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