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…