Why I Hate The Term “Literary Fiction”

by

Vanessa Di Gregorio

I have an issue I want to talk about – that of the literary.

Books are often categorized into genres, with “subcultures”, if you will. YA is one of those subcultures; there are YA bloggers all throughout the blogosphere, and YA communities and Twitter chats and groups galore. People who love YA enjoy talking about YA, and enjoy being around others who are like-minded. I even think that Pub(lishing) Crawl is very YA-centric, though not entirely. The same could be said for romance; they have their own “subculture” if you will; as does historical, and kids lit, and sci-fi/fantasy. And I don’t have a problem with any of them. In fact, I myself am immersed in multiple subcultures.

It’s this literary-ness that bothers me; this term of a genre, you could argue, that sees itself as above and beyond what many call “genre” fiction: fantasy and sci-fi and romance and historical fiction. It’s problematic. Just the term “literary” is problematic. It is a “genre” that defines itself on the “literary”-ness of a piece of writing. It denotes that anything other than literary is simply sub-par, purely escapist bits of pop culture and fantasy (and I mean in the sense of personal fantasies, not the genre itself). In fact, it avoids the term of “genre” – a term used to describe everything else other than literary fiction. It is as if “genre” and “literary” are mutually exclusive.

The term literary fiction is used to describe “serious fiction”. It implies that popular fiction or genre fiction cannot be literary. But why not? Is George R.R. Martin’s GAME OF THRONES not literary? If one describes literary as a pieces that explores style, psychological depth, and character, who is to say that the complex characters and psychological depth in GAME OF THRONES is not, then, literary? Is it because it tells a proper story and has an actual plot, one much more complex than the story of a middle-aged man going through a depressing existential crisis, that makes it NOT literary?

In fact, go ahead and Google the term “literary fiction”. There are various different answers, but no concrete definition.

During my years as an English major, I almost completely gave up reading YA and SF/F, because it wasn’t considered real literature. I was too absorbed reading these literary works that I started to forget why I even loved reading in the first place.

I’m not saying that literary works have no merit, or are not great pieces of literature; some of my favourite books are “literary”. Some of my favourite literary novels have fantastic plots and wonderful characters. But I despise the term. It is degrading and limiting to authors. And it leads to an elitist attitude that looks down on the readers, writers, and publishers of anything that isn’t literary. It’s a way of separating the “intellectuals” from the “common people”. It divides us.

Not everyone who enjoys reading the genre of literary fiction are literary snobs. But it is still problematic to use this term; it is still degrading and ridiculous. People read for a myriad of reasons, and none of those reasons should be looked down upon.

“Traditional” methods of book reviewing (ie. the NY Time book review section, or the New Yorker, or The Globe and Mail review sections) often ONLY review pieces that are literary – you would be hard pressed to find anything remotely “commercial” or “genre” reviewed in those magazines. And perhaps it is simply that their target audience reads literary novels; but they still hold this esteemed position in the world of reviews. And so people have moved to other places to find reviews on the types of books they hold in high regard; to book bloggers and friends and Goodreads. Again, there’s this divide happening between readers, between writers, and even between reviewers.

Even author John Updike stated in an interview on The Charlie Rose Show that he disliked the term literary – a term often used to describe his works. He felt that the term literary, when applied to his work, greatly limited him – and even went on to say that all his works are literary simply because “they are written in words.”

Books written in every genre can have literary merit. But I think we need to find another term for the genre of literary fiction. Perhaps we should divide it into the Absurd, the Modernism, the Post-Modernism, etc – for isn’t that what makes up the genre of “literary” fiction anyways? We need our subcultures to not look down on each other – there needs to be respect. And I strongly believe that the term of “literary fiction” needs to go away to make this happen.

Vanessa Di Gregorio works in publishing as a sales rep at Ampersand, a book and gift sales agency. She is also a former literary agency intern. When she isn’t out selling books and talking to bookstores, Vanessa can be found over at Something Geeky, GoodreadsTwitter, or writing for Paper Droids.

26 Responses to Why I Hate The Term “Literary Fiction”

  1. Bonnee Aug 27 2012 at 7:14 am #

    The term has always confused me. If something is written in words, I consider it to be literary. Isn’t it that simple? Why should the term be applicable only to a certain type of fiction, and not even be considered a genre? All books are literary because they are written literature. We definitely need a new term for the subculture of Literary Fiction!

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio
      Vanessa Di Gregorio Aug 27 2012 at 9:37 am #

      Exactly! And the works that are called “literary” can be placed under so many genres that already exist – but for whatever reason, people just lump all of them into the category of “literary”, despite all the differences between the many books in that “better-than-genre” genre.

  2. Anna Boll Aug 27 2012 at 7:19 am #

    I’ve always seen “literary” used versus “commercial” or “mass market” and took it to mean books that are well-written but won’t sell much for the publisher.

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio
      Vanessa Di Gregorio Aug 27 2012 at 9:49 am #

      Yes, but literary fiction in Canada, for example, is more popular than commercial (this is a generalization, of course. It really depends on where in Canada).

      And even if that wasn’t the case, the term is still problematic. Why is it that the term for the well-written but not-accessible-to-the-masses is “literary”? And what does that imply for those who choose not to read books like Franzen’s FREEDOM? That they aren’t literate? I’m not hating on “literary” books, but simply on the use of the term. I just wish we used a different term to compare with commercial fiction.

  3. Sophie Duncan (@thwa Aug 27 2012 at 10:01 am #

    I totally agree with you about the snobbishness associated with this term. If something is listed under literary fiction, I usually won’t bother with it, because I like a plot and pace and things that if a book is ‘literary’, the author doesn’t always think is necessary. Of course, I’m generalising, but I find the term a turn off. There is some truly brilliant ‘genre’ fiction out there that completely outstrips literary fiction in terms of readability and sheer enjoyment and I’ll take that over a collection of long words any day.

  4. Mike Manz Aug 27 2012 at 10:10 am #

    To be honest, I have always maintained that genre is for the bookshelf, not for the author. As a reader genre serves the purpose of helping to find books that suit your tastes. As a writer, being too concerned with genre can be crippling, so I don’t tend to think much about it. This, even though I write mostly science fiction and fantasy – a couple of the most rigidly bound genres there are.

    I agree with you, though. The whole issue of “literary fiction” snobbery sets my teeth on edge. The kinds of books that tend to get classified as “literary” are often almost masturbatory self-absorbed and less popular than the so-called “genre fiction” books, and, like most self-absorbed and unpopular people the authors of these books usually tell themselves that they are unloved simply because they are better than everyone else. The others are all jealous. They don’t like my book because they don’t understand it (never mind that if they actually don’t understand it the fault lies with the author, not the audience).

    To be honest, when someone tells me they write literary fiction I lump them in with angsty, teen-aged poetry and proceed to ignore them until they figure out what a plot is.

    • Jessica Vealitzek Aug 27 2012 at 10:30 am #

      Easy there, Mike. I just wrote a novel that, I’m told, probably belongs in the literary fiction category. And I wish it wasn’t — not because I’m worried people will consider me a snob or make baseless judgments about my writing — but because it’s so broad. Readers and agents and publishers love to categorize, and mine isn’t easy to categorize. This is a handicap, but not for the reasons you mention. Do you think Harper Lee is an insecure twit? How would you categorize To Kill a Mockingbird?

      • Mike Manz Aug 27 2012 at 11:00 am #

        Actually, I’d consider Mockingbird to be literature, not literary.

        The snark in my comment wasn’t aimed at books that are considered by others to be works of literary fiction, by the way, but towards those who are self-proclaimed authors of literary fiction. People who set out to write literary fiction before word one has been written tend to be pretentious and self-absorbed, but not all books that get shelved under literary fiction (for whatever reason) were intended to be literary fiction. All fish live in the ocean, but not everything in the ocean is a fish. Do you see what I mean?

        From what you’re saying, you set out to write a story, and the story crossed or ignored some genre boundaries, making it difficult to classify. It was probably character driven with more internal than external conflict as well, which tends to get books lumped in as “literary”. That’s fine, when that’s what the story needs, and it certainly doesn’t make you either insecure or a twit. If you were to write the book purposefully ignoring plot, tension and anything actually eventful for the sole purpose of calling yourself a literary author and then put on an air of superiority because nobody likes your book… that would make you a twit.

        Oh, and congrats on the book. I’ve yet to finish my first, but I’m working on it.

        • Jessica Vealitzek Aug 27 2012 at 11:28 am #

          I see what you mean. Self-proclaimed is a whole different beast. As for the rest, I wish there were more or better categories to include those books, like mine, in which character development is huge but things DO happen (else, what’s the point?). I write for me but I also write to entertain. I don’t see it as literary vs. commercial, but literary as one of many categories. I think it’s only fairly recently, with all the gaga over categorizing, that it’s become this way. When TKM was published, I’m not sure people were wondering whether it was YA or literary. Donald Maas is writing a book about this, I think.

  5. Caryn Caldwell Aug 27 2012 at 10:58 am #

    I love this! Especially the idea that the various genres imply some sort of plot but literary does not. Honestly, if I were writing literary fiction, I’m not sure I’d say so, because the term comes with just as much baggage as many other genres and it still doesn’t say what the book is about.

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio
      Vanessa Di Gregorio Aug 27 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      “The term comes with just as much baggage as many other genres” – love this! Literary fiction has its own tropes, as does any other genre.

  6. Julie Aug 27 2012 at 11:40 am #

    I can totally see your point. Before this post I never considered the term “literary fiction” as snobby. I often used it because I didn’t know how to categorize certain books that are hard to stick into one genre. For instance, when I walk in to B&N, there is that huge fiction section. The fiction section has such a mixture of books — everything from thrillers to women’s fiction. Frankly, I never cared for the term commercial or women’s fiction, but I understand why they are used.

    As for “literary fiction”… how do we categorize THE SONG OF SOLOMON, THE GREAT GATSBY, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, MOBY DICK, THE GRAPES OF WRATH and so many others? Sure, they are historical, but haven’t they always been considered “literary fiction or classic literature.” But what makes these books literature over a book in YA or Sci-Fi or the Mystery section? It’s all literature! B&N has a section online in the Fiction & Literature area called Literary Fiction, but it has everything from JUDE DEVERAUX to JAMES PATTERSON to ULYSSES. Why is this section called “Literary Fiction” over the other categories? Can’t all fiction books be considered “literary fiction”?

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio
      Vanessa Di Gregorio Aug 27 2012 at 9:39 pm #

      I think there are still quite a few people like you who use the term “literary fiction” without the elitist implications. It’s just a shame that people DO feel that it is better, and it really all stems from that one word. And I agree – “Literary fiction” is definitely a term that has been around for a long time now. I just really wish we would stop using it, you know?

  7. KB Aug 27 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    “Literary” is not a subculture of YA Fiction, or really any fiction. I think you’re thinking of “contemporary”. “Literary” is a cross-genre term reguarding a piece of fiction’s construction- theme, application, characterization, symbolism etc. A literary piece of work can be fantasy, dystopian, mystery, whatever- it’s just applied most often to “contemporary” because that genre in particular is based off of not resorting to cheap thrills but rather continuity of writing to captivate readers. Those other genre’s have a bad rap because they tend to rely on gimmicks and cliche characters which is just lazy story writing but many writers can weave literary elements into their genre fiction. All fiction should strive to be literary.

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio
      Vanessa Di Gregorio Aug 27 2012 at 8:22 pm #

      Hi KB,

      Thanks for your comment! Sorry if my post wasn’t clear. I wasn’t arguing that “literary” is a subculture of YA Fiction specifically, nor was I confusing “literary” for “contemporary”. My point regarding subcultures was that in each genre, there exists a subculture associated with it – a subculture of fans and booksellers, of journals and magazines and websites, of writers and reviewers.

      My problem with literary fiction is that there IS a subculture there, one that is often (but not always) elitist in attitude. But I feel that the reason for this lies in the term “literary” itself. What I was really trying to point out is how the term literary is limiting to both readers and writers. And that it implies, by the very word “literary”, that anything else is not.

      And I agree that what falls under “literary” is often contemporary fiction. But I didn’t ever mean that contemporary = literary. Literary is certainly a cross-genre term – but it is a term that, 1. Differentiates itself as superior to commercial fiction be using the word “literary”, and 2. One that has become a genre unto itself. And just as other genres can sometimes fall prey to relying on cliches and gimmicks, one can argue that literary fiction does as well. Are not the themes, applications, characterizations, and symbolism found in “literary” fiction not the same as the themes, applications, characterizations, and symbolism found, for example, in fantasy? What makes one piece of fiction’s construction better than another, or more literary? What makes one genre’s set of archetypes better than another? And to that end, why use the term literary when what we should be saying is well-written? There are bad literary books – so why use this term as though it were a genre?

      We should be looking at whether or not a book is well-written, not whether it is literary.

  8. JMS Aug 27 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    I am so glad to see a discussion on this, because the term “literary fiction” has always bothered me as well. It seems to divide all written works in two camps: those with merit, and everything else. Fair enough if the book sellers want to label one of their shelves “Literary Fiction” and then put all their personal favorites on it, but I cringe when I hear a writer say they write literary fiction, or a reader say they only read literary fiction. It is not a genre, it’s a prestige, and it’s extremely subjective.

    Most of the literary fictions that I have personally read were realistic fiction in a fancy wrapper – some I enjoyed and some I did not. I have no idea at what point they decided to call themselves “literary”.

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio
      Vanessa Di Gregorio Aug 27 2012 at 8:27 pm #

      Thank you! This is exactly what I was trying to say (but you just happened to say it so much better!)

      Yes, literary fiction is often “contemporary” or “realistic” fiction – but my issue is not with realistic fiction or contemporary, but the term “literary”. Literary is most definitely a prestige. And yet people use the term as though it were a genre – one better than anything that falls outside of it.

      I just wish people stopped using the term because of the ill-will it generates, and the air of superiority that surrounds it.

  9. mclicious Aug 27 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    Agreed. Yesterday I actually downloaded the list of accepted presentations and panels for the 2013 AWP conference, since I’ll be going. Compared to the 2012 conference in Chicago, this one seems to be boasting a lot more stuff on kidlit and YA without making it seem like a lesser genre (well, to an extent– it’s still pretty clearly doing that for the most part). However, I noticed one really intriguing panel description:

    Oh, Grow Up: Writing Kids’ Voices in Literary Fiction. (Alexi Zentner, Tea Obreht, Aryn Kyle, Haley Tanner, Alison Espach)
    A lot of literary writers are writing young adult novels, but what about writing the voices of young adults and children in literary fiction? Five novelists talk about how to create believable young voices in adult fiction, how to avoid the imitative fallacy, the power of narrative distance, and how to balance grown-up needs while having kids in the story.

    and now I can’t decide whether to be insulted. I’m actually rather fascinating, because I think looking at the portrayals of young people in books published for adults vs. those for kids and teens is distinct and bears discussion and analysis. But I can’t help assuming that this is going to be tainted with insults and demeaning remarks, rather than thoughtful study of what makes kidlit awesome and what makes it suck, and then the same with YA and again with adult, as is only fair.

  10. JQ Trotter Aug 27 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    I love this post and completely agree with you. I know a few people have said it already, but if something is written in words and made into a book it’s obviously literature and therefore literary. I don’t understand why ‘literary’ works are applicable only to certain books and not the others. And the whole literary writers/readers who look down on genre fiction thing goes, it annoys me so much. I just don’t get it. There are some very well written, excellently plotted, genre books out there — ones that are far more interesting and compelling than some “literary” books.

    There’s a reason why genre fiction is more popular than literary fiction, too. And I think that says more about the genre v. literary argument than anything else. I’d like to see a “literary” book sell as well as something like the Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.

  11. Kateri Aug 28 2012 at 1:24 am #

    One thing to think about is that if there is a divide between the two subcultures and you’re speaking from the “non-literary-fiction” side (as I don’t really know what to call that anway) and you think about those ranaway hits like Twilight and Hunger Games–that get so much hype and so much criticism, then you can at least argue that someone (as in A LOT OF PEOPLE) are buying and reading that fiction. Watever you call it, whatever you think of it, you can’t argue that its not successful for whatever reason. Clearly, it speaks to someone on a certain level and to degrade that is, in my opinion, a rude injustice–to both the writer and the reader. Lighten up folks. 🙂
    Now that is also kinda just me being snarky about the whole situation. If I had any say in the matter I’d wish for the same sort of equal literary opportuniy outcome. For writers, for readers, for everyone. It is very interesting how we police these things with so much discipline, often biased discipline, too biased.
    My friend and I, both avid readers of YA fiction and now in our sophomore years of college, despise reading reviews where the piece is written off for being too frivolous or shallow. If its a bad book, its a bad book.
    It’s not a genre.

  12. Carrie-Anne Aug 28 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    I’ve always mostly read literary fiction and never had much interest in genre fiction. To me, I see it as literary fiction being the kind of stuff that’s remembered for all time, not the kind of stuff that’s only well-known for a few years and then ends up on the bargain bin. I know some people might consider me a literary snob or pretentious for my tastes, but it’s just what I’ve always gravitated towards since I began reading at age three.

    For me, literary fiction is about rich, complex, thought-provoking, multi-layered writing, complex characters, and more of a story of growth, change, and development instead of fast-paced and plot-centric. Granted, some genres do fit into the literary designation, so it’s not really a matter of some genres can never also be literary fiction. Perhaps a better classification would be literary as opposed to commercial, not genre. I’ve never been into popular stuff and always gravitate towards books, films, music, etc., of bygone eras. I like to see something has stood the test of time, instead of getting it just because everyone is squeeing all over it.

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio
      Vanessa Di Gregorio Oct 9 2012 at 1:08 pm #

      I think there is too much generalization. To say that all literary fiction will be remembered for all time is a fallacy – there are works that are “literary” that aren’t good, and that won’t be remembered; literary books that are fads and will be forgotten. The same goes for genre fiction, though. Not all are well-written or complex or thought-provoking, but some are.

      I just think there should be another term for “literary” fiction because of what it implies: that all “literary” fiction has more merit than books that are not (ie. genre). Because genre can share the same qualities as “literary” fiction, but we seem to lump them as separate things. It’s not the actual books considered “literary” that I dislike – it’s the use of them term itself. We need to find another word for it.

  13. Alexa (Loves Books) Aug 28 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    This is such an interesting post, if only because it definitely makes one think about what literary fiction truly encompasses. Personally, I often feel intimidated by the idea of “literary fiction” – and that’s mostly because my impression of it is something super serious, out of my league of understanding, etc.

  14. Dele Daniel May 1 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Thank you so much for this. I am about to finish my first novel. I see myself as a writer who seeks to entertain but also inform while entertaining. But my first purpose to be honest is to entertain my audience. However because I am African, I was afraid that my book would be categorised as ‘Literary’ because most of the famous, if not all famous African novels are categorised in this way. Some people probably think Africans can’t entertain. I became a bit hesitant to discuss all the serious issues I wanted to include in the novel. But reading this is really really encouraging.
    Most “commercial” novels or whatever else these publishers call them actually discuss very serious issues. No need for the snobbery. Like someone said, “Yesterday’s popular fiction is today’s classic and today’s popular fiction will be tomorrow’s classic.”
    Vanessa, you need to write a book on this lol

  15. Joan Hall Hovey Sep 27 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    I dislike the term commercial fiction because it implies that the writer has somehow ‘sold out’ for money. I prefer popular fiction, which I write – suspense to be specific. But the snobbery between genre fiction and mainstream, so-called literary or ‘serious’ fiction – which also irks – shows no sign of going away regardless of the well written books in all genres. For example, one of the finest writers of suspense is British writer, Ruth Rendell. Patricia Highsmith of Ripley books was a wonderful writer and would have been taken far more seriously in the US if she hadn’t been writing genre fiction. They are just a couple of examples.

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