Up Yours, Literary Fiction

I know. How uncouth! How belligerent, sanctimonious, and other words of more than 1 syllable!

So, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett walked into a bar...

So, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett walked into a bar…

Book genres have become a bit of a joke really, as I was saying in my last post regarding the nonsense categorisation of “Women’s Fiction”.

Here’s another literary joke for you:


Q. What’s the difference between Literary Fiction and Romance?

A. So’s your face.


Isn’t that brilliant? Isn’t it just the best joke you’ve ever heard? Brief, and yet crammed full of the sharp wit of the universe?

Of course it isn’t. But if enough people said it was, you might believe it.  Which is how Literary Fiction works.

I’m not saying Literary Fiction isn’t good. I’m not saying that it isn’t sometimes work of such brain-stroking brilliance that it can simultaneously make me laugh, cry  and want to be 21 again. Because some of it can. I just have a problem with the classification.

There’s a tendency to mark out anything which is unclassifiable as Literary Fiction, merely if it can string a sentence together relatively nicely – or in some cases, because it uses forty-two subordinate clauses in every seventh sentence, and words such as solipsism, crytoscopophilia, or compound beauties like heartgnarling grumble-cry.

The Elephant In The RoomBut really, simple words are the hardest to write. Particularly if you’re trying to avoid cliché. And sometimes, work which looks deceptively simple is dismissed: proclaimed to be “genre fiction” with a wave, a sniff, and a wry eyebrow. So, if there’s a happy ending, it’s Romance. If someone smokes a cigarette, it’s Crime. If someone pushes an elephant from a six-storey window before declaring war on Canada, it’s Scandinavian Humour.

Granted, there are more helpful genres and sub-genres, such as Action & Adventure,  Romantic Comedy, and German IT Noir. (Not really. I made the last one up. I wouldn’t mind seeing it, though.) But when it’s simply impossible to classify, then it’s Literary Fiction. For example:

1.  The male anti-hero smokes fish for a local wholefoods distributor, throws a cat from his fortieth-floor apartment, and suffers terribly because of unrequited love for his estranged son’s special needs teacher;

2.  The female protagonist is a seventeenth-century manically depressed laundress with a talent for mathematics, and a yearning to murder the King of France (mon Dieu – Ed.);

3.  No conjunctions, pronouns or past tenses are used in a book called The Mountain-Climbing for Enlightenment Club.

Calling this Lit-Fic means that the following scene took place:

Publisher: We have no idea who might read this. We can’t think of a single predefined section of the market that would want this book. Let’s make out it’s really clever. Only for clever people, in fact. And wait for the stampede.

Publisher’s Lackey: ‘Kay, Boss.

The problem is that sometimes, with the over-use of Literary Fiction as a category, it’s implied that other books are somehow less worthy, less well-written. That genre fiction is simple, derivative stuff, knocked out in a matter of weeks, without that much thought or effort. Which, if I may put it elegantly, is bollocks. Crime is not less well-written than Literary Crime. It’s not even different in style. The quality may vary widely. But that’s not the genre’s fault.

There is nothing wrong with simply classifying a book as contemporary fiction. It shouldn’t preclude it from winning any literary prizes;; it won’t turn off lovers of Lit-Fic, who tend to buy according to subject matter, author or prize nominations, rather than genre anyway; and it might even garner a few lovers of plain old contemporary fiction, who are turned off by the idea of literary prose which takes too long to tell them what they want to know.

Killer ChefI’m not sure that pigeon-holing a book into an ill-fitting genre boosts sales, either. But unfortunately, there’s just no data on that.

Anyway, I’m off now to invent a few more genres. So far, I have the aforementioned German IT Noir; Killer Chef Erotica, and Horticultural Romance. If you’ve any suggestions, throw them underneath!


  39 comments for “Up Yours, Literary Fiction

  1. May 22, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Seriously, a book is spoiled for me if I have to go digging out my dictionary for every other sentence. I love a book that has a flowing story and understanding what’s happening in the tale is important to me. When I’m reading a fiction I don’t plan on broadening my vocabulary; I can do that in another book reading session with a dictionary. Is everyone listening? Not every reader has a degree in language; some even like simply written books. Literary fiction could even put off some newby book readers. Stop ruining creativity with defining boxes; just because a book doesn’t sit right with one individual doesn’t mean nobody else will enjoy it.


    • May 22, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      It is, as you say, such a personal thing…. I think it’s only chancers, though, who equate clever fiction with mere big words or unwieldy sentences.

      Granted, there are some very smart books out there with made-up words, or an unusual construction, which work for some people and not so much for others. But you can generally spot something a mile off that’s trying to be clever, rather than actually is.

      For me, the stuff which works – the stuff I find breathtaking – would be better described as “experimental” rather than “literary” (Kevin Barry’s 2013 IMPAC prize-winning City of Bohane would be one of these). And some stuff which is supposed to be amazing bores me rigid!


  2. May 22, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    YA Supernatural Cli-fi – it’s the next big thing!

    Love your rants, Tara!


    • May 22, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks, M.J.! And ooh-er, I say, YA Supernatural Cli-fi – will the mothers allow it do you think?!


      • May 22, 2014 at 4:57 pm

        Some mothers do ‘ave ’em so why not? – lol


  3. May 22, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Okay, so this post basically made my day. I’ve been trying for years to explain to people how I feel about literary fiction, and then you go and explain it so eloquently! Definitely re-blogging this 🙂 Also, who the heck declares war on Canada? All we’ve got is snow, trees, and beavers. Oh, and poutine!


    • May 22, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      Hi Michelle. Yes, I know. Someone has to do something about the Scandinavians- for starters, there’s all that success they’re having. Now they want your poutine. Dangerous lot, those Scandis…. EATING up our bestseller lists… Oh, and thank you!


    • May 22, 2014 at 9:20 pm

      Hey Michelle, we do have one other thing — TONS of Lit Fic, including Margaret Atwood, who is the queen of the genre (even when she’s writing science fiction).


  4. May 22, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Reblogged this on Michelle Proulx – The Blog and commented:
    Funny and insightful post about the “literary fiction” genre label.


  5. May 22, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    *blushes furiously at deliberately slapping on literary fiction because nothing else fit…*

    I didn’t mean to do it honestly but the novel was very ‘eclectic’ with different voices and viewpoints so perhaps I was subliminally going on the offensive and celebrating the deliberate contradictions that writing about Africa inevitably embraces. But, yes – I wholeheartedly agree that, with very few exceptions, most literary fiction is more ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ than ‘meat cutlets Lady Gaga’ (which at least has some substance whether you’re an unreconstructed carnivore – or indeed, a rabid vegan 😉 )

    When I was still pushing the book (Milele Safari) at literary agents I did have a stab at my own labeling and called it ‘chameleon fiction’ – because it was tricksy and hard to spot or pin down, but when I gave up on that avenue to publication and went down the indie track I’ve since had a change of perspective and prefer the term ‘kaleidoscope’ or even ‘patchwork’ for those hopelessly addicted to fusing their genre writing. In my case, sci-fi with cli-fantasy (both factual and horny) for my next effort which is hopefully going to translate into a best-selling ‘Game of Thrones with a conscience meets Brave New World’ trilogy or two 😛

    Perhaps we should go for movie categories instead?


    • May 23, 2014 at 12:45 am

      While I’m still reeling from the brilliance of the idea of a “meat cutlets Lady Gaga” genre, it’s hard to put anything coherent together! But I still think we need some sort of geographical genre, for stories which are inspired by certain parts of the world.

      It’s hard when you’re pitching, though. The agents and publishers want you to tell them straight off where it’s going to fit on the shelf: and if we think it’s easier to self-publish, then Amazon scupper any thought of creative control, genre-wise.

      As long as we have the meat cutlets, though, I hope we’ll be okay. 😉


      • May 23, 2014 at 3:27 pm

        Non-fiction’s way better off for geographic labeling – I did get excited to find African Culture which would have covered multiple bases as I had folklore/myth thrown in with the gorier tribal politics and technicolor wildlife anecdotes but then came back to earth with a bang as I realised I’d strayed out of the fiction shelves.



        • May 24, 2014 at 11:25 am

          Well, there you go then. You’ve gathered the evidence and there’s clearly a precedent for geographical categories – all you need is start them up in fiction! Easy! I’m a great help, am I not!


  6. May 22, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    At a workshop a couple of years ago I asked a panel of literary experts whether the accepted list of genres needed reviewing or expanding. The horrified look on their faces provided their answer.

    The others in attendance looked at me as if I had sprouted horns. But as most of them were attempting to write historic fiction, or romance, or chicklit, they didn’t have a problem. Nor did they understand why I felt I had. Why do people dislike reappraising the accepted and changing as the world moves on?


    • May 23, 2014 at 12:47 am

      I blame Amazon, really. Their genres are impossibly narrow. No decent book is going to be one thing or another these days. And when I looked them up recently, one of their top contemporary fiction books was The Thornbirds.

      I’ve nothing against The Thornbirds – in fact it’s one of my favourite books of all time – but seriously, what is it contemporary to exactly? If Amazon won’t change, though, for all the work that’s being done by self-published or indie authors, what use is it?


  7. May 22, 2014 at 7:35 pm
  8. carolannwrites
    May 22, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Yes. Absolutely… That is all. Oh, one more thing… Thank you for making me roar laughing. Again.


    • May 23, 2014 at 12:47 am

      As long as it doesn’t hurt anything internally, Carolann!


  9. May 22, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Funny stuff. The problem with the category of Literary Fiction is that it provides plenty of shade for pretentious, poorly written shit. Great literary fiction is the stuff you never forget and that we all collectively come to view as classic. Meanwhile, the rest of it is an MFA-program circle jerk. At least genre fiction (usually) demands a fairly high level of technical refinement.


    • May 23, 2014 at 12:50 am

      Agreed, and then agreed, and agreed again. I wouldn’t have a quarter of the problem I have with Lit-Fic if it wasn’t abused by publishing marketeers for sub-standard stuff. You’re so right about the genre fiction being held up to a tough benchmark – I reckon it’s harder to be successful in that sphere than any.


  10. johanna buchanan
    May 22, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Very funny! I like the sound of the German IT Noir. In fact I might write one. IT nerd with unpronounceable name lives in a bleak suburban apartment (somewhere in Germany) with a bank of computers in place of a kitchen. Several murders are committed in this locality and IT nerd finds himself chief suspect. But wait – he hasn’t left his house for months on account of having difficulties making friends because of self-consciousness about his unpronounceable name. So who really dun nit? Or how did he – if it really is our techie nerd?


    • May 22, 2014 at 10:05 pm

      He has a team of robots that come out at night and do his dirty work for him. Or, possibly he has brainwashed urban streetcleaners, and uses a complicated code (by switching on and off his lights) to tell them who to target. Then one day, the tired detective who lives in the flat opposite, who can’t sleep because of the lights, gradually puts it all together with the aid of a hologram of Lauren Bacall. There.


      • May 23, 2014 at 12:53 am

        Steady on, steady! This is getting so complicated now – hang on – are we verging into Literary Fiction territory? That’s an awful lot of plot for one novel.

        Oh, just a minute. This is going to be a series, isn’t it…?


        • May 23, 2014 at 7:35 am

          It’s my new genre; holographic whodunits with a celebrity grey panther cross over twist. Each chapter is a single haiku (but there are extensive footnotes).


          • May 23, 2014 at 9:25 am

            Okay. I think I may have just burst a seam there. Genius 🙂


            • johanna buchanan
              May 23, 2014 at 6:01 pm

              I’m very impressed elainecanham.


  11. May 23, 2014 at 2:10 am

    OMG, Agricultural Steampunk! I love it! I already have three ideas percolating for cogs, gears, and cornfields. 😀


    • May 23, 2014 at 9:29 am

      Great stuff! Happy imagination! When you hit the bestseller list, just mention me in your speech, ‘kay? 😉


  12. May 23, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    This is an awesome post, thank you!


  13. May 24, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    I have a nifty way of classifying novels. Literary novels might have a shot at being remembered a hundred years from now. Genre novels are like Chips Ahoy cookies — you can’t tell ’em apart. (Nyuk nyuk!)

    More seriously, I think you’re on to something with the idea that books that aren’t easily labeled get dumped into the “literary” bin. It doesn’t mean they’re artsy fartsy, necessarily; just that they’re clearly not German IT Noir (love it!) or Flemish Au Pair Detective. Or anything else.

    Maybe literary novels have become the “un-novel”!


    • May 24, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      Depends on who’s doing the classifying, doesn’t it? My literary fiction might be your try-hard nonsense. A multi-prizewinner could indeed become the classic of the future. But Charles Dickens was considered to be popular fiction back in his day, remember. It’s a tough one to call, and when quality varies so widely, it makes it even harder.


  14. May 24, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    I label my books literary fiction. They have no clear genre. They were written with the goal of attaining excellence. Also they are not commercial – an empirically confirmed statement!
    And about the classics, there may be some grey areas on the definition of a classic – kind of like what baseball players should be in the Hall of Fame – but most of those classics truly are exceptional and a couple of notches or universes above what’s selling nowadays.


    • May 25, 2014 at 4:51 pm

      I mentioned this below but many of today’s truly exceptional classic authors were dismissed as popular crowd-pleasers in their day – Dickens and Austen to name but two. Being denoted as classic with the accompanying respect and adulation doesn’t mean too much when you’re dead!


      • May 25, 2014 at 6:46 pm

        Don’t tell that to Mr. Dickens. If he did, he’d rise up out of his grave and then we’d only have to bury hIm again.


        • May 26, 2014 at 10:00 am

          Think of hanging out with him in the interim, though. I mean, he’d probably smell awful. But we’d get to TALK to him. Perhaps we could force him to knock out a story or two before the reburial…

          Actually, this comment is descending into territory best left alone perhaps.


  15. May 26, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Phnark. I agree that there is a pretentiousness to certain areas of literary fiction. All very Emperor’s New Clothes. Nothing like discovering something’s won the Mann Booker to put me off reading it for all time!




    • May 27, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      I do like the nominees, though! If it gets nominated and it doesn’t win, I’m all over it like a wordy rash 😉


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