With All Due Respect
The growth of British literary fiction has been one of the most extraordinary publishing phenomena of recent decades. Not everyone has been pleased. The label "literary fiction" is often used disparagingly, as if "literary" were synonymous with "pretentious" or "plot-free". "The two most depressing words in the English language are 'literary fiction'," declared David Hare recently in this newspaper. Some like to say that there is no such thing: there are only good novels and bad novels. Yet authors and publishers and readers recognise that literary fiction exists and offers its own particular pleasures. Its surprising commercial health has given would-be novelists the confidence to experiment, to trust they can find readers interested in the new shapes fiction can take.
I posted my response there, but I thought I'd punt it up here too. Why not? So...
The label "literary fiction" is often used disparagingly...
... because it's an oxymoron. All literature is by definition literary; it is written. So what meaning does this term have? Are we to take "literary fiction" as an analogue to the phrase "masculine men" perhaps? Is this, perchance, a way of singling out fiction which meets the literary equivalent of heteronormative standards of male behaviour? A way of saying that this literature is very much not the fictional equivalent of "effeminate men," God forbid?
It seems so. Fiction is literature by dint of the fact that it is written, just as a man's a man pretty much (i.e. making allowances for the transgendered, etc.) because he has a cock between his legs. But just as a man conforming to or contravening society's standards of what's "appropriate" for his gender will be judged masculine or effeminate accordingly, so fiction conforming to or contravening similar standards of propriety is judged literary or non-literary, it seems.
Which is to say, this notion of the "literary" is, like a judgement of masculinity, actually an assertion of such standards; the very language is made a tool for denying legitimacy to those who don't conform. As manhood is redefined to exclude the man who doesn't kowtow to normative dicta -- no longer "masculine" even though he's male, no longer a "real man" -- so fictionality is redefined to exclude books that flame where they should fart and laugh, sashay where they should stride -- no longer "literary," no longer "proper" literature.
Make no mistake; this is pretension. The petit-bourgeois self-valorisation here, in the conceit that one's favoured fiction has propriety of all things, positively howls the mediocrity of its wit. Those who co-opt the word "literary" to such arrant flimflam reveal by that very action, by Cock, that they have no place foisting their standards on the field.
Hence the disparaging tone.
It is not genre fiction.
Ah, yes. Wherever "literary" is co-opted to that rhetoric of rectitude, we should expect to see that which is not correct, not proper, rendered abject. All works of fiction sit in one genre or another, don't they? Just as all human beings have skin of one colour or another. Unless certain genres, like certain colours, somehow... don't count.
So being a war novel, a work of contemporary realism, a satire, somehow this doesn't render a book "genre fiction," just as having skin of pink, pale peach, light tan somehow doesn't place a person in the category of "coloured people." Only certain colours are properly colours now, you see, in this redefinition of terms. Only certain genres are properly genres. Look how they stand out, how their very appearance marks them out as Other.
Why, we can define our very identity on the fact that we are not that Other. With the visible markers that identify Them as members of this class or that, we can gather Them all, elide all differences between the classes, even all differences between instances of the class, collapsing all into a lumpen mass that defines us by negation, delimits what we are. Not "genre fiction." Not "coloured people."
By Cock, we can go further still! Now that we've sat ourselves proud on this pedestal of privilege, our shades of skin transcended from ignoble colours, our genres sloughing the reality that they are genres, we can look down on the abjected Other and turn those visible markers into signifiers of the deficiencies that render those rejects illegitimate, improper. Lack of effort, say. Lack of intellect. Lack of integrity. Crude naïveté driven by base passions. That's the base state of that lumpen mass, right?
The examples that challenge this stereotype? Let us disregard them as exceptions; those deficiencies must be essential characteristics for our privilege to be legitimate. Or we can simply recast the absence of deficiencies as an "escape" from the limitations that the abject is always already responsible for. See, "genre fiction" doesn't have to be slipshod, shallow, pandering escapism, just like "coloured people" don't have to be lazy, stupid, ignoble savages! Just throw off the shackles of the "sci-fi framework" projected on you, and we'll pretend you're not actually an instance of your genre! Just jump through some hoops to prove our preconceptions wrong, and we'll treat you just like you were white!
Arse Almighty, genre is just the idiom of a literary work, the class it's in, not some indelible trait wrought into all fictions published with certain nominal labels that target them at this niche audience or that. Not evidencing that trait, with or without the nominal label, doesn't change the fact that a novel is a science fiction novel, or a crime novel, or a war novel, or a satire, or a western. A sonnet does not cease to be a sonnet just because it's not trite and formulaic. If you would point to an innovative rhyme scheme that elevates it from "genre poetry" to "literary poetry," in the belief that all sonnets are trite love poems in the Spenserian rhyme scheme, then your attitude to literature is pitiable.
There is zero critical merit in the term "genre fiction" -- negative merit even. It's a cravenly dishonest term for category fiction, the abjection made evident if one simply substitutes the latter back into your statement. What is literary fiction? It is not category fiction.
No, this fiction categorised to be targeted to a niche audience is not within the set of fictions... categorised to be targeted to a niche audience.
But of course what you're really saying is that it's not in that underclass of fiction, not one of those lesser races of books.
The real irony here is that the very formal tricks associated with "literary fiction" (which is not "genre fiction," remember, not ever, never,) have been a staple of science fiction for nigh on half a century. The resurgence of the avant-garde in general fiction comes four decades on from its veritable explosion within that genre, in what's known as the New Wave. And the fuse was lit in 1956, if not before, with a canonical work, The Stars My Destination, that employs typographic tricks straight from High Modernism and directly references Joyce in its opening pages. If you think the narrative structure of Cloud Atlas was unimaginable in a bestseller 20 years ago, try Delany's Dhalgren (1975), cyclically structured with a character's journal entries threaded through the narrative backwards and upside-down.*
The avant-garde tradition was at the heart of "genre fiction" long before magical realism snuck its scrummy sandwich of strangeness up onto that ascetic's pillar of privilege and began sating appetites disregarded by contemporary realism. Funny enough, while some intransigent blowhards maintain the delusion that to be truly serious as a writer one just must write contemporary realism, the public starved by that thin gruel, lacking not plot per se but rather viscerality, has slowly made it quite clear that they'd really quite like something different now, please. Not more of the same. That's a demand "genre fiction" has been supplying from the outset, not just in the superficial novelty of fresh conceits that is a selling point for science fiction and fantasy, but in the innovations of form that happen as an idiom argues with its history.
There's only so long you can feed people melodrama muted to a low drone before they drift away.
Unsurprisingly -- to those of us who don't underestimate the public's taste -- as novelists are liberated to cater to the demand for the formally unconventional and sophisticated within general fiction, we see commercial success stories like Cloud Atlas rather than a pitiful dependence on prizes and lists. We see Atwood, Roth, Murikami, Ishiguro, McCarthy, Ellis and so on turning to the conceits that are the sole essential feature of the strange fiction genres -- science fiction, alternate history, fantasy -- which is to say we see them writing works in those idioms, those genres.
Rather than the self-serving flummery that the 1980s saw the establishment of an idiom of novels and short stories called "written fiction," one which is never, of course, to be confused with "literature in an established idiom," maybe we might be better asking to what extent general fiction has been invigorated by "genre fiction," whether by direct or indirect influence or by writers simply recognising the innate potential of those idioms' tricks, that there may be "a way of approaching the truth by other means," to quote Rushdie on magical realism.
*1975. That's the same year Rushdie's debut, Grimus, was published by Gollancz, by the way, to general derision from the critics. Much focus was apparently put on its science fiction elements. According to writer Brian Aldiss it was being touted for a genre award until the publisher decided it was on no account to be classed within that genre for marketing reasons. I see it's being sold with a blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin these days.
It's not until six years later -- with Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, another seminal work of magical realism, published by Gollancz in the meantime -- that Rushdie gets fêted with the Booker and Ishiguro's pivotal moment sees the validation of his contention "that this kind of highly fantasticated, fabulated storytelling can actually end up telling you as much truth as a photograph or news report."