The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing

In the third of our series on literary definitions, Elizabeth Edmondson argues that Jane Austen never imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity made that decision for her

Greg Wise and Kate Winslet in a scene from Ang Lee's 1995 film Sense and Sensibility

Written to entertain and make money … Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as seen in the 1995 film version

“Genre fiction” is a nasty phrase – when did genre turn into an adjective? But I object to the term for a different reason. It’s weasel wording, in that it conflates lit fic with literature. It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature – and therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.

The term sneaks back into the past in a strangely anachronistic way, so that, for example, Jane Austen’s works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense. Can anyone think for a moment that were she writing today she’d be published as lit fic? No, and not because she’d end up under romance or chick lit, but because she writes comedy, and lit fic, with a few rare exceptions, does not include comedy within its remit.

Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that – not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.

Which is what we novelists have been doing ever since. Or should have been doing. Perhaps, in our serious and solemn way, we ask fiction to bear a burden it was never intended to carry. Look at some of the claims made for lit fic. For instance:

“Literary fiction emphasises meaning over entertainment.” (Venture Galleries blog)

“Literary novels are prose poetry … the subject of the work is engaged with something that might be called weighty … ” (Dactyl Foundation)

And, joy of joys:

“Literary Fiction is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.” (Huffington Post)

Someone should nip over to the science department and tell those physicists to stop fretting about dark matter; all they need to do is read some lit fic.

Of course, the fact that lit crit types make some absurd claims for lit fic doesn’t mean writers within this category don’t write good books. Or bad books, just as in all the other types of fiction. And categorisation is what it’s all about. Describing books as lit fic may determine whether a book gets reviewed or not. It also determines where it gets shelved in bookstores, although with ebooks and online booksellers we’re moving into more fluid ways of labelling books, so that books which don’t fit neatly into slots find a place and a readership.

John Gardner, in his creative writing handbook The Art of Fiction, spoke of the fictive dream of the writer. For me, in good fiction of whatever kind, the imagination of the writer speaks directly to the imagination of the reader. I want and expect to be entertained, enchanted, transported into the world of the writer, lost in a good book. I don’t want to be lectured, have issues thrust down my throat or, dare I say it, be called upon to admire the beauty of the language. If a writer writes well in addition to being a great storyteller, I’m grateful and delighted. If they write well but there’s no story, I don’t want to read it. For profound thoughts expressed in poetic language, I turn to poetry. For intellectual arguments and ideas that appeal to reason, I’ll read non-fiction.

That may make me seem, to some people, to be that sad creature: the reader who can’t rise to an intellectual challenge, who thinks plot matters, who doesn’t like books that drift into purposeless endings.

Which brings me to the touchy subject of literary snobbery. Perhaps I should call it LitSnob. Lit fic: good. Popular, commercial, trash and pulp fiction: bad.

Remember that profundity has a dark twin called pretentiousness. Good fiction is good fiction, good writing is good writing and the old, old desire of the literati to cast readers with different tastes into pits labelled “middle-brow” and “low-brow” is judgmental and arrogant. It plays on the reader’s fear that we might not be thought clever enough.

We feel proud to be seen reading the latest important “literary” title – but how many people never get beyond page 50 on their Kindles … ?

Fiction is a broad church, but let it be a Lollard church with wide aisles, not a Counter-Reformation one where the lit fic authors are in the sanctuary with the priesthood of the literati and acolytes in attendance, while the lesser “genre” types are banished to dim side-chapels as though they belonged to some kind of minor cult.

All books can be thrust into a genre, and lit fic is simply one of many. As a tag, it tells us nothing about the intrinsic value of any individual title. There are good books and bad books, and both are to be found from one end of the fictional horizon to the other.

Elizabeth Edmondson is the author of 30 novels. They include (as Elizabeth Edmondson) Devil’s Sonata: Evil never dies and (as Elizabeth Aston) the Mountjoys series. This is an edited version of a speech given at an Oxford Literary Festival debate in support of the motion “Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction”.


Best Comment: alanwskinner @ 21 April 2014 1:50pm


Why can’t we have an article once in a while on the value of literary fiction? Have we become so afraid of the charge of elitism and snobbery that we continually defend populism, even when when it isn’t under attack?

It seems to me that most of the noise in the debate between writers and readers of literary fiction and writers and readers of non-literary fiction comes from the readers and writers of non-literary fiction. It isn’t those who write or read literary fiction who bring up the subject, but those who write or read non-literary fiction who return to it time and again. And maybe that’s partly because all the readers I know who love literary fiction also read non-literary fiction. The Church of Literary Fiction would seem to be a much broader and tolerant one than the Church of Genre Fiction, which is continually accusing the other denomination of trespasses they’re not committing.

And are we to believe that even among those who read only so-called genre fiction there are no levels of distinction or discernment? That there aren’t debates and differences of opinion as to what constitutes a good story, or good prose, that all fiction is created (if not edited) equal?

Elizabeth writes,

“Good fiction is good fiction, good writing is good writing”

Yet, a couple of paragraphs before that she tells us quite plainly that good fiction is only good on her terms.

“I want and expect to be entertained, enchanted, transported into the world of the writer, lost in a good book. I don’t want to be lectured, have issues thrust down my throat or, dare I say it, be called upon to admire the beauty of the language… For profound thoughts expressed in poetic language, I turn to poetry. For intellectual arguments and ideas that appeal to reason, I’ll read non-fiction.”

So now that Elizabeth has told us what good fiction cannot be, we’re all straight on the matter. If she’d only told us all a bit sooner Gabriel Garcia Marquez might not have died without knowing where he’d gone wrong and we might have got a good book or two out of him.

Some people do enjoy having their breath taken away by the manner in which something is expressed, by the admiration for the skill and hard work to make language do what we’ve not seen it do before, to find lyricism in pride and intelligence and ideas in stories we read. Who is to say that what they enjoy is not good fiction?

And, of course we all want to be entertained. We all want a good story. It is so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But the implication in the article, and so many like it, is that neither entertainment nor good story-telling are part and parcel of literary fiction, and that those who enjoy literary fiction are more concerned with the cachet associated with what they read rather than the enjoyment of what they read? And neither of those things is true.

And the tired and flimsy ploy of justifying a position by appropriating someone such as Austen (if Jane are writing today she’d be marketed as chic lit) or Shakespeare (if Shakespeare were writing today he’s be writing soaps or graphic novels) is unconvincing. One person’s supposition isn’t another person’s evidence. The dead have already earned their place. Let the living justify theirs.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s