Of all the book genres, this one puzzles me. Literary fiction. What is it? And do I like it or not?
In the publishing world, there are two kinds of fiction. The ‘commercial’ and the ‘literary’. The suggestion is that commercial fiction may be low on ‘literary merit’ but that it aims for crowd-pleasing, while literary fiction requires more intelligence to appreciate and is of a higher quality. Very broadly, commercial fiction is about the plot, genre conventions and accessible storytelling, while literary fiction tends to have in-depth characterisation, studies of the human condition and/or experimentation with form. Literary fiction is also the kind that wins prestigious prizes. So we can define literary fiction in the context of the market.
Then there is literary fiction as a genre. I see it listed with other genres such as romance, crime/thrillers, historical fiction and classics (which is another problem of definition but quite often they are considered a genre). This is what I’m not keen on. Literary fiction could be about absolutely anything, so it’s not a helpful label. When a book is described as literary fiction, this tends to refer to the style and perspective of the book, rather than the content. It could be a romance, or a thriller, or a historical novel, or contemporary fiction – but if it’s considered high quality, then it’s literary fiction. Moreover, it ends up being such a broad category that it probably covers half of everything published.
I think the majority of fiction I read would be considered commercial, rather than literary, from the market point of view. I like books which have more action than philosophy, lively dialogue, short paragraphs and decent plots. From the genre point of view, I don’t know. I think I can tell when a book is well-written, but I don’t like too much pretension (ignoring the rules of grammar, for example) and I can’t stand slow-paced novels unless the style is extremely engaging. Here I am, talking about style again, which shows that literary fiction is a market, not a genre.
Literary fiction has a less highbrow cousin – ‘book club’ fiction, sometimes called ‘upmarket’ fiction or even ‘women’s fiction’. From what I can gather, this is commercial fiction with enough literary merit to appeal to book clubs, the majority of whom are likely to be women. Being chosen as a book club read is certainly a coup for publishers and authors, as everyone in the club is going to buy a copy. Yet I don’t think ‘book club’ should be a genre, either. As with ‘literary fiction,’ a whole genre simply called ‘book club’ is too broad, as it could be about anything. One would hope that book clubs choose fiction from a variety of genres, therefore making a ‘book club’ genre meaningless. Again, it’s a market, not a genre.
That’s all I’ve got to say on the subject. Over to you – what does ‘literary fiction’ mean to you? Do you think it’s a genre?