A blog on reading, writing and life

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why I hate the term "Literary Fiction"

According to a 2013 study reported here by the Guardian, reading literary fiction like Charles Dickens, Don DeLillo or  Téa Obreht inspires empathy in readers in a way that reading popular thrillers or romances don't. But one of those names I listed is not like the others. One of them was a bestselling serial novelist who modified his plots and characters based on reader responses, unashamedly pleasing the unwashed masses--Charles Dickens.

The term literary fiction did not exist in Dickens' day. In first emerged in the 1960s and increased in use during the 1980s with the boom of MFA programs which promoted writing literature for the purposes of high art over appealing to popular taste. But Dickens was a popular writer. If his novels inspire more empathy than modern thrillers or romance novels (which I am suspicious of until I see this study replicated), then it could be his novels are better written than the other examples they were using, but it definitely wasn't because he was aiming to be high culture. (The results could also be caused by experimenter bias, study participants who preferred literary writing, or a few other errors, which is why scientist replicate studies.) And to be clear, when I use the term "better written," I mean they have well-developed characters and complex inter-personal and moral conflicts. Dickens excelled in this sense, that is why some modern critics might label him literary fiction. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was popular in the same time period and wrote realist social satire similar to Dickens, but today rather than getting labeled "literary fiction" people create contest making fun of his florid prose style. In other words, he wasn't as good.

But when talking about contemporary literary fiction, we no longer use quality as the ruling metric, we use intent. In other words, a popular 19th century novel may be literary fiction if is is good, but a modern science fiction novel is a science fiction novel no matter how good it is, a modern fantasy novel is a fantasy novel no matter how good it is, but any time a living author claims she is writing literary fiction, her work gets labeled literary fiction whether it is good or bad. 

Thus, for contemporary writing, "literary fiction" becomes a marketing tool, a way to advertise to a certain highly-educated audience. We all know people who come out of college with the opinion that only literary fiction deserves to be read. But so much of what falls under this umbrella is appallingly bad. A well-written piece of fiction intricately weaves characters with different moral positions in such a way that highlights complex issues about human nature. If certain literature has an affect on empathy more than others, this seems to me a likely cause. When I read a  terrible book that's been listed on several literary "best of the year" lists, I begin to suspect that reading only self-proclaimed literary fiction erodes some people's ability to judge good writing from bad.

To summarize, because the term "literary fiction" is applied by unequal metrics, it is meaningless buzzword, and leads to a lot of poor-quality writing being mislabeled as valuable.

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