Are our heads up our own asses if we call what we write “literary fiction?”
As writers hoping to sustain a living in the business, the idea of genres, of understanding genres, and knowing how to categorize what we write in terms of genres, we’re all, at some point, faced with the question: “what genre is your work?”
Literary Fiction, I’ve recently come to learn, is one of those categorizations that’s become a bit controversial. Apparently, claiming such as your genre lends itself to a kind of pompous self-importance.
I’ve always called myself a writer of Literary Fiction, because the genre, as I’ve understood it, was not about the quality of a work, but about very specific components that had to be in place, versus other components that defined Genre or General Fiction.
My understanding of Literary Fiction was that its primary focus was on development of character, and the creation of complex inner stories that fuel the motives and behavior of the characters. That plot is almost anecdotal (versus being the entire focal engine of Genre Fiction), serving instead merely to uncover and examine larger, more introspective, universal themes.
The film critic Terrence Rafferty recently noted that “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” 
It’s a nice turn of phrase (even being one of those stray beauties I like to linger on). But I suspect it’s not meant to be a compliment of the term.
What I’m now hearing (in this present universe of hashtags and trends, where the average use-by date is usually about a minute long) is that the “literary” delineation is, or should be, reserved for others to determine and classify about your writing, and is clearly meant to denote a work superior to other genres, or, even more disturbing to me, a work of great acclaim, which assumes that the only great writing out there is the stuff that’s moved significant numbers or that’s made its authors into celebrities. Because in today’s world, “great acclaim” isn’t a critical theory term; it’s a popularity term. It’s a definition that precludes that if you’re not well-known you don’t deserve the term.
#literaryfiction #headupyourownass #whodoyouthinkyouare
No matter – as I can go on an editorial tangent like nobody’s business – but this does seem to be the current definition of Literary Fiction. Little did I know that all this time of writing works that have tried to explore ideas, create characters who aren’t easy to define, to like or hate or peg, to build layers, and assuming that there is a proper term for that brand of writing, that I really just had my head up my own ass (as is how I’ve actually heard it put about authors who have the nerve to claim the Literary genre).
As said before, my understanding of the term has never been about quality, but simply about a different set of criteria. Genre fiction (as objectively as I understand it) is all about plot, and about the effective ability to keep a reader’s attention glued via certain well-calculated tricks, like a heart-thumping pace; short, taut chapters that offer cliff-hangers, therefore producing the temptation, after saying to oneself “I’ll only read to the end of this chapter, then I really need to get to sleep,” to keep going because that cliff-hanger just won’t leave your brain alone, and, after all, the next chapter is so short, so you’ll just do the one more, and then the next thing you know the sun has risen. Oooooh, those devilish little tricks! And if the plot is akin to a roller-coaster ride, or a complicated treasure map, with twists and turns that seem to come from nowhere, and leave a little tickle in your stomach, then you’ve really got yourself a fun read. And in that environment, who cares about the back story and underbelly of Dick and Jane (it also doesn’t hurt if Dick and Jane are soap-opera hot)? The conflict in Genre Fiction is always external, never internal. The blockades and barriers to get past are always out there in the cruel world. Because rooting around inside heart and mind and dark cave and intention and motive and dysfunction and baggage can never be taken at a roadrunner’s clip, and Genre Fiction cannot afford the luxury of dawdling and lingering. All right, it wasn’t exactly objective, but I don’t think I’m off the mark.
Truthfully, a lot of fun reading can be had the way of Genre Fiction (I had an absolute ball reading The Da Vinci Code, because I surrendered the idea of rich characters that felt like real people, or turns of phrases that would arrest my heart, and I just strapped my seat belt on). But what if “fun” isn’t exactly the experience you’re looking for in a book? What if a deeper experience is what you’re looking for? What if being split open, being jolted, having your own belief systems challenged and provoked…say…is what you’re looking for in a reading experience?
That’s a very different kind of book. And as such, it SHOULD have its own category.
So, if Literary Fiction isn’t what that kind of book should be called, then what?
Here’s an even harder question (at least it’s a hard one for me): Why should we, as writers, shy away from claiming our ability to create characters of depth and richness, to unleash social and moral provocations, to forge atmosphere and mood and memory, to create a relationship between reader and work that is intimate and profound?
Hey, if you’re the only one who thinks your own writing accomplishes that, then the world of opinion will weed you out with its own (usually cruel) efforts. There is no need for you (me, all of us) to feel unworthy of boldly staking your claim in the world of books, and relegating yourself, instead, to a genre that doesn’t really fit, out of some kind of false modesty.
That’s right. We are straight up LITERARY gangsta.
* * *
- Rafferty, Terrence (February 4, 2011). “Reluctant Seer,” New York Times Sunday Book Review.
- What is literary fiction? A personal manifesto! (whisperinggums.com)
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.