Friday, October 10, 2008

The "Ghetto" of Literary Fiction

As an aspiring fantasy author who doesn't read as much fantasy as she probably should, I try to keep up on what's going on in Fantasy Land through various blogs and online forums. It's interesting to me to see current trends and marketing techniques, and occasionally I stumble across something that makes me laugh out loud.

Such was the case with an essay by Jon Evans on entitled "SF gems from the literary ghetto." As an English major, I've admitted in the past to a certain pomposity and arrogance regarding "literature," though I feel I've made leaps and bounds in my personal development since I readjusted my standards somewhat. Evans turns this wide-spread discriminatory attitude on its head, however, stating unequivocally,

"A lot of SF readers dismiss literary fiction as worthless: turgid, mazy, self-referential prose, annoying characters, stories that meander for hundreds of pages without really going anywhere, and a blinkered obsession with the world of today (or yesterday), with scarcely a thought spared for tomorrow. [...] Most such fiction still languishes among an insular audience of tediously clever hipsters and academics, ignored by the SF-reading masses." [2]
Though the piece is obviously tongue-in-cheek as it stalwartly defends the science fiction genre, it actually addresses a valid point. Once upon a time, the self-identified intellectuals of the western world wrote in verse, and it wasn't until the 19th century that the novel really emerged, encouraged by bourgeois writers and women who were moving away from the upper-class-and-male-dominated genre of poetry. In the middle of the 20th century, "literary fiction" attempted to bridge the distance between poetry and fiction, creating a new form of writing for self-identified intellectuals.

Though literary fiction has been the genre of choice since the 1970s, it remains quarantined from the rest of the literary world. Efforts to define it as a genre are often difficult, as Nathan Bransford, whose blog I stumble across at least once a week in my various online explorations, points out:

"This very question was addressed at a panel at the San Francisco Writer's Conference, and everyone had a different answer. Some people feel that commercial fiction emphasizes plot whereas literary fiction emphasizes characters. Others feel that literary fiction emphasizes unique prose whereas commercial fiction is more straightforward. Still others stick to the 'I know it when I see it' defense, and then of course there's the 'literary fiction is that which does not sell' definition. Complicating any delineation are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, who write genre fiction and have plot heavy books but are considered literary."[1]

Despite the emphasis on literary genre in the publishing and academic spheres as being somehow better than other genres, however, there has been an underground resistance gaining momentum against the genre. Most notably, perhaps, is B.R. Myer's "The Reader's Manifesto," in which he points out how ridiculous and unfounded this preference for the "literary" can be:

"Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be 'literary fiction'—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees. The 'literary' writer need not be an intellectual one."[4]
Anyone who has tried to read anything considered "literary" can probably sympathize with his point. He continues, "Many critically acclaimed novels today are no more than mediocre 'genre' stories told in a conformist amalgam of approved 'literary' styles."[4] The difficulty lies, then, in the fact that "literary fiction" is a style of writing--a tone--an emphasis on the writer's place inside the novel rather than outside of it. It is an attempt to make prose poetic, often at the expense of the story, and has none of the traditional devices used to define genres.

Attempts to criticize the genre, however, are often met with resistance and scorn--as Robert McCrum points out, "Literary fiction has been supported by an awesome establishment of writers, editors, critics, agents, publishers and booksellers, all of whom have, in different ways, been unwilling to question the dominant orthodoxy."[3] I must admit that I was one of the establishment who unquestioningly allowed the "dominant orthodoxy" to classify what was good, and if I fetched against a roadblock in agreeing with the dogma of literary fiction, I automatically assumed the lack was in me. (Of course, I am also under-read in contemporary literature and had never even heard of literary fiction until fairly recently.)

What if, though, Jon Evans is correct when he says so eloquently, "90% of all literary fiction is still crud"? What if "the establishment" is losing its control over what is "good"? And why does "literary" so rarely correspond with what is enjoyable, which is also different from what is "popular"? What factors, exactly, must we consider when weighing whether a particular piece is simply good?

Works Cited:

[1] Bransford, Nathan. "What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?" 26 February 2007. Nathan Bransford--Literary Agent.

[2] Evans, Jon. "SF gems from the literary ghetto." 6 October, 2008.

[3] McCrum, Robert. "The end of literary fiction." 5 August 2001. The Observer.

[4] Myers, B.R. "A Reader's Manifesto." July/August 2001. The Atlantic.


Homero said...

This argument has been growing in the SF community. Yours can be condensed as thus:

Won't let me post html... :(

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I'm stealing it. Seriously, as we speak, I'm stealing it.

Homero said...

That's fine-- I've stolen it from somewhere else already. I just wish I remembered.

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