What is Literary Fiction?
My own response refers to the previous question on “otherness” and the notion of abjection I applied to it in my own post on the topic. Literary fiction is, I think, the X defined by the abjection of “genre fiction”. I’ve skirted around this idea previously, in the first few sections of this essay, for example, but I think it’s worthwhile explicating exactly what I mean in more precise terms.
Briefly then “literary fiction” is, on a literal level, almost a tautology — as redundant as if we were to say “textual texts”. I say “almost” because not all fiction is written and so not all fiction is, strictly speaking, “of or pertaining to literature” in terms of letters, signs inscribed in ink on a page. However, leaving aside the exceptions to the rule — oral recitations, anecdotal fabrications, narratives performed without a script (e.g. ballet), and purely graphic narratives — when we talk of fiction we generally do mean written narratives. “Literary fiction”, in common usage, is not set in opposition to “cinematic fiction” (movies) or “dramatic fiction” (plays, operas, ballets) or “graphic fiction” (comics, picture-books), but in opposition to “genre fiction”. And yet this other term is also something of a tautology. Every fiction sits in some familial relationship to other fictions. Every fiction is in a tradition of aesthetic forms. Every fiction is in some genre or other, whether it be that of the Harlequin romance, the Victorian Realist novel, the bildungsroman, the picaresque, the fairy tale, the club story, or simply the novel. Understand genre as comparable with race, tribe, nationality, membership of a family, of a genera, and the term “genre fiction” would become meaningless were it not so revealing.
The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is the product of definition-by-exclusion. One group of fictions have been actively distinguished and segregated out on the basis of common points of difference. I’ll come to the specifics of those groups and their markers of difference in a moment; for now the important poin is that they have been rendered "other" via an act of discrimination. All fictions are of-a-genre but only those of certain genres are segregated out as being “genre”. This is precisely comparable with the process of racial discrimination in which the reality that all people are literally coloured — their skin being of some visible shade rather than entirely translucent — is disregarded in order to segregate out those of certain colours as being “coloured”. As in many such acts of definition-by-exclusion, the purpose is to define the other as not-X (not-literary fiction, not-white people), to exclude those qualities from X (literary fiction, white people), with the aim of consolidating X (literary fiction, white people) as a stable system.
What is going on is that boundaries of aesthetic normativity are being established by which less common but nevertheless natural features of fiction are deemed essentially non-normative -- abnormal, unusual. As these aesthetic boundaries build into nomological systems, these features are held to infringe the laws of normality, which in this case manifest as prescriptive standards of quality. They acquire a quality of strangeness, are seen as transgressions of what is natural in fiction, of what is right in terms of “good” fiction. This is not perhaps surprising given that the identifying markers-of-difference are essentially what I have referred to as quirks — units of strangeness considered as the disruption of suspension-of-disbelief.
Without going into the full details of the theory, there is a suspension-of-disbelief (a sense that the events “could have happened”) during the reading process that can be disrupted by shifts in subjunctivity level and modality. In layman’s terms, “shifts in subjunctivity level and modality” simply means any event that contradicts our sense of the laws of normality with a temporal, metaphysical or logical impossibility or profound improbability (creating a sense that the events “could not have happened”) and/or with an affectively-valuated possibility (where we have a deep sense that the events we are reading “should” or “should not”, “must” or “must not” happen.) These quirks are the defining feature of strange fiction as I’ve attempted to set out my analysis of it in this lengthy series of blog posts. By definition, they render that fiction “sensationalist” in so far as all such strange fiction is defined by its disruption of suspension-of-disbelief, its aim of invoking a profound affective engagement to the extent of incredulity.
Contrary to the simultaneously narrow and fuzzy definitions of the “fantastic” or the “speculative” this notion of the “strange” allows for a more precise analysis of the different flavours of quirk possible in fiction (nova, chimerae, errata, suturae, etc.) and crucially recognises that the underlying technique is present throughout literature — in the exotica of traveller’s tales, in the arcana of mystery fiction, in the quirks of fiction throughout the ages. The absurd in comedy and the abject in tragedy can both be considered as strange-fictional features. Even the melodramatic can be considered strange to some extent — breaching the laws of normality in a way that both is and isn’t a break from mimesis (and pointing us perhaps to a more complex sense of what “mimesis” means). As particular approaches to the use of these features become the fundamental qualities by which we decide on what genre a work of fiction is situated in, the theory also allows us to see, however, how these qualities become the markers of difference by which one group of fiction is ultimately segregated out as “genre”.
That process can be seen historically in the emergence of Realist genres that expunge quirks of all but the subtlest varieties, as that aesthetic strategy of rationalist literature (i.e. focusing on social observation and commentary) defines itself in opposition to those genres that most markedly exploit strangeness. Beginning with Don Quixote, the novel begins to distinguish itself from the romance antagonistically. From writers like Fielding and Richardson up to the Victorian period, we see a gradual definition-by-exclusion that consolidates the concept of “the novel” by segregating out the Gothic Romances and the “Adventure” and “Mystery” stories of literary variety journals like the Strand. The term “sensation novels” emerges as a profoundly apt encapsulation of the qualities of strangeness this process of abjection is locked onto (and one that is a precursor of “genre fiction” and comparable with “coloured people” in its disregard for the sensationalist content of writers like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë and countless others in the canon). From dime novels and penny dreadfuls through to the pulp boom of the early 20th century which gave us the modern commercial genres of Western, Crime, Romance, Science Fiction and so on, that process continues, with all these genres being defined as “pulp fiction” which by now is intrinsically in contradistinction to “literary fiction”. The switching of the term “genre” for “pulp” could arguably be seen as a point of completion, the point at which the “sensationalism” of strange fiction has been rendered wholly abject.
A key point of the notion of abjection is that the abject is or was essentially a part of us in some profound sense. Julia Kristeva exemplifies it in psychological terms with our reactions to bodily fluids and matter that has been separated or excreted — blood, faeces, etc.. I would argue that the recognition of self-in-the-other is a profound intensifier of the negative reaction, that there is in fact a large degree of projection in abjection, hence the familiarity aspect to Freud’s notion of the uncanny, and its figuration in the doppelganger. The abjection of genre fiction in order to consolidate literary fiction as a stable system is neurotically driven in part, it seems to me, by a denial of the essential role that strangeness plays in all literature. That which we call literary fiction does not in fact — cannot — truly expunge the strange. Literary fiction is no more free of the strangeness that is abjected as “being genre” than white people are free of the epidermal tonality that is abjected as “being coloured”. To use a metaphor pertinent to Kristeva’s root notion of abjection, literary fiction is in a state of horror at its own lifeblood, the very stuff that renders it dynamic, renders it of interest by challenging our suspension-of-disbelief. That which most deliberately seeks to, and successfully manages to, expunge the strange only succeeds in rendering itself bloodless and therefore dead.
This is not to say that we should revile the fiction that is labelled literary fiction, that may even be written intentionally as literary fiction. Given the importance of strangeness in terms of narrative dynamics, even with the cultural neurosis of the context of creation, these works usually succeed only in repressing the strange. This may lead to bourgeois banality or it may lead to works of very subtle and sensitive dynamics, interesting precisely because of the extent to which they are subdued. We should be aware of the sometimes ill-considered hostilities that emerge from a history of abjection, the knee-jerk antipathy to the “enemy”, the complementary attempt to abject from “genre fiction” that which we, in turn, identify by markers-of-difference as “literary fiction” (the most common such markers being the low-level structural complexities that many readers of the abjected genres of strange fiction themselves abject as “style”). We should be aware of the extent to which similar processes of abjection have taken place and continue to take place within the strange fiction genres, most markedly in the attempt to consolidate science fiction as the X defined by the abjection of fantasy. We should be aware of the extent to which, as these genres have matured over the decades, as they have striven for greater quality and credibility, they have ironically accepted the terms of the discourse by which they are deemed abject, echoing the artificial dichotomy of “sensational” and “intellectual”, even echoing the aesthetic normativities born of the definition-by-exclusion in phrases like “literary sf” or “literary fantasy”. Personally, I know I have used, and will doubtless use again, such terms as conventional shorthand for the attempt to integrate the techniques of mimesis that mark out the Naturalist and Realist genres, and to achieve greater depth in terms of character and theme through the more complex low-level structures some call “style” and/or the more complex high-level structures that many call “experimental”; but that shorthand is… problematic in the critical discourse, I think. It suggests a value-system that privileges ultimately trite works written by the middle-classes for the middle-classes, works which may well achieve gravitas at the expense of vigour.
If “literary” is defined by the abjection of the strange, the sensationalist, well, I want my fiction to be shameless of its blood, sweat and tears.