Terabytes of bandwidth have been devoted to exploring literary versus genre fiction (See here, here, and here for examples). After reading many of these kinds of blog posts and articles, I am left with one question: Who cares?
I love to read, but not just for the sake of reading. I like books with gravitas and subtext. I like books that resonate. The setting of the story is immaterial if the story is compelling and has those elements I enjoy. Give me George R.R. Martin, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville. Give me Steinbeck, Hemingway and Norman Mailer.
And you can call me a literary reader while you’re at it.
Take a look at the definition of the word ‘literary’:
- pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, esp. those classed as literature: literary history.
- pertaining to authorship: literary style.
- versed in or acquainted with literature; well-read.
- engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing: a literary man.
- characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.
- preferring books to actual experience; bookish.
Definition #1 refers to literature as a type of written work, so let’s look at the definition of ‘literature’:
- writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
- the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.: the literature of England.
- the writings dealing with a particular subject: the literature of ornithology.
- the profession of a writer or author
- literary work or production.
- any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills: literature describing company products.
- Archaic. polite learning; literary culture; appreciation of letters and books.
Labels like “genre” and “commercial” and “literary” are merely constructs. They are descriptors to help sell and shelve books, to let people know what they can expect when they crack the cover. However, in labeling books as such, there is an implicit statement of what the book is not.
And that’s the problem. Many people never explore books that they might love because they’ve been convinced that something is above or beneath them.
Look, there are great writers producing wonderful, meaningful works throughout the fiction spectrum. And I suppose it’s good mental calisthenics to mull over this false dichotomy. But let’s be realistic: There’s tripe in all forms of fiction, from the most hackneyed derivative fantasy novel to the stultifying pretentious novel of self-discovery.
However, today’s tripe may be tomorrow’s literature as works are read and re-read and contemplated and appreciated, so how the hell do you predict what, exactly a book is without the benefit of time? Had The Count of Monte Cristo (Historical Fiction), or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Horror), The Tell-Tale Heart (Horror), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Steampunk) or The Time Machine (Steampunk) been written today, they would likely be considered genre fiction.
In a June 2006 interview with John Updike on The Charlie Rose Show, Updike stated that he felt this term [literary], when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, and so does not really like it. He said that all his works are literary simply because “they are written in words.”
I don’t want the preconceived notions that hang on labels of “literary” or “genre”. Just give me the book and let me read.