July 21, 2011

Literary fiction defined

1. Literary fiction is whatever English professors can teach without being ironic or apologetic. Novels will move in and out of academic fashion according to the prevailing intellectual trends.

2. Genre fiction that has become sufficiently obscure, inaccessible and fossilized in the public mind turns into literary fiction. (Shakespeare, Dickens and Chandler being three examples.)

3. People who read and write literary fiction attend "conferences" and read and publish in "journals." People who read and write genre fiction attend "conventions" and read and publish in "magazines."

4. People who write literary fiction earn tenure. People who write genre fiction earn royalties. (Though in purely monetary terms, the former is often more valuable than the latter.)

5. Literary fiction is whatever can be taught in high school without anybody getting in trouble with the parents, the school board, or local politicians. (Although 5 is a subset of 1, not all of 1 qualifies as 5.)

6. Literary fiction is that which everybody is expected to respect, but nobody actually reads. Genre fiction is that which nobody is expected to respect, but everybody actually reads.

Labels: , ,

# posted by Anonymous Tim Chambers
7/21/2011 4:42 PM   
Shakespeare was never a genre writer. The concept as we know it today did not exist at that time. Dickens was a social realist, not a fantasist. Chandler defined a style that has come to be known as hard-boiled and it was polished to a high gloss. Those who aspire to be literary should demonstrate talent and originality and polish up their prose, rather than churn out rough drafts to be sold en masse to the unlettered.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
7/21/2011 7:03 PM   
Shakespeare and Dickens (I can't speak to Chandler) were mainly concerned with making money, not polishing up their prose. (Dickens especially was obsessed with turning out works for sale; he was haunted by the poor house until the day he killed himself with overwork; Shakespeare may not have been haunted--we know very little about his personal life--but he certainly expended a great deal of energy establishing himself as a man who could buy a coat of arms.)

That is, they weren't aspiring to be literary. They have become literary.

This happens all the time. Fantasy and science-fiction books aren't acceptable reading material until they are relabeled "magical realism" or "surreal." I've sat in many a workshop amongst literary writers trying to convince themselves it was okay to read something because it was "really insightful even if it does involve magic--but that's just in the dream sequences and besides it's by a writer that doesn't usually write this kind of stuff!"

Oh, please. And who wants to be literary? Literary fiction is trite and boring and covers the same topics ad nauseum. Genre fiction can be trite and boring too, but at least it isn't automatically accepted because it hides behind the term "literary." (And most genre fiction, however crappy, at least has to tell a story.)
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
7/21/2011 7:43 PM   
Speaking of which, Dickens is often credited with writing the first "mystery" (Bleak House) by literary type people as well as science-fiction (Great Expectations bizarrely enough although the spontaneous combustion scene in Bleak House often gets a mention). Pete Orford (University of Birmingham, Alumnus of the Shakespeare Institute) calls science-fiction in early 19th century works (Shelley, Poe, Verne, Dickens) as the genre that wasn’t there:

"We cannot pinpoint the influence and development of SF because it wasn’t actually defined - there is not a direct line of authors reading one another, but rather a culture in which themes of science fiction were bubbling under: it was the genre that wasn’t there."

Actually, I hate to tar Pete with a literary brush. He looks like a really cool guy, but I think his credentials are more than reputable.
# posted by Anonymous Tim Chambers
7/22/2011 1:25 AM   
I am no great fan of "literary fiction," as anyone who reads my blog knows. The writers you mention did want their work to sell, but it wasn't quite so hard then as it is now. The audiences were considerably smaller, and tended to be the intellectual elite. The work came to be regarded as literature, not "literary fiction," because over time it was recognized that they still had much to say to us and they were highly talented writers.

Today we have a lot of untalented people churning out trivial formulaic stuff at 2 to 3 hundred thousand words a year. At that rate there is no time for rewrites, edits, or anything else that might improve the quality of the prose. It sells to an undiscriminating public because it tells the same stories over and over again, as does the weekly TV drama. It is literature's equivalent of soap opera. Those who think that soap opera is equivalent to Shakespeare don't know enough about either to comment. Just because some can't tell the difference between a turd and a diamond, it doesn't make the turd a diamond.

But why does anyone even care that genre is not considered literary? Especially if one doesn't like literary fiction?
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
7/22/2011 6:43 AM   
The issue, for me--I can't speak for Eugene--is not whether genre fiction will ever be considered literary: it never will be. The issue is the accompanying attitudes and how those attitudes affect institutions (such as high schools and the various colleges I work for).

The tension between the "undiscriminating public" which reads "low" stuff (shock! shock!) and the intellectual elite who read "high" stuff has been around long before the Internet or self-publishing came along. Plato got his knickers in a twist over it. So did plenty of 19th century critics.

But horror over the public's taste skews the picture, so, unfortunately, the idea is propagated that the "untalented people churning out trivial formulaic stuff at 2 to 3 hundred thousand words a year" to "sell to an undiscriminating public" are those people who write, just for example, for "the weekly TV drama."

But untalented people churning out trivial formulaic stuff that is delivered to an audience that accepts it with hands open can be found in other places than the "undiscriminating public" (and always could be). (And television writers are actually quite talented.)

Because it isn't the quality of the writing that creates the tipping point. It's that people accept what speaks to them. And people are very, very good at justifying what speaks to them. With genre fiction, this often takes the form of metamorphosis as Star Wars fans, for instance, redevelop or re-imagined Lucas's bad films into fan fiction, YouTube videos, etc. In other circles, justification takes the form of exegesis--often to the point where the exegesis is completely disconnected from the reading experience. (Was that paper about Tess of the D'Urbervilles? Are you sure?)

However, if "high" simply left "low" alone, if nature was simply allowed to take its course whereby high and low mix naturally within the culture, and CSI writers have Grissom quoting Shakespeare--that would be great! But "high" just can't stop fussing about all the lowness going on. Which results in beleaguered high school students having to read Ethan Frome rather than Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card or The Goats by Brock Cole or anything by Stephen King.

Having said that, I do think that arguments for "high" culture have less impact than they used to. The culture is just too vast and overflowing; fans are too vocal and discriminating. "High" has become one voice amongst many rather than (as much as) the arbitrating voice it used to be. People are less hampered by labels when they go to the library. They will read what interests and satisfies them rather than what they think they are supposed to like or read, and they will be less embarrassed if the reading choice is "undiscriminating."

Having said all that, I do advocate that there is such a thing as good writing--rather than the idea that all writing is relative. I just don't think it can be found in one place, and I don't think the public is necessarily the culprit when it comes to spreading bad writing around. But how can literature adjuncts teach this unless they can combat the idea that Gulliver's Travels is intrinsically better--just because it has more stuff to talk about--than Diary of a Wimpy Kid which is extremely well-written and funny and teaches irony quite well . . . but does have less stuff about which to create exegesis (although any half-way trained English graduate can create exegesis out of anything--a car manual . . . anything).
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
7/22/2011 9:15 AM   
Oh, and I have to cavil at the argument that Shakespeare and Dickens were written for intellectual elites. Shakespeare's poetry certainly was but not his plays. The idea that Shakespeare's plays were written for intellectual elites is usually based on the identity of his patrons (aristocrats) and the price of tickets (even the cheap-seats were, comparatively speaking, expensive). That is, non-elites didn't really attend the plays; the image we have of the masses laughing at Shakespeare's dirty jokes is wrong.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores the middle-class "low" nature of London's merchant class (which was a burgeoning mass well before even the 1400s), the fact that even today people spend comparatively more on entertainment than makes sense on paper, and that the people who published Shakespeare's plays before and after his death were OTHER playwrights and actors (businessmen), NOT the supposedly intellectual aristocracy that supported his poetry. (It is debatable how intellectual Queen Elizabeth and King James, etc. were anyway; Elizabethans weren't exactly shy when it came to low, bawdy, non-intellectual slapstick.)

And then there is Dickens publishing in newspapers and travelling all over England and America reciting his work to packed auditoriums of fans (which is what killed him). And that wonderful image of American readers gathering on the docks to learn if Little Nell died in the latest installment.

Now I do accept "literature" and "literary" as having separate definitions. And Shakespeare and Dickens are, I agree, literature. But they did, also, become "literary" in the 19th century when proponents of "high" culture decided to push classics onto the masses as a corrective measure to pulp fiction. Instead of Shakespeare being performed between the trapeze act and the dancing bears, Shakespeare become refined, performed in theaters to middlebrow audiences. Instead of Dickens being a newspaper serial--often cut and bowdlerized--he entered the schools as officially worthwhile literature. Both authors have lasted despite this treatment, not because of it.

(Sorry, Eugene, for the long comments. I'd post my thoughts in full on my blog and just add a link, but I just put up a Mr. B Speaks! post :) )
# posted by Blogger Eugene
7/22/2011 11:11 AM   
It's important to distinguish (though often difficult to do) between the quality of the story and the quality the writing. The critics aren't wrong that bad writing gets in the way of a good story, but clearly people (the people who drive the markets) care more about the former than the latter.

If the story is good enough, as they say in Hollywood, the rest can be "fixed in post." (Or, as George Lucas has amply demonstrated, ruined in post.) I doubt that every play by Shakespeare was a Shakespearean play the first night. The revising would have gone on until physically set in type.

There's that great scene in Amadeus (granted, more fiction than biography) where Salieri sees an original score and realizes that Mozart's first drafts are amazingly brilliant. More typical is Thomas Wolfe, who was a lot more brilliant after Maxwell Perkins got through with his manuscripts.

After all, people pay to see Off Broadway and off-off-off Broadway, just as they pay to watch minor league baseball, where the sifting, culling and refining is done in full view. Ultimately, only time and taste will tell. We'll never know how great our greats were until long after we're dead.
# posted by Blogger Joe
7/22/2011 1:16 PM   
Literary is where you can't understand all the dirty jokes within without a whole lot of explanation.

Then again, I'm one of those oafs who think that most, or at least a good portion, of Shakespeare is rubbish made important by being largely indecipherable due to the language of the time.