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, Goodreads, Twitter, or writing for Paper Droids.