Last week, Will Self wrote a frustratingly arrogant piece in The Guardian on the death of the serious novel. Arguments like his have a tendency to get my goat, as they use broad, sweeping strokes to dismiss 90% of written endeavors as ‘paraliterature’; a term and classification that I loathe. While he acknowledges that narrative prose, novels, fiction, and all related written works are not dying out, only those classified as ‘literary’.
So what is this classification system? Written works that are considered ‘literary’ are generally described as serious, containing artistic value, and recognized by critics and academics as being part of the literary canon (and therefore warranting close study). This definition relegates works of genre fiction (no matter how well-written) to ‘paraliterature’. A derogatory term used to mean subliterary.
Self argues that the populous today has an aversion to any creative work that is potentially ‘difficult’ to absorb or experience. And in this claim is an inherent view that the literary novel is difficult to read. This is not something that Self is alone in believing and is something I have railed against for much of my reading life.
Take Graham Greene for instance – one of my favourite writers – most of his novels are very easy to read and thoroughly enjoyable. They deal with serious issues, discuss politics and the state of the world, while also having a great deal of artistic merit. He is fairly universally regarded as an excellent writer. He isn’t generally put up on the same pedestal as say Proust or Dostoevsky – and why is that? I’d like to hear arguments, but I’d put money on it being about the ease in which readers can digest the novels. Why is an easy to read novel necessarily lacking in literary value?
What is ‘literary fiction’?
I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with novelist Marti Leimbach when she described most of her novels as being ‘commercial fiction’. Having never really heard of this categorization, I asked about it. She explained that this meant she wrote works of fiction that were commercially successful, not genre fiction, but neither did they fit the ‘literary fiction’ bill. How ignorant and naïve for a young wanna-be writer to just think of novels as novels – the only distinction being whether or not I enjoyed them.
While there are many novels written each year that could be deemed ‘serious’, they have not passed the test of time to be labeled ‘acclaimed’. How can we really know if they are worth studying unless we still remember and revere them in 100 years? In another Guardian article, Elizabeth Edmonson argues that the term literary fiction is simply a marketing ploy – giving more popular novels with more serious undertones a stamp of high-brow approval (without having to make it into the literary canon).
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.
None of this really gives a definitive answer to the question ‘what is literary fiction?’ So here is my suggested, somewhat cynical, definition of literary fiction: fiction that tackles serious issues. Yup, that’s it. Putting a caveat on it of ‘well-written’ or ‘critically acclaimed’ is far too subjective. How can that really be a way of categorizing a novel? As such, I argue that the serious nature of the content is simply another genre and by no means puts it above, say, a comedy or a science fiction novel.
The undeniable merit of the subliterary
Literary snobs would argue that genre fiction has no place amongst the greats. I disagree whole-heartedly, especially when it comes to works of science fiction and fantasy. There are genre works almost exclusively overlooked by the literati. I have to ask why. If anything, writing in such extreme fictional worlds creates almost unlimited possibilities for writers to really explore issues that might be far more limiting when discussed in the confines of the real world.
Speculative fiction may not mimic real life but it uses its magic mirror to reflect on the world around us. It’s a fundamentally outward-looking genre, in direct contrast to literary fiction, which looks inward to explore the human condition.
If an unjustness or corruption exists in front of you, and has always been there, sometimes it is hard to see how things could be any other way. When people can’t see the forest for the trees, what better way is there to open their eyes and have them look at things from a different angle than proposing a completely different scenario – be it through fantasy, noir, science fiction, mystery, thriller, etc. Think back to Star Trek: The Original Series attacking racism by pointing out the futility of a war between aliens who had only superficial differences (and disliked each based purely on these physical variations). Please explain to this simpleton how that doesn’t count as ‘serious’ or isn’t worth academic, close study?
I would suggest that the serious novel is in no way dying; it is still very much a part of modern writing. It might look a little different from ‘serious’ novels of 100, 200 plus years old, but if we hadn’t moved on in that time, wouldn’t that be more concerning? Perhaps the literary snobs need to get their heads out of their asses long enough to see that artistic value can be found in a wide range of styles, genres, and writers.