclusion for me, but recognition that the category is functionally useless at best, and utterly idiotic at worst. Genre is genre is genre. Some of it is good. Some of it is horrible. That's life.

      I think I may have mispoke somewhere. I don't claim that genre is in literary fiction as a way of acknowledging that LF exists, but rather to point out that the criteria selected for literary fiction (criteria, by the way, which is used to separate genre from LF, which, in a way, isn't necessarily a qualitative assessment of genre, per se) doesn't actually create a separation of any kind. And so this definition of literary fiction, and so many of them previous, tries to separate things along meritocratic terms, but doesn't succeed in doing so because it's criteria *can't* do so. It's not a matter of whether certain genre works *should* be included, but rather that they objectively *already are* included *in the definitions provided*. These same definitions would include things like Brave New World, 1984, Shakespeare's plays, etc., and mountains of other work which are precursors to genre as we understand it today. And there's no way for the crowd who peddles this definition to argue otherwise without putting their hands over their eyes and going lalalalalalala. Genre fiction is inside them. They might think of it as parasitic, but I tend to think that none of it matters. "Genre" is mostly a marketing category anyway. We use it to help people find things that are similar based on some sort of literary convention, setting, etc. There might be something specific about SF in terms of how it operates, but…eh, whatever.

      My point is actually this: LF doesn't exist. It can't exist. There is no way to objectively define it. There are no criteria that do not apply, en mass, in other forms of writing. So why are we still having the conversation? If one is going to play the definition game, then try to define "literary" in relation to "popular." It still won't work, but the resulting definition will at least avoid separations that are absurd on their face.

      And I've long since discarded the "literary vs. genre" nonsense, in part because the proponents of the separation on qualitative terms (i.e., genre doesn't belong in serious discussions about literature) got its ass handed to it. I'm a graduate student at a top 20 public university, studying, among other things, science fiction. I've presented papers at popular culture conferences, straight academic conferences (at which I presented papers on science fiction and culture), SF/F specific conferences (ICFA and Eaton), and have been published (or have pending publications) in academic journals in Science Fiction Studies. So there's no argument anymore. It's over. Short of a few very traditional programs out there, pop culture and genre and related things have long since become part of the academic discourse.

    • "But LF has only ever been used, as an actual and effective linguistic tool, to distinguish itself from all other actually defined genres. LF is only what doesn't belong anywhere else. That's all it's ever been, in actual practice, though not in belief."

      And my point is: it can't distinguish itself at all, making the attempt pointless.

      "To your point that genres can be traced back centuries – yes, but it wasn't until genres began to solidify and emerge as actual categories which we communicated with each other socially, partly due to the amount of actual output which became great enough to demand separation for easier understanding of what a reader's options were, only then did LF become a category itself. The point being that LF has no history that isn't the history of all books, because it's not an active category. If it were, you could define it as you define other genres, and trace its evolution the way you could trace other genres."

      To clarify: I think what you're talking about is the codification of genre (example: science fiction) as a marketing category, mostly in the 20th century, with some precursors from the decade prior. This is, I think, in response to the superiority of the novel in the late 1800s and its related form, the serial, which helped make literature a profitable affair on capitalistic terms (i.e., patronage from aristocrats or the government was not longer necessary for the production of literature or the acquisition of living wages from written work — though that's sort of 1/10th true, really — no time to talk about that here). So while generic traditions have existed for centuries (they change names, split, merge, etc. etc. et.c), they didn't become terribly relevant to literary production until the last 150ish years, when those genres could be used as a sales tool (something I find quite interesting in the era of capitalism: the idea that groupings of individuals based on interest would become one of the dominant methods for the sale of goods).

    • Yes to all of he above. I also think that "General Fiction" is likely the actual, proper catch-all for fiction that doesn't necessarily belong anywhere else in specific. But, in practice, LF has basically been usurping this and then claiming that it's a merit thang. Which is bunk. But which impels authors like Margaret Atwood to declare her "Oryx and Crake" book "not science fiction!" because to do so would risk losing it (and her) the coveted LF brand. And what are authors without their superiority complexes, I ask you?

      In short, I think we actually agree on all the details, but totaling all that up I'm still of the mind that LF is, in actual use, a non-category vs. a meaningless one. Though due to the bias associated with it, it should be retired regardless.

  4. I think 'Literary fiction' exists as an elitist category for the sole purpose of being elitist. Look at the names included in the Literary fiction genre: regardless of cross-over, names on that list are well-known; Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are no less SF writers because the Lit snobs have claimed him as their own. Literary fiction has status; it doesn't sell well – here in Australia, for a Literary novel to sell 1000 copies, it's doing REALLY WELL – but the STATUS, DAHLING, THE STATUS.

    I'm currently undertaking a writing and editing degree. It was interesting to see how, in first semester, the pecking order was arranged with me, as Genre Geek, so far down the order. As other students have come out of the closet about being genre fans and creators that sense of picking on the SFF geek has diminished significantly. Ironically, in class last week we had to write a sentence about a movie we'd seen recently; even the 'Literary' snobs who plan to make a fortune publishing their works of genius wrote about SF movies. HAH!

    I declare up front that I don't like Literary fiction but I have to clarify this statement: I enjoy Jane Austen, Brave New World, the Importance of Being Ernest… I loathe and detest everything by the Bronte sisters, Sons & Lovers, Larks Rise to Candleford, and LOTS of other Literary fiction works I voluntarily read as a young adult just so I was well-read. I want those hours of my life back, thanks.

    What I find perplexing is that most non-genre awards primarily consider Literary fiction and almost automatically eliminate non-Literary fiction from consideration. What pisses me off is that awards offer recognition, making many author's careers (even if it's only ensuring that the author will have guaranteed 'day job' employment).

    By eliminating writers from other, more commercially viable, genres, the Australian literary scene is ensuring it remains a small pool, cutting off its nose to spite its face. Imagine if the Miles Franklin and Stella Awards selected a Romance (world-wide the most prolifically selling genre) novel or an SF/Fantasy (very commercially successful genre) as a worthy recipient: this would increase the likelihood of more international attention and more commercial success via international publication for Aussie (award-recipient) authors.

Leave a Reply