Why do we need ‘literary fiction’?

This debate is pretty old. It sparks into life every couple of years or so, when some ‘literary’ writer – Will Self is a frequent culprit – takes a swipe at commercial fiction, or, as in 2011, when the Booker shortlist was condemned for being too plot-led. I’ve written about it before and didn’t want to come back to it again. But it’s profoundly depressing to see some of the things said on both ‘sides’ about this debate. It’s sometimes set up as if only snobby literary writers are at fault, but that’s not true. Some members of the literary establishment say the most ridiculous things about genre fiction after clearly having read very little of it, and I’ve never agreed with any of these criticisms. But now there seems to be a rather unpleasant backlash coming from a few commercial writers, following this article headlined ‘Literary fiction in crisis as sales drop dramatically’. This tweet by Joanne Harris is representative, sneering at literary readers and writers for thinking themselves ‘superior’ to those who read and write commercial fiction, and suggesting they deserve to sell badly (even though the original article actually talks quite a lot about general fiction sales dropping, not just sales of literary fiction).

I have always read both literary and commercial fiction, and I don’t write literary fiction myself. ‘Genre’ novels regularly make it into my top ten books of the year lists. In 2016, I ranked Tana French’s The Likeness and Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in my top ten. In 2015, there was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and in 2014, James Smythe’s The Echo and Harriet Lane’s Her. If there are never as many genre books in my top ten as literary ones, this is not because I think genre fiction is not ‘worthy’ to be included but because, out of everything I read, it tends to be literary novels that I enjoy the most. I never put something in my top ten because it was ‘good but difficult’. There are books like this I’m glad to have read, but they don’t make the top ten. The top ten are there not to show off, or to make a statement about my ‘good taste’ as a reader, but because I LIKED THOSE TEN BOOKS THE BEST.

I don’t think that literary and commercial writers need to feel threatened by each other, but I also don’t think that the ‘answer’ to this debate is to abolish the category of literary fiction. It is obviously impossible to cover everything that literary fiction might mean in the space of a short blog post, so I’m going to focus on three things that are important to me as a reader: my expectations of a genre, plot versus storytelling, and genre constraints on writers.

What I expect from literary fiction

I expect to have to put more time and effort into a literary novel than into genre fiction. This does not mean that literary novels have any excuse for being plotless, rambling, in love with the beauty of their own language, or any other of the problems that produce a lot of bad literary fiction. But I’m willing to adjust how I approach a book if I think I’m going to be rewarded. As I wrote in 2015, ‘writers need to signal what the reader will need to do to make this book work for them (which should never include ‘be bored and soldier on’) and readers need to be prepared to slow down, to think differently, to adjust’. If you want books to be pure entertainment, that’s absolutely fine. But I tend to want books to make me think, and I find that this effort-reward relationship that you find in good literary fiction works best for me.

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Storytelling vs plotting

Tim Lott’s recent piece in the Guardian repeats a familiar claim: people don’t like reading (British) literary fiction because it doesn’t tell good stories. There are a number of ways to refute this silly idea:

  • Many British literary writers are great plotters and/or storytellers. Lott grudgingly admits to liking Francis Spufford: I’d add Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Maggie O’Farrell, David Mitchell, Sarah Hall, Jane Harris, Naomi Alderman, Kamila Shamsie and Sarah Moss, alongside newer writers such as Claire Fuller, Imogen Hermes Gowar and Harry Parker.
  • Furthermore, Lott is confusing plot and story. He praises John Yorke’s Into The Woods (which is excellent) but Yorke explicitly states that novels, films, etc. do not have to be plot-driven to obey the rules of story structure and create a satisfying narrative.
  • He only comes up with one example of a poor piece of literary fiction – Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. This is an odd choice, given its healthy sales; by July 2015, it had sold 80,000 copies, which doesn’t compare to the figures for popular bestsellers but certainly doesn’t suggest that it had no popular appeal.

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Literary fiction and genre conventions

We might still want to argue that literary fiction is, on the whole, less plot-driven than genre fiction. However, this comes from something that I think is very important about literary fiction; that it is less constrained by structural and genre conventions than genre fiction. This is not a criticism of genre conventions. Some of the books I love most are genre novels that play brilliantly with the conventions of their own genre, such as Tana French’s crime novels, or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. But as a reader, I do want to have access to books that don’t need to prioritise plot and pace above all else, that are allowed to break storytelling ‘rules’ about satisfying midpoints and endings.

I also think this is very important in light of the recent conversations about diversity in the publishing industry. ‘Diversity’ is often seen as a numbers game: more black, disabled, working-class and/or LGBT writers; more stories about black, disabled, working-class and/or LGBT characters. But, while not denying the importance of those numbers, I think that diversity has to be more than this. The kinds of stories told by white, able-bodied, heterosexual elite men are distinguished not just by who is in the story and what the story is about but (potentially) by how the story is told and how it is structured. To take one writing cliche: we’re often told that your protagonist must be active, that she/he must have agency in working towards a clearly-defined goal. It’s easy to see how this favours protagonists with structural privilege while shutting out other kinds of stories. Literary fiction has the same problems with diversity as other kinds of fiction, but – without denying that genre fiction can and should be diverse as well – I think literary fiction has the ability to open out a certain kind of space for genuine difference.

So three ideas about why I, as a reader, will always want more literary fiction, and why I think the category is not about being ‘better’ or ‘superior’ to genre fiction, but about offering a kind of storytelling experience you can’t find anywhere else. In the same way as thrillers do. In the same way that SF does. There doesn’t have to be one winner.

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6 thoughts on “Why do we need ‘literary fiction’?

  1. I totally agree with you. I read both literary and genre fiction and find both satisfying in different ways. I read Lott’s article and thought it was confused and a bit subjective. I also don’t understand glee in news that sales of certain books are down.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Three Things… July 2019 | Laura Tisdall

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  4. I know I dumped a lot of thoughts about this in response to your comment on my blog, but I would love to keep talking with you about literary fiction. One trait I’ve noticed that people keep using for literary fiction is that it lacks a plot. I’m thinking about authors whose works are highly unconventional, award-winning (literary prizes), and focus on playing with language. Jaimy Gordon comes to mind. She won the National Book Award for her novel Lord of Misrule, which I have not read. I did read and love Bogeywoman, which is a coming-of-age story written in some very challenging made-up words and with a surreal feel to it because the narrator is young, unreliable, and under great duress because she’s a lesbian at a time when people were institutionalized for being queer. A third book of hers, Shamp of the City Solo, is labeled science fiction. The writing is so challenging (some would call it innovative) as to be unreadable. As in, I couldn’t survive the first two pages. Bogeywoman definitely has a plot that I could describe to someone. However, the novel doesn’t follow any genre conventions I can think of, not even really coming-of-age or coming-out books. Overall, I wonder if other people would not consider Bogeywoman literature because it does have a plot. What do you think? Thanks for considering!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! I’ll put some other thoughts on your post, but in short: I don’t think literary fiction has to have no plot. This would exclude some pretty significant examples of the genre and also suggests that seemingly plotless stories don’t have an underlying structure. I guess plot tends to be less important in lit fic, but even that’s not a hard and fast rule eg Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is all about its structure and how the events unfold. Thanks for alerting me to Jaimy Gordon – her work sounds great.

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