The Literary Fiction Book Tag is making the rounds in my blog reader feed. I’ve not commented on a single post discussing “literary fiction,” but I’ve been reading them. I’ve read several, in fact. Some readers elevate literary fiction to something fit for the academic, to be studied around a table of graduate students. I should know what that’s like; I have two graduate degrees in literature/creative writing. Been there, done that — and people are quick to dismiss you if you don’t read literary fiction. Actually, when I wrote a romantic farce and read it in public as part of my MFA program, my thesis adviser looked concerned and said, “We need to talk.”
Others argue that literary fiction means it’s simply “written better.” Perhaps they focus on the language the writer used to convey the story. Genre fiction is just plot, plot, plot. Well, not exactly. The thing about the Literary Fiction Book Tag that honks my hooter is the way readers naturally tend to “other” literary fiction as something for smarter, better readers. I want to waft away that cloud and bring us back down to reality.
Firstly, literary-genre fiction. What is this? It appears to be a cross between books that are written beautifully that use genre conventions: If it’s fantasy, there’s going to be magic of some kind. If it’s a fairy tale, it comes from folk lore. If it’s romance, somebody be fallin’ in love. Etc. But by calling it “literary-genre fiction,” aren’t readers basically saying, “I don’t usually read such tripe as genre fiction, but this book is superbly written enough to satisfy my distinguished tastes”? Maybe that’s not what readers are saying, but that’s what they’re implying. Plus, calling a book “literary-genre” essentially pilfers that work from the genre’s pool of novels. Good readers have rescued the beautifully-written work from the garbage that is genre fiction and elevated it to something they can be proud to read.
Take the example of work by Sally Rooney. Reviewers in big publications love Sally Rooney’s book Conversations with Friends. It was on lists for big literary prizes, too. But the cover makes it look decidedly “chick lit,” and no way can that be taken seriously. Right? Carrie Mullins at Electric Lit notes:
There’s nothing wrong with debating the quality of a book — literature is meant to be discussed — but it’s easy to fall into the is-she-or-isn’t-she-literary rhetoric and harder to step back and ask what we’re really talking about. . . .
It’s frustrating that women who want to read literary fiction end up ignoring many of the stories that reflect and explore their own experience just because they’ve been shelved in a different section of the bookstore, but it’s hard not to internalize the implication that women’s fiction isn’t very good or else it would be called literary fiction.
I’ve pointed out the above article and its argument to any blogger I follow whom I noticed read Rooney’s work. The response was always “That’s terrible!” or “That’s unfair!” But isn’t the Literary Book Tag doing the same thing — elevating books to something more “acceptable” by calling them literary and separating them from the genre in which they may fit neatly?
And let’s admit that what is “literary” isn’t above being embarrassing and low-brow, either. Have you read The First Bad Man by Miranda July? Yeah, the therapist in that novel urinates in used Chinese food take-out containers while talking with patients. Dubbed literary-horror, in the novel Bird Box, by Josh Malerman, a mother hangs herself with her infant’s fresh-cut umbilical cord (which makes me think Malerman has never seen one). Ever read Chaucer? The most distinctive moment in his work, to me, is when a woman coerces her husband to climb up to window to the room where she and her lover are together post-coitus. In the dark, the husband thinks he’s going to kiss his wife’s cheek, and instead smooches her lover’s ass cheek — and then farts in the husband’s face. The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich is considered award-winning literary fiction, but readers find her book incomprehensible and poorly written, and generally a waste of time.
I think we need to reexamine our humble reading roots. What did you read in middle school? Why? Which books kept you up all night as a teen? As you were reading them, were you concerned with whether or not they were “literary” enough to make you look like an elite reader to your peers? Unlikely; no one wants to be that kind of book nerd in high school. Realistically, you were reading books to escape the drudgery that most book worms feel is high school.
Perhaps instead of trying to elevate ourselves — and I am 100% guilty of this myself — as readers with a word choice that puts genre readers on the defensive, why not call it what it is: general fiction. That is, fiction that does not fit neatly into a genre. Will you still read the same books if they don’t sound as important as they did when they were “literary” and thought they gave you some kind of reading cred?
Believe me, I’ve come off as a snob at Grab the Lapels. I’ve proclaimed that I don’t read young adult fiction because I’m not a young adult and it’s too simplistic for me. It turns out, I was reading uninspired YA. The genre has fantastic, thoughtful, beautifully-written works, but had I not started reading YA as part of my reading fat women quest, I’d be that stubborn fool still thinking of YA as something “easy” and not intelligent enough for me. Ugh. I feel like verping after reading what I just typed.
I’m also guilty of calling amazing women’s fiction “literary fiction.” Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, and The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton are three books I’ve read this year alone that I called literary that are truly about women’s experiences, hence, women’s fiction. I’ve been trying to shift the way I think about book labels for a more positive experience in the book community.
Consider shifting the way you think about books. How does categorizing them as “literary fiction” vs “general fiction” (or a fitting genre you would “never read”) change the book? Your experience reading it? How you perceive other readers? Is it just your ego that’s different, or did something else alter?
I would be thrilled to continue this conversation (civilly) in the comments.